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Richard William Hey


Richard William Hey was a member of staff in the University Department of Geology from 1951 until his retirement in 1982.  Originally appointed as a University Demonstrator in 1951, he become a University Lecturer in the Department of Geology in 1956. 

He began his career after the Second World War, by studying sites scattered with Palaeolithic stone artefacts, in association with Dr Charles McBurney, the Cambridge Palaeolithic Archaeologist.  W.B.R. (Bill) King, who was the head of the Cambridge Geology Department ('the Sedgwick'), suggested that Richard register for a Ph.D on the Cyrenaican Quaternary research and this he did in 1947.  Richard was awarded his doctorate for the thesis: The Pleistocene geology and late Tertiary geomorphology of Cyrenaica on the 15 May 1951.

The detailed investigations of McBurney's archaeological sites and the sequences in which they occurred, including the broader context of the shorelines and marine deposits, alluvial, dune, tufa and slope deposits along the coastal plain, was published in the monograph Prehistory and Pleistocene Geology in Cyrenaican Libya. published in 1955 (Hey & McBurney) by Cambridge University Press.

Although Richard had no formal Quaternary training, throughout his period in Cambridge, the study of the Quaternary was developing as an important theme outside the Department of Geology; the University becoming the most important centre in the country for this work.  Under the leadership of Harry Godwin , a group of researchers based in the Department of Botany, began working with the Fenland Research Committee in the early 1930s.  After the war this evolved into the Subdepartment of Quaternary Research.  This hotbed of research generated by interest in the Quaternary, not only in Botany (later Plant Sciences), in Archaeology and latterly in Geography, contributed to encouraging and to sustaining Richard's interest in the British Pleistocene.  

At about the same time, he began organising the INQUA Subcommission on Mediterranean Shorelines of which he was to be President.  By 1961, with the group was also responsible for the Black Sea; thus the Mediterranean - Black Sea Shorelines Subcommission was established.  Through his interests and contacts in the Mediterranean region, Richard also became involved in INQUA Working Group on the Pliocene - Pleistocene Boundary (formerly the Neogene-Quaternary Boundary).  

Richard Hey's investigations into the English Quaternary began in the mid-1950's with a re-examination of fluvial gravels of the Severn valley.  But it is in the early 1960's that he began his work on the high-level Pebble Gravels in the River Thames system in southern England.  The 1965 publication in which Richard described his Westland Green Gravels, extending from Berkshire to Essex, was unquestionably a milestone that marked a new era in Thames drainage system research.  This was followed by detailed studies of the gravels throughout the Thames system, East Anglia, the Midlands and in late in his career, the River Wye.  There is no doubt that his pebble lithology-based approach was revolutionary in that it brought systematic detailed studies to replace the broadly-based geomorphological syntheses that had dominated thinking in the region up to the 1960s.  Richard's approach inspired a series of later studies on the history of lowland British river systems through the 1970s to 90s.

Richard Hey standing on the '400 foot' Pebble Gravels at Northaw Great Wood in Hertfordshire.  (Photograph by P.Gibbard 1977).

Together with Richard West , Richard Hey was a founder member of the Quaternary Field Studies Group (QFSG) in 1964.  The QFSG quickly became established as the national forum for Quaternary Science, being renamed the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) in 1968, since when it has blossomed into today's 1000 strong organisation.  Richard was President of the QRA from 1981-3 and is now an Honorary Member.

Besides his research, Richard's service to general geological societies has largely been restricted to the Yorkshire Geological Society of which he was a strong supporter (since 1950) throughout most of his professional career.  He was elected Vice-President of the Society in 1976-78.

Richard was invited to apply for a fellowship at Churchill College.  Latterly Richard became very involved in the life of the College where he became resident and held a variety of posts.  At Churchill, Richard was able to indulge one of his passions, collecting modern art and particularly abstract paintings.   

Richard was a good teacher.  Indeed, generations of Cambridge students can attest to the truth of Richard's often repeated statement that he never used a slide in a University lecture, although it is rumoured that have may have broken this rule once.  Whether or not it is true, that he could avoid using slides and the lack of illustrative material pass unnoticed by his audiences is eloquent testimony to his lecturing ability.

Richard Hey's contribution to Mediterranean and British geology is typically understated and yet substantial.

Download a biography entitled: Richard Hey - gentleman geologist by  Philip Gibbard & Claudio Vita-Finzi.