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Richard (Dick) Lawton, who died on 22 March 2010, spent most of his working life at the University of Liverpool but his roots, as his distinctive and rarely sotto voce tones told, were in the mining communities of County Durham. From the pit village of Newbottle he was the only boy to proceed from the board school to the grammar school at Houghton-le-Spring in 1936. His geography teacher, herself a recent Liverpool graduate, encouraged him to head for Merseyside too. There, the young Lawton was inspired for life by the lectures and the generous world view of the great Professor Roxby. His undergraduate studies were then broken by three years (1943–46) as a sub-lieutenant aboard the corvette HMS Primrose hunting U-boats on the North Atlantic. His duties on board included those of librarian, in charge of a set of the top-secret Naval Intelligence Geographical Handbooks, many written by those who would become his tutors and his colleagues.

Returning to Liverpool he graduated in 1948 with a First and embarked on his MA thesis. The topic, population change in the nineteenth century, had already been the subject of his undergraduate dissertation and was to remain an abiding research interest for the rest of his career. Appointed Assistant Lecturer in 1949, he completed the MA a year later and worked his way through the ranks: Lecturer 1949, Senior Lecturer 1962, Reader 1966, and Professor from 1970 to his retirement in 1983. He worked under three heads of department, Clifford Darby, Wilfred Smith and Robert Steel, and with several colleagues and friends who went on to chairs elsewhere, most of them part of that distinctive post-war generation of ex-servicemen. A hallmark of his life was duty above career.

For generations of students and colleagues, Richard Lawton was quite simply the most inspiring lecturer and tutor they ever encountered. It wasn't just a matter of technique – indeed, those of us who had sight of his lecture notes and possessed the palaeographic skills to decipher them, sensed a certain fraying at the edges. He had so much to say and was so keen to share every enthusiasm for his topics that his classes were often left breathless; some are still waiting to find out what Points Two and Three were. There was nothing narrow or instrumental in his teaching, with its invitations to explore beyond anything that might be regarded as ‘curriculum’ and its frequent historical, literary and biblical allusions enthusiastically delivered to classes who were assumed if not to know about them at least to savour them. Like many of his generation he had serious academic interests and knowledge far wider than those they expressed in their publications. That may seem strange in the current university climate but simply reflects a shift of priorities from teaching in its widest sense to research in its narrowest. What his students experienced was rock-solid integrity from a teacher who demonstrated that knowledge mattered, and could open doors onto worlds they never knew existed. He did not patronise or talk down to them, but simply encouraged them to do better and better.

Nor was it just students who benefited from his care and encouragement. His reading was broad and catholic and he was always interested in what his colleagues were doing, whatever their specialism, sometimes surprising them with his understanding of their topic. Many of them owe more than they might acknowledge – or be aware of – to the highest standards he set and the discreet encouragement he gave.

About his research, Dick was typically self-deprecating, once describing himself as a careful journeyman rather than a scholar, but his routeways to the past were long and wide-ranging. In 1995 (in an essay on the historical geography of the British Isles published in German) he summarised his chief interest as the historical and social geography of the British Isles, especially the urban and population problems of industrial society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Initially guided by H. C. Darby, Dick exploited the riches of the Victorian census abstracts but pioneered the systematic analysis of the manuscript enumerators' books with a study of Liverpool in 1851. In the early 1970s, assisted by Colin Pooley, he began a major study of the social geography of Liverpool in 1871. The Liverpool department gained a reputation as a leading centre for the quantitative study of the Victorian city with a stream of postgraduate theses, mostly under Dick's supervision.

His adopted city was the predominant focus of his research, not only in his forte, in nineteenth-century historical geography, but on contemporary issues of population, urban planning and journey-to-work. He also edited the report of a major collaborative project on Merseyside's post-war economic and social problems and later a modern history of Ellesmere Port.

In a different vein, he co-edited Liverpool Essays in Geography, a collection of essays to mark the golden jubilee of the Honours School. A majority of the contributions were from the ‘Lawton years’, and if they reflected the breadth of the Department's scholarship, all benefited from a meticulous Lawtonian polish. He edited the David and Charles series of monographs on ‘Problems in Modern Geography’ of which 15 volumes were published from 1970 to 1980.

His 1972 inaugural lecture, ‘An age of great cities’ (itself a classic Lawton tour-de-force) and his 1987 Presidential Address to the Institute of British Geographers, ‘Peopling the past’ encapsulate his academic achievement. They show not only the breadth and depth of his ideas and the connections between his family background and his academic interests and values, but reveal a man generous in his acknowledgments to his postgraduate students and younger colleagues, many of whose ideas had, in fact, come from him. His book Britain 1740–1950. An Historical Geography, written with one such former student, provided a masterly summation of his life's work. His Directorship of the Institute for European Population Studies (1983–86) facilitated broader oversight of comparative work on nineteenth century cities, especially port cities. Dick Lawton was an empiricist but nevertheless read widely in theoretical approaches to geography and was well capable of philosophising about the nature of a discipline which he saw as eclectic and amenable to many different ‘-isms’, as his 1983 Presidential Address to the Geographical Association showed.

Beyond his teaching and research, his university received the same diligent commitment, loyalty and sense of duty for more than 60 years. He served it in various capacities, as Faculty Sub-Dean and Dean (1960–63; 1977–80), as a Member of Senate and Council (1970–83; 1976–79) and, in his retirement, as a very active member of the Friends of the University. He was also a good and faithful servant of the (then) three principal professional organisations: the Geographical Association (Member of Council 1975–89 and President 1982–83); the Institute of British Geographers (Honorary Secretary 1973–76 and President 1986); the Royal Geographical Society (Member of Council 1986–89). The last awarded him its Murchison Award in 1983 ‘for his contributions to historical geography and geographical education’. In his reply on behalf of those who received honours from the RGS that year Dick reflected his firm belief in the importance of geography (‘a truly universal subject in its appeal and relevance’) in education for citizenship, a concern advanced as Secretary of the Council of British Geography. As an official or committee member Dick was always in total command of the details and could deal sharply with those who, having failed to ‘do their homework’, made lazy or ill-informed contributions to proceedings.

Dick had an abiding interest in North America where he held visiting professorships at the universities of Southern Illinois (1963–64), Maryland (1968) and York (1972 and 1981). These brought lasting friendships and new insights for his home department. In ‘retirement’ he was External Professor (1986–90) at the University of Loughborough which had awarded him an honorary DLitt. in 1985.

Away from the campus, his passions were his family, music and cricket. He was an accomplished pianist and played cricket to Liverpool League standard. In 1988, after half a century of married life on Merseyside, Dick and Margaret (or Peggy to many) left Liverpool for the hamlet of Marton in the Vale of Pickering. Tending a fine old garden superseded cricket as a recreation, while Leeds, York and the Ryedale Festival replaced Liverpool for musical diversions. Finding the group of four local churches without an organist, Dick took to serious study of the instrument, preparing the music to a high scholarly standard. However, the pen – or latterly a computer abused by Dick's idiosyncratic typing – was not idle. Articles and books continued to appear and lectures to local groups were presented with the same care and enthusiasm as to his university classes. His last work was a short history of his recently adopted village, carefully researched and written with gentle affection, and illustrated with fine photographs and maps. Typically, however, it had required the combined skills of three of his former colleagues to decipher the scrawled instructions for the latter for a bemused departmental cartographer.

This was a generous, fearless man who could direct a fiery indignation against humbug and intellectual dishonesty, while showing a deep sensitivity to understanding the problems and applauding the achievements of others. These were some of the many things we loved him for. It will be a duller world without him.