Dr David E. Roberts
Academic & Consultant Geologist
I was born on 16th August 1944 and raised in 91, Cardiff Road, Aberaman, the only child of John and Sarah Ann (Nancy) Roberts. My father who was from Caegarw, Mountain Ash, started his working life on the Nixon’s Colliery yard in Mountain Ash but spent much of his working life in the wagon repair works at Aberaman Colliery where he retired as works foreman in 1968 when the colliery was closed. My mother spent most of her life in the family home in Cardiff Road where her early life was hard. She was the only girl in a family with 6 colliers, and she remained a housewife after marriage. Both parents were faithful chapel people and that influence permeated my upbringing especially with three visits on Sundays to Tabernacle Congregational Church, Duke Street - opposite the former Low Level (TVR) railway station. They valued education very much and were pleased when I passed the 11+ from Blaengwawr Junior School in 1956 to ABGS (County School as it was then called) where I remained until entering university in 1963.
In retrospect, I have realised that it was not only the teachers with whom one became closest through 6th form subject choice that had the monopoly of influence on later life. My life long career as a professional geologist owed a great deal to the start I was given by Meirion Jenkins who, together with Tom Evans, fostered my love for the Earth and the marvels that were waiting for me to experience. The geological education I received from those two men was almost enough to get me through the first year at university and some of the details on South Wales Geology helped in the second year also. Later in life, I began to appreciate more the education I received from such people as Charles Morris (Latin) and from Bernard Evans (Welsh) as well as the mathematics teachers who gave me those essential skills at a high level, which is so sadly lacking with most school leavers today. Garfield Griffiths and John Oliver gave their time and encouragement to help build the 1961 Welsh champions chess team of which I was proud to be a member. If I am to level a criticism at the school it is to its Englishness and although we were in a Welsh valley its ethos and aims could have been that of a school anywhere in England. The encouragement we were given to leave aside all things Welsh is something I now wish had not been the case but in the late 1950s we readily accepted it. Despite that, the French I did has come in useful professionally as well as for holidays!
In September 1963 I left the valley to study geology at the University of Birmingham. The structure and content of the course appealed to me and I felt also that I needed a change of scenery and to experience the culture mix that a large international university could provide. I loved the fieldwork with courses from south Devon to the Scottish Highlands, especially a 9-week period on the Isle of Skye. I graduated in 1966 and followed it with a doctorate on structural geology in the northern Lake District, which was highly academic in nature but enough to give me several publications before the PhD was submitted. By this time my original plan to become a teacher (that’s what graduates do, isn’t it?) had been superseded by my desire to become an academic. Here again the narrow experiences that I had encountered were still shaping my life and the careers advice in university was virtually no better than that of school. Those 6 years in England also made me realise fully how Welsh I am and in 1969 I was delighted to gain a 4 year fixed term academic position at the Geology Department of UCW Aberystwyth.
The four years passed all too quickly; I encountered many old ABGS boys and some AGGS girls, spent my summers supervising fieldwork in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and published a few papers. I met my wife, Ruth, who was a teacher in Pontypridd, on secondment for a postgraduate course in bilingual education at the time, but originally from Pembrokeshire. We got married in 1971 with my good friends and former ABGS chess team members, Jim Stephens1, as my best man and Richard Jones2 as groomsman. In the cultural environment of Aberystwyth my Welsh speaking ability rapidly improved, especially since Ruth was fluent, and by the time we left in 1973 I was also a fluent speaker.
When the appointment finished in 1973 we returned to my parents in Aberaman, 10 years after leaving, with a wife, two degrees but no job. Fortunately Ruth immediately had plenty of work teaching: Welsh in Rhydywaun, needlework in Mardy House and then at Darranlas Junior School. I soon found a position as a geologist with the NCB Opencast Executive, initially in the area office in Banwen but later in Farm Road, Aberaman. Meirion Jenkins’s course notes were a better background for that job than almost everything else I had gained in 10 years in universities. Academic geology was neither use nor ornament in that job and I had to start learning a new set of skills and learning how to deliver the information engineers required, written in a manner accessible to them. I had to learn to manage drilling teams and quantify coal reserves as well as designing opencast sites. This made me question very seriously the appropriateness of the structure and content of university geology courses and discussions with my fellow geologists revealed that they too had been equally badly prepared for the application of geology in an industrial context. It was in those offices in Farm Road, a mile from where I was raised, that I learned some of the basic skills that gave me a practical foundation for the rest of my career.
After 5 years I had reached a career plateau with no hills in sight. The job had many challenges but I wanted to have the opportunity of putting some industrially relevant geology into university courses and when a lecturership was advertised at the University of Bristol, I was the successful applicant. Originally, we thought we were crossing the bridge for about 2 to 3 years and I could build a CV which would be attractive enough for a position back in Wales. Those two years turned into 29! Times were good at Bristol, with levels of funding that are unthinkable today, and I was given full support of my HoD to develop all courses related to the international minerals industry, minerals economics and minerals planning. I loved it. There was a great opportunity to form collaborative projects with industry, industrial geologists readily gave master classes and consultancy work was developing. Furthermore, I was not in isolation because Engineering Geology, Hydrogeology, and Petroleum Geology courses were also part of the mainstay of the final year programme. Students were being taught appropriate subjects and even the ultra academic old guard had to admit that it was working. My own professionalism developed and I became involved with professional bodies and with the support of my NCB experience I became both a Chartered Engineer and a Chartered Geologist. As part of my professional development I was funded, partly by my institute, to undertake study tours of mines in Zimbabwe; it was a beautiful and safe country in 1983 and 1985.
Good things don’t last forever and in the late 1980s a government review of university geology departments led to the closure of a large number throughout Britain, and to drastic changes at Bristol where the emphasis was to be in areas as far removed from my specialisms and interests as was possible. It was time for a change and to refresh myself with more work outside universities to enhance my professional base. Building a client base in consultancy takes time but I was put in touch with SRK International, a South African based mining industry consultancy firm with a UK office in Cardiff. The projects I worked on were largely Due Diligence Studies, mainly with major banks as clients which had been asked for project finance for the development of mining properties. Projects were international but I did descend into the developments at Mynydd Parys on Ynys Môn in a large bucket (known as a kibble) in order to examine the mineralization. In an Aberdare context, I was invited by the town’s Civic Society to speak at the Public Inquiry held in Aberaman in opposition to the application by National Smokeless Fuels Ltd. to renew the works at Abercwmboi. My researches revealed that there was an inadequate guaranteed supply of indigenous coal to supply the works and that the most likely outcome would be for imported coal to be used with the site being still classified as industrial as opposed to a derelict contaminated land site with all its attendant liabilities and costs. The outcome of that PI is well known. On the whole the consultancy work was both demanding and fascinating and often required the ultra critical eye that academics develop but in a commercial context with large amounts of investment capital at risk. Despite its interest, such work has a “feast and famine” aspect to it and with two school-age children who needed security of income I returned to academia with many more skills and a better insight of the role of geologists to offer my students.
From 1991- 2006 I was Head of Geology at Staffordshire University in Stoke on Trent where I was responsible for running the department as well as having a prominent role in School Management and sat on the inevitable committees. Since part of my remit was to develop programmes in Applied Geology I was able to construct courses that made my graduates very employable with well over 80% on average entering the profession. We also developed masters course in Environmental Geology and Environmental Management and in collaboration with the Business School a Distance Learning MSc in Minerals Economics, Finance and Management. We secured consultancy projects from industry and local authorities, and also ran professional courses for industry. My own interests within geology became more commercially oriented during this period and extended into the areas of minerals economics and mining finance as well as the legislative and planning aspects under which professional geologists have to operate. Outside the university I was invited to take on other responsibilities of which the following is a selection:
Despite my colleagues fostering good working relations with school geology teachers and with a very good employability record for our graduates, recruitment of students to a post-1992 university in Stoke-on-Trent was never easy. It proved impossible to meet the financial targets set by top management and when a major review of the university’s portfolio of courses took place, Geology was a casualty along with many other good departments. My final task was the management of closure and ensuring that the last cohort of students were not disadvantaged by any cost cutting. Possibly my last achievement in post was to persuade the Vice-Chancellor to fund a centenary party for all past students who could attend since geology had been taught in that institution since its founding as the North Staffordshire School of Pottery and Mining, 100 years earlier.
I took early retirement and we were then able to return to South Wales and moved to our present house near Abergavenny. It is convenient for visits to our children, other family members and friends. Our daughter, Rhian is married with a daughter and both she and her husband are lawyers in the City of London. They met as students at Merton College, Oxford where, interestingly, my old friend Jim Stephens once taught Law. Our son Hywel, who graduated in Environmental Science at the University of Bradford, is now a Principal Consultant in Manchester. He is getting married in May 2012. Although both our children were brought up in England, Welsh was the home language and it is still the natural language of communication between us. Incidentally Rhian’s initial interview with her current firm was held through the medium of Welsh with a partner originally from the Gwendraeth Valley!
Settling into retirement has not been a problem at all though I did miss the contact with students and watching them grow throughout the course into good professionals. I have not severed links with geology and in 2008/9 I was invited to conduct the European Student Lecture Tour for the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers which took me to 32 universities in 17 different countries. It must have been a reasonably successful tour because at the moment I am undertaking a similar tour in North Africa and the Middle East. This enables me to keep a professional interest and for Ruth and I to visit a whole range of interesting places together, since some independent travel is normally added on at the end of a group of visits. We both enjoy travel and the good holidays have been those that closely resemble field courses (without the follow up reports!) with plenty of interesting and often remote places to visit. Otherwise the garden keeps us reasonably fit, and as we live in a very attractive area there are many beautiful walks nearby; and we intend to do more of that in the future now that the garden has been tamed.
1. David James Stephens (Aberaman) was at school 1955-62
and went to UCW Aberystwyth & Jesus College, Cambridge to study Law. He became a
lecturer at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (1967–70); Bristol University (1970–72);
and then at UCL London Faculty of Laws: Lecturer, (1972–1999), Chair, LLB Examiners,
(1991–1996), Faculty Tutor, (1996–2002); Senior Lecturer, (1999-2004). He died 10 July
2004 aged 61.
2. Richard George Jones (Monk St, Aberdare) was at school 1954-62 and went to UCW Aberystwyth to study Law. Richard has been a solicitor, practising in the Cynon Valley.