Gerald Hicks MBE

Master of Arts

9 July 2004 - Orator: Dr Stella Clarke

 Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor:

‘Like all great cities, central Bristol has its own unique character – dense, diverse and complex. It is as if the fabric has a belligerent life of its own which has defied mutilation by the inhabitants for centuries. They pulled down its great castle and drove major roads through its finest square and alongside its most famous church. Yet the city’s character has miraculously survived’.

These are not my words but those of our prospective Honorary Graduate. I take issue with his conclusion that the city has a life of its own. It is dependent for that unique character on a few dedicated people who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and challenge the assumptions of the ‘experts’ - those in power. It has been said that the powers of government are continuously eroded by local pressure groups who keep our democracy alive. Jerry Hicks himself is a striking illustration of this truth.

Jerry Hicks was born in London in 1927. His father died when he was a young boy and he was sent to the Actors Orphanage for his education, both his parents having been on the stage, his mother representing the seventh generation of an acting family.

At the beginning of the war, it was decided that the school should be evacuated to Hollywood, this being arranged by Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, but Jerry, showing an early ability to make his own decisions, refused to go, being anxious about the welfare of his widowed mother. He found himself alone at the orphanage after all the other children had left and with nothing to do spied a book called “The Art of Judo”. As with any small boy he felt it incumbent upon himself to prepare for the German invasion, and he set about trying to learn the movements as best he could from the book. This early interest was to stand him in good stead in several different ways throughout his life and was to open doors unexpectedly. He served his turn in the Army and went to the Slade Art School in London – a part of London University. Here he met Jim Frost who was then a glass-blower in the chemistry department and who went on to be one of the finest exponents of this art in the world. He was also a member of the Budokwain Judo Club, the most prestigious in Britain, and he invited Jerry to join and increase his expertise. It was as an artist though that Jerry Hicks intended to devote his life and earn his living.

He met his wife Ann, no mean artist herself, at the Slade. They were married in London and he set about searching for a suitable job teaching art. As an impecunious student, being unable to afford the expenses involved in travelling around the country, he devised a method of reclaiming his costs. If the job was obviously unsuitable he would enquire at the end of the interview "how long is the lunch hour?" or "what time do you finish?" This was enough for people to find him unsuitable, with his expenses therefore becoming reclaimable!

He applied to Cotham Grammar School, here in Bristol, and both he and his interviewers had no difficulty in reaching agreement. What a fortunate development this was to be, both for the school and even more importantly for the city. He created a strong and free-thinking Art Department and also encouraged at the school his great love of judo, becoming black belt himself and introducing judo to the University.

In 1964 when judo was first admitted as an Olympic sport, the University had a member in the team. Jerry Hicks set up a week’s celebration in Queens Square with two marquees – one in which to watch the country’s representatives training and the other in which to hold a tournament for participants throughout the West Country. The centre of the City joined in the celebration and decked the shops with Japanese artefacts, including the first Japanese car to seen in this country. He still remembers the sight of the then Lord Mayor of Bristol, who was a famous dowser, swinging his dowser over the food to check it out, much to the consternation of Japanese visitors.

During this period his standing as an artist in the city had become well-established and admired. He and his wife Ann had made a positive decision to stay as artists in residence rather than succumb to the blandishments of London, where he had had an exhibition at the Royal Academy. He has exhibited in many different places since, sometimes on his own and often with Ann. They are a marvellously strong partnership. He has painted distinguished portraits of three University of Bristol professors, Sir Charles Frank, Sir Neville Mott and Roy Severn. He has written a number of books and short stories which have been read on Radio 4. He has won numerous prizes including the Bristol 600 Painting Award and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Award.

There was an urge in the 1960’s to sweep away the old and build anew to signal the regeneration of a nation after the War. Bristol was one of the most seriously bombed cities in the country, and its old heart was shattered. There was a great need to house thousands of people living in very poor conditions and to regenerate industry and commerce for peacetime needs. This man with his artist’s eye and appreciation had begun to have serious concerns about what was happening around him in the reconstruction planning for the city. It might well have been that an ancestor of his was looking over his shoulder, for a remarkable piece of research has been undertaken by an Australian relative, which has identified his direct descent from the person who on behalf of Edward III drew up the boundaries of Bristol when he awarded it the status of City and County in the 14th century.

He would say that his judo training helps you to gauge your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. This was to prove invaluable in what became known as the Battle for the City Docks in 1969.

The City Docks Committee owned large tracts of land surrounding the docks and had the responsibility of maintaining navigation up the Avon Gorge. The costs of doing this had escalated. Ships had increased greatly in size and the Committee were anxious to concentrate on developing the new harbour at Portbury at the mouth of the Avon and to close the river to shipping. It came about the commercial docks were closed and given back to the City. Their future came under the collective eye of the Council and its Planning Committee.

Suddenly they had the responsibility for large areas of land in the centre of the city with no plans for their use. The City Docks Parliamentary Act, which was proposed, addressed this. The proposals included the taking up of large areas by roads crossing the harbour, the construction of three bridges to carry motorways and the decking or filling in of parts of the docks themselves so that these could be given over to other uses. When this became public knowledge, there was an outcry and the Bristol City Docks Group, of which Jerry Hicks was a leading member, was formed to fight the ratification of the Parliamentary Act in order to maintain the use of the docks both by smaller vessels – yachts, dinghies and launches – and by tall masted ships coming up the river and tying-up in the centre of the city. The success of the Group’s campaign can be seen when you visit the docks today and see the number of boats moored, with the SS Great Britain and the Matthew having pride of place. The height of the M5 crossing the Avon near its mouth was also made sufficient for tall ships, which have visited the city frequently in recent years, to make successful passage up the Avon from the Bristol Channel.

Almost immediately, though, a second controversial development was proposed. This was a large addition to an old hotel on the slopes of the Avon Gorge next to the Suspension Bridge with underground car parking over hanging the Gorge. Once more the pressure groups sprang into action and with the help of the City’s members of Parliament persuaded the Secretary of State to institute a public enquiry. This became one of the best shows in town as Sir John Betjeman appeared for the objectors with a host of others to back him up. The enquiry dismissed the planning decision, which Betjeman himself described as ‘almost incredible’. These two cases and their successful outcome were responsible for the City acknowledging the need for far greater consultation with the Civic Society and other amenity bodies which are now well-established. The City Council has recently invited Jerry Hicks to chair a new environmental group dealing with sustainable land use.

His other causes have been numerous. In the West Country he has been a member of the Central Council of Physical Education and the South West Sports Council as a first-class active sportsman himself, becoming involved in many battles over recreational land. Many playing fields had come to be regarded as prime sites for developers, and although the Sports Council were represented at public enquiries, as to their use, they were still losing appeals. Councils who complained would be told by government departments that they were the only ones with problems. Jerry drafted 20 questions to be asked in Parliament where answers had to be accurate, and in many cases they conflicted with evidence that had been given at the enquiries. As a result of this persistence Planning Policy guideline No.17 was invoked ensuring special protection for greenfield sites. His most recent success after lobbying at No.10 has been to ensure the requirement for all children at Key Stage 2 to be able to swim 25 metres, this being included in the National Curriculum.

In 1994 in recognition of his services to Sports and the South-West he was awarded the M.B.E.

Success in challenges such as Jerry Hicks has undertaken does not come by chance; it comes by careful and properly informed argument and by persistence, if necessary, in the very long term, to sustain an effort. All these qualities he has, combining them with a powerful voice and presence.

He is man who has defended and protected both the physical environment of the historic city of Bristol for all of us fortunate to live here, and the physical well-being of its citizens through his advocacy of the retention and provision of playing fields and sporting activities. He is also an accomplished artist who has been an inspiration to many and a brilliant teacher who has never taken No for an answer.

Mr Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Jerry Hicks as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.


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