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Robert Randall: oration

Read Dr Steve Wharton's oration on Robert Randall for the honorary degree of Master of Arts in December 2014.


Vice-Chancellor, born in December 1948 at Eastbourne, East Sussex, Robert David Randall attended the village primary school in nearby Polegate and despite several spells in detention due to his rebellious nature, managed to pass his 11-plus. Opting first for a place at Bexhill Down County Technical School, he later transferred to Bexhill Grammar School to study for maths, further maths and physics A-levels. Bath University of Technology was his choice of University. The Claverton campus was in the process of construction in 1967 so the first year was spent at Ashley Down in Bristol, site of the University’s predecessor, Bristol College of Advanced Technology. The programme involved two placements in industry, and for the first of these he was given the opportunity to work at the Atlas Computer Laboratory using the Atlas computer, which was at that time the most powerful in the country.

Following a further placement, he returned to the Claverton campus where the maths and physics blocks had now been built, and the remainder of his course was based at Bath. Finding it difficult to tackle some subjects covered in the final year, he took an Ordinary Level pass on what was an Honours course. Not feeling inclined to retake exams the following year, he spent two years tending cucumbers in the hothouses of a local market garden while deciding what to do next. Agricultural wages were as poor then as they are now, so it was not long before he decided on a career in computing, the most enjoyable aspect of his time at the University.

He joined the South West Gas Board, whose computing and clerical headquarters were at Sydney Wharf, Bath – now a University residence. His career progressed through programming to systems and data analysis and design, finally becoming project leader. Restructuring and rationalisation of resources and processes across British Gas led to redundancy and resultant free time, allowing the possibility of part-time working and voluntary work.

He had first become aware of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) and its museum collections during the 1980s, while conducting field work to provide data for the Avon Flora Project. Botany had always been a keen interest, and he knew that the Geology Museum in Bath housed a collection of plant specimens most likely including the Hairy Spurge, which in Britain had only ever been found in Bath. Consulting the collection Rob took note of their appearance and where they had been collected, but despite his optimism, he never managed to locate any Hairy Spurge in the area and it is now accepted as extinct.

At the time he was made redundant BRLSI had recently been revived under independent trustees, and in 1997 he joined a team of volunteers identifying and cataloguing the library and museum collections. He became Chair of Collections, a post held until April 2013. He was also elected a Trustee for the maximum permitted nine years, but his main work for the Institution revolved around his computing skills and his knowledge of natural history, especially botany. There were tens of thousands of specimens that had not been accessioned or catalogued, including all the natural history collection. Those that had been accessioned had a card index that was transferred to a computer catalogue before an audit was undertaken and the catalogue updated with more accurate information. A 2011 upgrade to a networked system connected to a server has seen him largely employed on the major task of rationalising the data, a project which will result in information on the collections being made available to the general public for the first time, via BRLSI's website.

Vice-Chancellor: I present Robert David Randall who, by virtue of his dedication and commitment to the revival of an institution which is now a part of Bath’s cultural and educational landscape; through his efforts to record the flora of the region; and by his general commitment to the pursuit and communication of knowledge, is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Master of Arts honoris causa.

Dr Steve Wharton

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