Cllr William Leslie Martin

Doctor of Laws

17 July 2007 - Orator: Mr Jim Foulds (The Chairman of Council)

Mr Vice-Chancellor: Bill Martin

William Leslie Martin, known to most people as ‘Bill’, records himself on the proforma for this ceremony as being 5ft 7ins tall.  However – and it is for this that we honour him today – he has for many years been a considerable figure in the politics of Bristol, and nobody can walk taller when it comes to the contribution he has made to the life of the communities in which he has lived.

He was born and brought up in Bermondsey, the son of a tea blender and one of a large family of seven sisters and two brothers.  Two of his sisters are here today, Dorothy, who has flown from Australia, and “Queenie”.  We welcome them.

His strong family gave him a good start in life.  He left his local school at 15, but
the school had been a good one with traditional values, where teachers still wore gowns and pupils uniform; and he had the benefit of close connections with a local church and a number of “socially concerned” relatives.

Bill’s childhood and youth in Bermondsey were much affected, however, by the social changes sweeping both the capital and the country.  Where he lived, many people had worked for generations in the docks and local manufacturing, but much of the dock work now moved to the new container ports and manufacturing industry everywhere was closing.  For a young man, setting out to look for employment, the future was uncertain indeed.

From the first, various influences played upon his life.  At an early stage he became, and remains, a Christian Socialist.  He believes in having faith, but he also believes that faith should be accompanied by action.  Indeed, quite recently, in the footsteps of John Wesley, he preached a sermon in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel here in Bristol, taking his text from the Book of Kings : “Faith without works is nothing”.

However, life was not all serious endeavours and he had and retains an interest in football (Millwall), cricket and the Arts.

He became a Youth Worker, acquiring his first experience of local politics. He recalls succeeding, where his elders had failed, in overcoming opposition from the local council and establishing a children’s adventure playground.

At the Cambridge University Mission in East London, where he helped with the Mission’s youth work, Bill was urged to consider the idea of becoming an external candidate of London University.  The encouragement gave him confidence.  He had a lot of catching up to do, starting with ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels; but he was determined.

Over time, and throughout a move in 1973 to Bristol, he gained his ‘A’ levels and pursued his studies part-time at the then Bristol Polytechnic, now the University of the West of England, gaining qualifications in Business and Management Studies.  Inevitably he became involved in student politics.

During the 1980s depression the timber company for which he worked relocated and he became redundant in what was an area of high unemployment.  Despite some job offers, he decided to turn to full-time education and gained a BA (Honours) at the University of the West of England.

We now come to what he has done with all the education he pursued over the years.  Over the past 25 or so years the list of community services in Bristol with which he has become involved runs to some 42 entries, from Age Concern to sports trusts, from infant schools to universities.  There are three areas which I would like to emphasise: his work with the deaf community, his activities in the civic life of Bristol and his support of local higher education.

He has been involved with the Centre for Deaf People in Bristol for 22 years, first as Administrator and since 1990 as its Chief Executive.  He has also been involved with a network of other bodies working in the same areas.  The Centre is a significant organisation, not only for its size and scope, but more importantly for its impact in supporting deaf people individually and collectively.  I have often heard Bill speak passionately on this topic, and, as might be expected, his remarks are always full of down-to-earth practical observations.  He is a great champion of this part of society.

In the civic life of Bristol his title, for life, is that of Alderman of the City and County of Bristol. From 2002 – 2004 he was twice Lord Mayor of Bristol.  A second term is unusual but more unusual was that it was served at the request of all the political parties in the City.  As Lord Mayor, Bill was First Citizen of Bristol and Chairman of the City Council; also, ex officio, senior Pro-Chancellor of the University of the West of England and Chief Pilot and Port Admiral of Bristol.  The latter title, he tells me, relates to the days when there were pirates on the River Avon.  The problem has apparently receded in recent times.  Lucky for the pirates!

Bill’s own party political career, the background to the civic offices he has filled, extends back to the late 1970s in representation of the Labour party within the City Council, another district council and his work within local constituency associations.  He is immensely experienced in and knowledgeable about the full range of functions covered by local government; his influence in the recent history of Bristol has been profound. He is particularly noted for his work in performance review.

Besides his connection with the University of the West of England his main contributions to higher education have been at Bath Spa University of which he is proud to be an honorary fellow, and of course here at the University of Bristol.  The work he did at Bath Spa in helping that institution move out of deficit into surplus and in the construction of many new buildings, including the well known Michael Tippett centre, were particularly highly regarded.  Within the University of Bristol he has been a well-known figure for over 26 years on the University Court and for the last 13 years on Council, our governing body.  Our debt to him is immense, not just for his formal work on committees but for all the other time and work he gave us.  He has been a great supporter.

I do not wish to convey the impression that Bill is a saint.  Even some of best friends admit that sometimes he can be a little difficult.    Brian Pickering, for many years Deputy Vice-Chancellor said, in his quiet and understated way, “He was not always the easiest of people to work with, but I paid close attention to what he said, as it was always of good value”. A Pro-Chancellor and previous Chairman of Council, Stella Clarke: “What I valued was his input at meetings and interviews.  He was not frightened of asking the question others would have liked to ask but did not dare.  He brought real added value to our deliberations”.  Perhaps Bill sums things up pretty well himself when he says “You might not like what I say or how I say it, but I love this place”.

Despite outward appearance Bill is actually a very private person, doing much of his best work away from public view.  Many are those whose lives he has changed, many the colleagues he has supported, many the fellow politicians, including those across the political divide, whom he has helped.  But he prefers that all this should remain private.  Such aspects of life in which he has been involved are simply, he says, “all about individual people and their needs.”

A moment ago, Mr Vice-Chancellor, I referred to the various influences which have played upon the life of our honorary graduand.  There is one other to mention, that of his wife Susan, who has accompanied his public life with warmth, grace and charm and brought reassurance and contentment to his private life. Bill Martin has told me that without Susan’s support he could not have achieved much of what he as done.  It is especially important that she is here.

Bill has travelled a long road to be standing in front of us today, a road marked by milestones of challenge, success, occasional disappointment and a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment.  He has been sustained by his firmly-planted roots, his fighting spirit, his good friends and his strong faith.  The journey continues.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you William Leslie Martin as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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