Obituary: Dr Ian Y Ashwell

By British Exploring Society,

Ian Ashwell’s name first appears in British Schools Exploring Society literature when he was a leader on the 1956 expedition to Iceland, running – as he was to do on many occasions – the Meteorology Fire. Incidentally, the cost of that expedition for the boys (and only boys, of course) was £195 including travel, plus an additional £2.5s for the Annual Dinner Dance! Ian was back again in 1957, then in 1959, once more in 1960, and finally in 1962, twice to Iceland, twice to Sweden and once to Finland. On four of those five occasions he led the meteorology fieldwork, naturally; but in 1962 he was Chief Leader of the expedition to Swedish Lapland. Then, almost unaccountably (were it not for the known fact that he was furthering his professional career as a university lecturer in Canada) he disappears from the expedition scene until the next decade, to 1970 when once again he was Chief Leader on the Iceland expedition. This was followed by participation in 1971, 1975, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985 (when he announced his retirement from active duties), 1992, 1997, and 2000, which was finally his last British Schools Exploring Society expedition.


There were sixteen of them in all, four as Chief Leader, three as Deputy Chief Leader, three as Chief Scientist, and twelve as Meteorology Fire leader, a record unmatched in BSES history. One was to Finnish Lapland, two to Swedish Lapland, three to Greenland, and a staggering ten to Iceland. Ian may not have been an Icelandic citizen, but certainly he had squatter rights and he was well known in Iceland for his academic work. In addition to all this, of course, was his prolonged visit as BSES Chairman to the Yukon expedition in 1986, where once again he involved himself in the meteorology fieldwork, so perhaps seventeen is the true number for his expeditions.

Ian’s active expeditioning with the Society was over a span of 45 years, during which time, of course, the style of the expeditions evolved and changed, not always to Ian’s obvious approval, it must be admitted. One of the values of Ian’s many expeditions is that he passed on to many first-time leaders the ethos of the Society and so built, perhaps inadvertently, a core of leaders with similar views (one of whom, George Downie, was the Geology Fire leader in 1970 in Iceland and who went on to record fifteen expeditions with the Society and is the only other person to have been recognised with the Murray Levick Award), It is typical of Ian’s spirit for adventure that when a few of us over a mug of cocoa in The Yukon in 1990 were teasing him by attempting to discover the full name of the Y in Dr I.Y. Ashwell, we decided that the Y must stand for “Youngblood” despite his, by then, reasonably mature age. Ian may have appeared to outsiders as somewhat reserved,  prim, proper, and shy, a perfect English gentleman, but in the field it was an entirely different matter as he scrabbled in the dust with his meteorological equipment, and he used his beautiful singing voice to good effect in camp entertainments, and performed in 1981 one of the lewdest songs imaginable! Perhaps he forgot that by then BSES had become co-educational (a move that he supported, once convinced of its value)!

Lengthy expeditioning to tough and remote lands where expeditioners depended on their own self-reliance is what the British Schools Exploring Society was all about, but it had also to be governed and managed. Ian was elected to join the Society’s governing Council in 1962, and he remained in that position (apart from his short sojourn in Canada) until his retirement at the 2004 AGM, a length of service of over four decades, then half the lifetime of the Society. For a year in 1982-83 he served as Vice-Chairman, and then took over the role of chairmanship in 1983, a post he was to hold for a decade until he handed over to Graham Pitchfork. The five-year tenure of his two immediate predecessors as Chairman had been turbulent, and it was with relief that Council members applauded Ian’s reluctant acceptance of the role at their request. He saw 25 expeditions go into the field in that decade, was a leader on two of them, a visitor to a third, kept the Society’s finances in the black, and returned the Society to calmer waters through his careful and conciliatory man-management. It cannot be said that he enjoyed his role as Chairman, for he recoiled from confrontation, but his gentle manner was sufficient to keep even the wilder spirts in check (most of the time). Even when he retired from the Chair he continued to serve on Council, giving unstinting support and wise advice (and no criticism) to his successor, Graham Pitchfork (who had been a Boy in Ian’s Meteorology Fire on the 1957 Finnish Lapland expedition), and when finally he retired from Council in 2003 there was no hesitation in Council electing him a Patron of the Society, which he remained in and graced to the day of his death despite his very severe misgivings as to the direction that the British Exploring Society is now taking. But there is one other very minor role that Ian played – he was editor of the Society’s Annual Report for two decades, from 1972 to 1992, an Annual Report which in those days contained the complete expedition report, not just a summary. That Ian managed to browbeat so many Chief Leaders into completing the last task of their chief leadership, normally very reluctantly and slowly, means that the Society’s records are complete for this period, which otherwise most certainly would not have been the case.

Ian during his long tenure on Council encouraged a widened intake of participants from disadvantaged backgrounds and those physically disabled, the introduction of girls (as then they were called), and the commencement of arctic winter expeditions. The objectives of BSES expeditions was always a matter of discussion between Council and Chief Leaders but the niche where BSES was successfully positioned in the youth expedition ‘market’ was always clear to Ian. He abhorred rushed initial campcraft and safety training, ´mickey mouse´ scientific fieldwork and lack of opportunities for Young Explorers (as he reluctantly came to call them) to stretch themselves physically and mentally; so in his opinion BSES expeditions needed to be of a minimum of five weeks duration in challenging terrain, with travel to and from the expedition area added to this period.

The Founder died in 1956, just two months before Ian’s departure on his first BSES expedition, and so there is a direct continuity from 1932 to the present day in just two men, the Founder and Ian Ashwell. As expedition leader, as editor, and as councillor, there was no more deserving person than Ian Ashwell to be one of the first recipients of the Murray Levick Award for outstanding service to the Society.

Ian was a very private man and did not disclose many secrets of his life nor his professional career. He was born in the first quarter of 1923, followed his father to Uppingham School as an Entrance Scholar [1937-41], served in the RNVR in the Second World War, took his BA in 1950, his Postgraduate Certificate of Education in 1951, was advanced to MA status in 1956, and was awarded his Doctorate in 1964. He spent much of his professional life as a lecturer at the University of Salford, other than his sojourn lecturing in Canada, and was appointed Member of Convocation of the University on account of his benefactions to that university. He published a great deal, including Meteorology and Duststorms in Central Iceland, The Influence of Vatnajokull on Regional Air Circulation and Soil Erosion, Glacial Control of Wind and Soil Erosion in Iceland, The Sagas as Evidence Early Deforestation in Iceland, and Glacial and Late Glacial Processes in Western Iceland. There is a sense that he felt a little unfulfilled in his professional career, since he never rose to professor status, but perhaps he became thought of as too much of an Iceland specialist (he even learnt to read and speak that language) for further advancement in his academic career. Ian was a fine tenor singer and highly knowledgeable on baroque music. For two decades he was a member of the Royal Naval College Chapel choir in Greenwich, one of the most outstanding sacred music ensembles in London. When he moved to Bristol he continued singing in a local church choir and a city choral society until his eyesight difficulties forced his retirement, with much sadness, in his mid 80s;. he was truly a renaissance man. Ian lost his younger brother in 1993 and he himself died, wracked with poor eyesight and ill health but with a mind as sharp as ever, in June 2015, aged 92.