Environmentalist who established the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund
Max Nicholson, the ornithologist, writer and civil servant who died on Saturday
aged 98, made some of the greatest - many would say the greatest - contributions
to nature conservation and to the emerging environmental movement in Britain in
the 20th century.
In 1949, as the senior civil servant in charge of the office of Herbert
Morrison, deputy prime minister in the post-war Labour government, Nicholson
persuaded Morrison to devote government time to setting up the world's first
statutory nature conservation body, the Nature Conservancy, which Nicholson was
later to run for 14 years as director-general.
In 1960 Nicholson chaired the committee which set up the World Wildlife Fund,
the first global conservation pressure group. He had already founded, in 1933,
the British Trust for Ornithology, a body which provided scientific evidence for
the devastating effect of modern agriculture on the countryside.
His flair for organisation was tested to the full when he was appointed to lead
the division of the civil service that allocated tonnage to convoys from 1942 to
1945, and again when he was secretary of the committee which organised the
Festival of Britain in 1950-51.
At the end of his career Nicholson was the author of two best-selling and
influential books: The System (1967), a devastating critique of the British
system of government, its love of secrecy, and its stifling of innovation; and
The Environmental Revolution (1970), an account of the post-war transformation
of public life and thought which he had partly helped to lead. He was also
editor of the most authoritative book on European birds, the nine-volume Birds
of the Western Palearctic.
Edward Max Nicholson was born on July 12 1904 of English parents at Kilternan,
near Dublin; his father was a photographer. Max was sent to school at Sedbergh,
then briefly became a journalist before going up to Hertford College, Oxford,
where he read History.
He wrote his first book, Birds in England (1926), before arriving at Oxford and
his second, How Birds Live (1927), while studying there. During his
ornithological research, Nicholson carried out the first complete census of the
birds of Kensington Gardens, the westward extension of Hyde Park, in 1925. This
survey was used by conservationists 75 years later to demonstrate the steep and
unexplained decline of the house sparrow.
After coming down he went to work as a journalist for a new periodical, the
Weekly Review, later absorbed into the New Statesman. In 1931, in keeping with
the fashion for Soviet-style planning, Nicholson was asked to write the
magazine's version of a National Plan, calling on a high-powered group of
advisers from industry, commerce and the Bank of England.
This led, in 1933, to the post of second secretary in the original think tank,
Political and Economic Planning (PEP), an astonishingly prolific group which
produced hundreds of policy studies, on subjects such as the provision of a
state health service, the education system, and, as war began to look
inevitable, air-raid precautions.
When war began Nicholson took up the post of Controller of Literature at the
Ministry of Information; but the slow pace of the ministry in its early days
(press releases would be passed round for 10 days before being issued)
frustrated him, and he returned to PEP after only seven weeks. At night he
worked as an air-raid warden, but this did not prevent him recording birds, such
as the redshank he heard calling over Chelsea during the Blitz.
Nicholson next joined the Ministry of Shipping as head of the Allocation of
Tonnage Division, ensuring that ships on the Atlantic convoys wasted no precious
space in their holds and, later, ensuring that parts of the Mediterranean which
might otherwise have revolted against the Allies late in the war were fed. His
job involved regular Atlantic crossings; Nicholson took his binoculars and
recorded the birds.
From a month after the outbreak of war, when he became a member of the Post-War
Aims Group, Nicholson was involved in planning for post-war reconstruction. He
attended the conferences on the reconstruction of Europe at Cairo, Quebec, Yalta
and Potsdam - where he recorded the birds to be seen amid the ruins of Berlin.
As a rising star in the civil service, Nicholson came to the attention of
Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee's deputy when Labour was elected in 1945.
There began a hectic six years during which, as Morrison's right-hand man,
Nicholson was responsible for steering through the 1947 Town and Country
Planning Act, which set up the modern planning system; the 1947 Agriculture Act,
which consolidated the wartime system of agriculture subsidies; and the 1949 Act
which set up the national parks and the Nature Conservancy - a recommendation of
a committee, chaired by Julian Huxley, of which Nicholson had himself been a
As principal adviser to Morrison, a Londoner who knew little about nature but
who had pioneered the Green Belt, Nicholson was outstandingly well placed to
argue the case for nature conservation and to see through the resulting
legislation, which attracted little controversy at the time, even though it
included sweeping powers of compulsory purchase. He single-handedly wrote the
clauses setting up sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).
Looking back to that time 50 years later, Nicholson was among the first to
criticise his own legacy. No one in the 1940s, he said, had understood the
damage that subsidised farming and forestry would do to the countryside.
Nicholson's insistence, along with the rest of the Huxley committee, that nature
conservation should fall within the scientific, rather than the planning,
responsibilities of government, did make the new system of nature sites
established by the Act more remote from the general public and more difficult to
defend, for many years, than, for example, listed buildings.
But at the time Nicholson realised astutely that keeping nature conservation as
scientific would prevent the Treasury seeing it as imposing an excessive
financial burden on a bankrupt nation. Focus on science would avoid intimidating
landowners with the Conservancy's new powers.
In 1952, when still only 48, and one rung from the top of the civil service
ladder, Nicholson gave it up to become the second director-general of the Nature
The new Conservative government looked at the Conservancy, like many of the
creations of "corporatist" Labour, as something to cut in its quest to lower
taxes. Nicholson was told that either he took the job, or the Conservancy might
well be wound up. As a civil servant himself, Nicholson knew how to play the
Treasury's game; he was also aware of the need to respect the sensitivities of
the Agricultural Research Council, which was jealous of the Conservancy's role
as a research council in its own right.
He kept the Conservancy to research in its own field and its task of acquiring
and managing national nature reserves, about which he wrote in Britain's Nature
Reserves (1957). But he was inevitably drawn to oppose - unsuccessfully - the
Central Electricity Generating Board's application to build a nuclear power
station at Dungeness, which the Conservancy thought should have been declared a
national nature reserve.
Nicholson's work at the Conservancy led him, along with Julian Huxley and Peter
Scott, to realise that government conservationists needed the support of
powerful, fund-raising pressure groups. He played a central role in the
formation of the World Wildlife Fund, encouraged the county wildlife trusts, and
urged both the BBC and ITV to develop nature programmes.
An unusual mixture of clubbable, Oxbridge committee man and radical, Nicholson
was also unusual among senior civil servants in being an author as well as
combining a knowledge and aptitude for government with a respect for the
voluntary sector. In the environmental field, no one rivalled his record as a
founder of institutions.
During a very active retirement, in the 1970s he helped to found the Ends
Report, the authoritative journal for environmental managers in industry, of
which he was managing editor. He also helped to found, and chaired, the first
ecological consultancy, Land Use Consultants.
In his nineties Nicholson set up another think tank, the New Renaissance Group.
From 1980 to 1985 he was president of the Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds; he was also chairman of the Trust for Urban Ecology in 1987-88.
As an author, though not always an elegant writer, Nicholson was remarkable for
chronicling in The Environmental Revolution how the long struggle by a small
number of advocates of nature conservation, like him, had been overtaken by a
broad public movement disgusted by the mistreatment of the world; it was
published in 1970, the year the Department of the Environment came into being.
Least forgiven, in Establishment circles, was The System, subtitled "The
Misgovernment of Modern Britain". Nicholson identified in the civil service and
British public life a system bound together by fear - "fear of facing new facts,
fear of facing the people and fear of facing the future".
That book was often blamed for Nicholson's being rewarded with no more than a CB
(1948) and CVO (1970). In later life, however, he revealed that he had several
times turned down a knighthood, once when offered one by Margaret Thatcher.
Nicholson admitted to no political affiliation after becoming disillusioned with
the Conservative party in the 1920s. That may be why no government invited him
to join the House of Lords.
In 1934 Max Nicholson married Eleanor Mary Crawford, with whom he had two sons;
the marriage was dissolved in 1964. He then married Marie Antoinette Mauerhofer,
with whom he had another son; she died last year.
This obituary was published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 29th April 2003. On 1 May 2003, they published an obituary of Max's friend Guy Mountfort