Brian William Avery 1921 – 1998

Originally published in December 1998 in the Membership Newsletter (No.34)

Brian William Avery 1921 – 1998

It is with great sadness that we record the death of Brian Avery in tragic circumstances in August.  Probably the outstanding British field pedologist of his generation, he was a member of the Society from its inception in 1947 to his death.  He served his spell on the Council from 1959 to 1961 and was a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of the Journal of Soil Science from 1970 to 1980.

Brian was greatly respected at home and abroad.  He had a substantial international reputation in the field of soil classification.  Born in Chilton, Buckinghamshire, the son of a schoolmaster he eschewed an Oxbridge place specifically to read Agricultural Cheni8stry at Reading University where he graduated with First Class Honours in 1942.  As a probationary soil surveyor under G W Robinson he worked in North Wales near Bangor and subsequently with K L Robinson in Hampshire and Dorset.  He thus had links with pre-war survey activities and early in his career began to appreciate the need for national correlation and classification.  He then spent a short period working on soil surveys in Hertfordshire and elsewhere for the embryonic National Agricultural Advisory Service and a short spell at t6he Monmouth School of Agriculture, where he met Stuart Masterton his wife-to-be.

In 1948 he joined the staff of the Soil Survey of England and Wales, by then formally established with its headquarters at Rothamsted where he stayed until he retired in 1982.   He first worked in Somerset, completing the survey of the Glastonbury District in 1954, then picking up the threads of his earlier Hertfordshire work in the Chilterns to survey the Aylesbury and Hemel Hempstead sheet.  His comprehensive memoirs on these two areas set the style for succeeding Soil Survey publications and remain definitive works.

In 1961 he was asked by the Head of Survey, Alex Muir, to develop a classification system and as a result he became the natural co-ordinating focus of the SSEW.  Later, during an internal re-organisation of the survey in the late sixties he was put in formal charge of correlation, classification and the laboratories.  He had, however, no need of rank or status.  Throughout his career his talents made him the leader to whom the staff instinctively turned for help and guidance.   A substantial intellect, he had a brilliant logical mind and a copious memory.  His key role, his grasp of his subject, his depth of knowledge was such that inspectors appointed by the Agricultural Research Council to review the work of the SSEW described him in their report as the ‘eminence grise’ .  He did indeed wield influence through his remarkable skills but more that this he was for many years the heart of soil survey in Britain.  Members of the Society of his generation will remember him best in the soil pit on the field excursions during our annual meetings.  Many of us had our own interpretations of the soil profile displayed but it was to Brian that we all turned for his assessment.

In his early days in the field he developed an interest in geomorphology and Quaternary geology and he had a keen eye for landscape and its relation to soil and geology.  He published several significant papers on these aspects, one notably with colleagues at Rothamsted on the Clay with Flints in the Journal of Soil Science.   It gave me pleasure recently to be reminded of Brian’s field perception by an article by Whiteman in Quaternary Newsletter this year that notes his prescience in recognising glacial sediments at Marsham, Buckinghamshire as follows: ‘Avery had recognised over thirty years ago the obvious resemblance between the frown diamicton deposits …… and deeply weathered patches of Lowestoft Till’ .

In 1952-3 Brian spent ten months in New Zealand on an exchange visit.  Partly as a result of his experience there and various other contracts overseas, he developed his international reputation in the field of classification.  Through correspondence he influenced the development of soil classification and description outside the UK.  His main achievement however was at home.  In 1973 he published the outline of his system in the Journal of Soil Science.  After trials this was adopted in 1975 by the SSEW for all publications and was elaborated in a Soil Survey Technical Monograph in 1980.   After retiring in 1983 he achieved his ambition to publish an illustrated book on the soils of the whole of the British Isles in which are described representative profiles of each subgroup.

Brian was a delightful colleague with a self-deprecatory sense of fun.  Always helpful he was, however, at times cautious and unwilling to commit himself, which was frustrating to more impetuous colleagues.  His grasp was often such that he could see many aspects of an issue lost on others.

Outside work, Brian was an amateur actor of distinction taking lead roles in notable productions with the Harpenden Drama League and the Company of Ten in St. Albans.  These are long remembered by those who say him.  He married Stuart his wife in 1947 and they enjoyed many happy years together until she died in 1997.  Her death was a particularly grievous loss and he missed her greatly.  His is survived by his son Michael and his family.

Provided By M. Hodgson