Key Figures on Campus: Sir Wilfred Halliday Cockcroft

Image from the University of Hull Archives at the Hull History Centre

In our Key Figures on Campus series we ask alumni to share some of their memories of key members of staff who influenced them as students, and to undertake a bit of research to find out more about some of the untold stories behind important figures in the University’s history, whose impact on their students has not been forgotten.

In this article, Bill Bailey (Mathematics, 1967) remembers Sir Wilfred Halliday Cockcroft.

Sir Wilfred Halliday Cockcroft M.A. D.Phil. (Oxon)

1923 – 1999

The GF Grant Professor of Pure Mathematics, Wilfred Cockcroft (1961 – 1976), was educated at Keighley Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford. A larger than life personality he chaired a Government Inquiry into the Teaching of Maths (1978 – 1982), was eventually knighted and became the Chairman of the Secondary Exams Council. In this role he was proud to introduce GCSE examinations which he described as “intellectually sound and socially just.” He had a huge creative presence and once related that his mother had told a neighbour in Keighley, “Our Billy, he can mek gravy owt’a nowt.”


At Watford Grammar School, during the Autumn Term 1963, we were encouraged to complete an UCCA university choice application form. I duly had interviews and rejections from both Nottingham and Keele. A rejection without interview was issued by Reading University because, I was told at the time, they may have been insulted by being listed as a third choice. Fortunately an offer was received of a B(Maths for Science), B(Physics) and C(Chemistry) from my only remaining option, Hull, without an interview. The Professor of Pure Maths, Bill Cockcroft, told me some time later that he considered interviews a waste of valuable creative time. So if you achieved two As you qualified to do Special Maths and two Bs, Joint Mathematics. This offer was the last remaining opportunity to pursue studies at a university and one that I was determined to take.

The two Bs were achieved as predicted but despite joining a  week’s retreat with fellow scholars at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, to immerse myself in Chemistry revision between various forms of worship, the only the bare minimum of a pass at grade E was achieved. Any hope of devine intervention had been well and truly dashed. Unusually the exam focussed on theory, which was a weakness, rather than calculations, which were a strength. However this result became irrelevant as the results overall satisfied the Admissions Team so I was very fortunate to secure a place.

I got to know Bill subsequently through his involvement in Mathematics Education, both locally and nationally, so related this sequence of events to him. He responded with his “9.30 – 12.30” rule by which one had to study hard and concentrate in the morning with the rest of the day free to pursue more creative and convivial activities. Interviewing potential candidates, including some who only chose Hull as an insurance against rejection by other universities, did not come into either of these categories. After two unsatisfactory interviews and an outright rejection it was fortunate that Hull adopted the policy that if you achieved the grades you were in. So in October 1964 I entered the University of Hull and Loten Hall of Residence to study for a joint honours degree in Pure Maths and Physics. At last freedom was achieved to study the two subjects that I enjoyed, leave home, stay up late and cultivate a pair of sideburns.

In the second half of the term an exeat was applied for to return home for a weekend. This had to be endorsed by Professor Cockcroft whose response was typical, “What! Have you got fed up with us already?” His signature was secured but on returning home my mother was horrified with the sideburns saying that if they made an appearance at the start of the Christmas vacation she would not allow me in the house. Wisely my father told me to join them up so I have had a “full set” ever since.

Freshers’ Week

As part of a joint honours qualification each candidate had to complete a one year ancillary course in order to matriculate. During Freshers’ Week all new entrants were required to attend a personal interview with the Dean of Science in the Administration Block (now the Venn Building). This was the first meeting with Bill Cockcroft, appointed to a professorship at the relatively young age of 38 following lectureships in Aberdeen, Southampton (1957 – 61) with visiting posts at Chicago, Stamford and New York. His height, manner, powerful West Riding voice and sometimes flamboyant style gave him ‘the rumbustiousness of an iconoclastic Falstaff.’ And most striking of all, his enthusiasm was contagious and so it remained over the years until we last met professionally in 1984.

During the interview he noted that an ‘A’ level course in Chemistry had been completed so it appeared to be a natural consequence to take it up as an ancillary subject. Following my experiences at school the offer was firmly but politely rejected. A more thoughtful response from him was that an ‘A’ level pass in General Studies might indicate a much broader interest than just a science based curriculum. He suggested “having a crack” at History and Philosophy of Science, a brand new course being tutored by a young don recently appointed from Oxford. As this would make a refreshing change I accepted the challenge and never regretted it. It was a taught course characterised by regular interaction with the lecturer. It proved to be rewarding, enjoyable and challenging, encouraging a high degree of participation by all the students.

When this newly formed group met for the first time we comforted ourselves with the possibility we were all hand-picked by Bill to help a fellow Oxford man get the new course up and running.

History and Philosophy of Science

Image from the University of Hull Archives at the Hull History Centre

The students appreciated the recommended reading list and meticulously prepared and carefully delivered lectures by Mr. R. G. Swinburne M.A., B. Phil. (Oxon). He proved to be a don in the true Oxbridge tradition, taking on pastoral as well as academic responsibility for his class. This broad range of provision even extended to an invitation for tea at his family home on Inglemire Lane. We were not quite sure what to expect but we were well catered for with cream cakes, sandwiches and light bites, including the very popular sausages on cocktail sticks. He and his wife were excellent hosts at a memorable and civilised occasion which further cemented the relationship between the teacher and students. Several events such as these were to become part and parcel of my career including schools where they sometimes became more lively than the one and only one experienced by us as undergraduates. Needless to say virtually all his students successfully completed the course, so the proof of the pudding was in the eating, so to speak.

I will always be grateful for this opportunity to broaden the horizons of study beyond a normal university curriculum. He also provided us with a valuable insight into the Oxbridge experience of supervisions which I was fortunate to observe first hand later when elected a Schoolteacher Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. The course notes provided a valuable teaching resource when timetabled to teach a module in A-level General Studies during the latter part of my teaching career.

A Talented Staff

During a conversation at a mathematics education event some years later, Bill reflected that his intention in Hull was to appoint teachers rather than pure researchers but “did not always get it right.” In my other joint subject, Physics, it became evident that research had a higher profile than teaching. This led to more variable standards of lecturing and unrest among the students which may have been a factor in inspiring the “sit-in” of 1968.

Dr. Roberts was a demonstrative and enthusiastic lecturer in Analysis and very supportive during Examples Classes. Other providers were Doctors Kelly, Moss and Cross together with Messrs Driver, Dennet and Jordan. Dr. Marshall and Trevor Jarvis were involved in politics as well as imparting knowledge to generally enthusiastic learners. The former became MP for Goole. The latter could be seen selling the Socialist Worker in and around the pubs of Hull on Saturday evenings.

As well as regular Examples Classes we were given several problems to solve during vacations. 

These had to be handed in on the first Monday after term started. There was precious little time to celebrate the beginning of term as we put the finishing touches to, or in some cases to start, our efforts. In the final Easter Vacation we were handed 12 examples on Group Theory. One drew the natural conclusion that this exercise would enable us to answer at least two questions on the same topic in our finals papers, which were looming large. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the Stacks of the Brynmor Jones Library and the Reference Room in Watford Public Library to complete the challenges, I was dismayed when not one question on Groups appeared in any finals paper. Just after the exams I encountered Doctor Ron Brown, the lecturer concerned, emerging from the University Library. Taking my chance, I approached him and expressed my considerable disappointment at this omission. He was a respected member of staff, later being promoted to be Professor of Pure Mathematics at Bangor University. He seemed to take a sympathetic view of my complaint. “Still,” he said, “the examples set helped your thought process, I suppose.” He then asked my name and rather than remain anonymous I told him twice in the vain hope that he might extend his apparent sympathy to mark my Algebra answers more leniently. It is ironic that whilst at Bangor he became an eminent mathematician publishing an extensive range of papers including “The theory of Groupoids as a natural and convenient generalisation of the theory of Groups.” even though the latter was not deemed significant enough to include in our finals papers at Hull.

Declined Matrices

Another innovation Bill Cockcroft introduced was the issuing of printed notes giving the lecturer the freedom to explore the notions without the imposition on students to copy notes. Ron Brown would extemporise with examples and illustrative operations on the whiteboard which were duly noted down. At the time there were those who were unable to attend lectures so would borrow the records of those that had. A serial note borrower was a fellow resident of Loten Hall and a political activist who would become President of the Students’ Union. A fellow student and I became aware that he was “doing the rounds” borrowing notes so we hatched a plan to produce a spoof lecture. We entitled our topic “Declined Matrices” which were of a triangular form which slotted together to produce a square. This established the operation of multiplication which we showed to be associative. We also defined identity elements and inverses thus showing the set of declined matrices formed a group, etc., etc.. We extended more effort on this lampoon than we would have done on our more normal studies but I suppose the benefit was that it cemented group theory indelibly in our minds. The notes were presented to the borrower with the advice that Doctor Brown had stressed their importance. He advised any student to seek clarification from him in the event of not understanding any aspect of the topic as it was likely to be examined more formally in departmental assessments at the end of the year. Whether such an exchange took place or not remains in the dim and distant past. But when the notes were returned the feedback from our fellow student was, “complete rubbish.” However the main purpose of the exercise was achieved as he never troubled us again with any further requests.

Bill was a great raconteur and loved a good story. On relating this episode to him sometime later he was highly amused and suggested that the notes should have been submitted in the form of an article to either the Mathematical Gazette or Mathematics in Schools preferably for publication on or around April 1st.

Children and Mathematics

During our time at Hull (1964 – 67) Bill Cockcroft continued his distinguished career. As well as being appointed Warden of Downs Hall of Residence, based on the Lawns Complex, in 1966, he chaired the influential Nuffield Maths Project Consultative Committee from 1963 – 71. The mantra of the Project was the inspirational: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” This initiative laid the groundwork for primary mathematics to move from formal learning to acquiring knowledge through practical activities. Bill’s interest in mathematical education was always evident and he was one of the first to present mathematics on television in 1964. In 1968 he published “Your Child and Mathematics,” a short survey of the aims and methods of the modern mathematics teaching to five to thirteen year old children, written particularly for parents in association with the Nuffield Project. This publication reveals his vision that, “Our most important task must be to teach children to think for themselves.” It established him as an eminent mathematics educator as well as a leading topologist.

The publication coincided with my return to Hull in 1968 to teach mathematics at Sir Leo Schultz High School, Orchard Park Estate, following a year’s teacher training at Exeter University. The latter was a much less formal course than the one offered at Hull’s Education Department as it was based on maths workshops, seminars, tutorials, lectures on general education issues and continual assessment. I was also fortunate to be recruited as a member of the progressive Association of Teachers of Mathematics of which I was to become the National Treasurer in the mid-1970’s.

By this time Bill had struck up a liaison with Professor Frank Land, the Head of the Institute of Education based on Cottingham Road, and author of “The Language of Mathematics.” Together they laid on induction courses for local school teachers to discover more about modern mathematics. This in-service support was yet another example of Bill’s deep commitment and contagious enthusiasm for providing mathematical experiences for children through both teaching and learning.

During the period 1968 – 71 Hull was an exciting place to be a mathematics teacher. After three years at the coal face teaching 11 – 18 year olds it was time to reflect on my own experiences and move from an intuitive approach to formalise what lay at the heart of good classroom practice. Consequently in October 1971 I registered as a B.Phil (Education) research student, a new course focussing mainly on maths education. As a result of personal research, “The Learning of Mathematical Concepts with Particular Reference to the Lower Secondary School” was produced in December 1972. This provided a blueprint for the curriculum of the Mathematics Department, Brigshaw Comprehensive School, Allerton Bywater which was opened by the West Riding of Yorkshire in September 1972.

The production of the dissertation referred to above was during the same year as a book written by Bill, “Complex Numbers: a study of algebraic structure.” Complex numbers were his initial focus when lecturing to undergraduates when he arrived at Hull in 1961. The publication was yet more evidence of his academic commitment to pure mathematics and higher education in general. From 1967 – 1976 he was a member of the Mathematics and Science Subcommittee of the University Grants Committee for which he was appointed Chair in 1973.

The New University of Ulster

Bill Cockcroft accepted the challenge of running of the New University of Ulster in 1976. It was unlikely to be coincidental that the government had declared a moratorium on new university buildings and even buildings already started were held up indefinitely in a kind of mothball state. So at Hull University the outlook for 1977 – 78 was bleak with little hope of several buildings, including Mathematics and Computation, coming back into the development programme in the foreseeable future.

The NUU opened in 1968 and Bill became the second Vice Chancellor. It may have been a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire as he took up his post during a period of great turbulence in the Province. He came to deeply resent the University Grant Committee’s apparent neglect of its youngest university by refusing to provide money for the completion of the Coleraine Campus buildings. However this problem was resolved when the university played host to the Queens’ Jubilee Visit and Royal Garden Party in 1977. These celebrations brought the substantial government funding that was needed for the development.

However a further problem was the political refusal to make an exemption for the universities in Northern Ireland when fees for overseas students quadrupled. Naturally this increase had a devastating impact on student recruitment from the Irish Republic in the late 1970’s.

These difficulties led to an enforced merger with Ulster Polytechnic following a review of Higher Education under Sir Henry Chilver. The new combined University of Ulster got its charter on 1st October 1984. Of course Bill was disappointed for the university he led but relieved not to be chosen to manage a major reorganisation for which he had little sympathy. His departure in 1982 was the same year that the Cockcroft Report on the teaching of mathematics in schools was published by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Mathematics Counts

A committee of inquiry into the teaching of maths in primary and secondary education in England was commissioned by then the Labour Government, being in set up in 1978 by Shirley Williams, the Education Secretary. Bill’s deep interest in children learning mathematics and teachers teaching it made him an obvious choice as chairman. Although under pressure to produce a report quickly, a thorough, forensic and comprehensive review was carried out by the Committee which met for a total of 64 days over nearly four years.

Evidence was considered from a wide spectrum of sources including Schools Council documents which included “Mixed-ability teaching in mathematics” published in 1977 together with a supporting pack for in-service providers. This national survey into current teaching methods focussed on the crucial importance of practical exploratory tasks and differentiated levels of investigatory work in the effective learning of mathematical concepts. As well as being seconded to act as Secretary/Writer to the group, I was also a member of the national Association of Teachers of Mathematics Committee at the time of the Cockcroft Inquiry. This forum, which also included two members of the Cockcroft Committee, was driven to give real evidence to Cockcroft by Bill Brookes of Southampton University. This suggested that a primary headteacher could never have absolute control over what happened in individual classrooms. This became a cornerstone for some debate between employers and teachers on the Cockcroft Committee. Later Cockcroft himself visited Wyndham School to observe ‘investigations’ in mixed ability classes. A tribute to Bill Brookes published in Maths Teaching, January 2006, confirmed that, “This was one of the moments when ATM moved from being a group of ‘off the wall weirdos’ to being part of mainstream mathematics teaching.”

Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Education, was so impressed with the academic rigour and persuasive evidence in the report that when a draft introduction came back from his office the phrase “This is an excellent report” had been altered by Sir Keith’s handwriting to “This is a first class report,” in typical Oxford donnish style. So when “Mathematics Counts” was published in early 1982 there was a resurgence of confidence in the teaching of the subject. Bill always said it should have been entitled “Feeling for Figures.” Indeed one of his colleagues suggested he had written it well before 1982. It provided a template widely accepted as the way forward. This approach was encapsulated in paragraph 243.

“Mathematics teaching at all levels should include opportunities for

• exposition by the teacher;

• discussion between teacher and pupils and pupils themselves;

• appropriate practical work;

• consolidation and practice of fundamental skills and routines;

• problem solving, including the application of mathematics to everyday situations;

• investigation work.”

Funding was provided to appoint advisory teachers known as “Cockcroft Missionaries” to help carry out the recommendations contained in the report.

In recognition for this major achievement Bill was knighted in 1983 and in 1984 he was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University as a Doctor of the University.

Secondary Examinations Council (SEC)

During its deliberations the Cockcroft Committee had become convinced that the mathematics curriculum should be “bottom up,” building on the Foundation List rather than watering down a curriculum designed for the most able. The principle enshrined in the bottom-up approach was that all pupils should be successful and have a sense of achievement. Too often pupils obtained a certificate of success knowing full well that they did not correctly answer most the questions on the exam paper. The notion of competence was becoming important, for example, in reassuring an employer that a certificate was at least a minimal guarantee of attainment.

Following his success as chair of the committee that had published the Cockcroft Report, Bill was a natural choice for the daunting task of reforming examinations at 16+. Sir Keith Joseph established the SEC, an independent body with numerous subject panels. Having been installed as the new chairman, Bill challenged Sir Keith, a man for whom he had the greatest respect, as to why he had to work with often outspoken right and left-wingers on the committee. He replied that the overriding qualification for membership was a commitment to the education of children so political persuasion of very little significance. Bill often told this story to a variety of audiences and by doing so confirmed that it was a sentiment with which he was in full agreement.

In his new role Bill showed outstanding skills as a manager, a profound understanding of the different types of conflict within subject panels and considerable diplomatic ability in the introduction of the new General Certificate of Education. He predicated their launch in 1986 as being, “intellectually sound and soundly just.” The new grading system for pupils sitting the exam for the first time in 1988 put all entrants on the same scale on a range of grades from A to G. This replaced the former CSE and O-level qualifications, uniting them to allow access to the full range of grades by all students. By doing so a national qualification was established for those who decided to leave school at 16 without pursuing further academic study towards qualifications such as A-levels or university degrees.

Bill retired from the SEC in 1988 but continued in his role as an eminent mathematics educator. In the late 1980s to early 1990s he was a member of the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), The Royal Society Curriculum Subcommittee and was elected President of the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education.

Further Memories

On meeting Bill Cockcroft for the first time as a young undergraduate it did not take long to detect that he had a quality possessed by few other academics and one that can only be described as his own personal magnetism. This instinctive ability to care about people without any regard to background, status, class or wealth proved to be of crucial importance in his career. As we used to say in our family: he was a good mixer. With his various advancements he showed that if you can empathize with individuals you can inspire them.

As young undergraduates we became aware of his presence in and around the university and were impressed by his determination to have as much fun being there as we did. Whether it was his entertaining lectures, of which we had far too few, or observing him in the Staff Refectory engaged in animated conversation with another Oxford man, Philip Larkin the University Librarian and famous poet, or later seeing him enjoying a weekend meal with his family in the Lantern Restaurant on Whitefriargate, it was obvious he knew how to enjoy himself.

“I do and I understand” was at the heart of his work in mathematics education throughout his career up to and including the publication of Mathematics Counts. At the time this treatise both confirmed and supported my work as a classroom teacher and General Adviser (Mathematics) with Wirral Borough Council. The local authority was a constituent member of the Northern Mathematics Council (NORMAC) which was a regional group established to promote the values of the Nuffield Mathematics Project whose Consultative Committee was chaired by Bill. NORMAC was a dynamic and zestful organisation which held weekend workshops in March and November for a broad audience mainly composed of mathematics teachers in primary schools in the North West.

In 1982, on the publication of his report, Bill was a natural choice as the after dinner guest speaker to address the nearly two hundred participants on the subject of the findings of his Committee. On the opening evening both he and Jim Boucher, an old friend at the forefront of the Nuffield Project and Chair of NORMAC, confirmed their legendary capacity for social imbibing both before, during and after the formal dinner. Despite these celebrations the message delivered by Bill was sobering yet inspiring in acknowledging the challenge to those attending, whether they were classroom teachers, maths coordinators, headteachers or local authority advisers, to “pick up maths off the floor.” It was time to inject new life into the subject through relevance, applicability, practical work/investigations as well as well-founded and confident exposition. This tour de force was illustrated with many issues his Committee had grappled with including the use of mathematics in employment. He warned his audience that if they were hospitalised to be aware that paras 145 – 148 described that in Nursing errors of the order of multiples of 10 can easily occur when calculating a dose and constantly working under pressure with metric units. It was vital to detect such mistakes before harm results. Visual estimation is also required of the kind which will lead you to the realisation that a syringe of unusual size appears to be being used. He advised, “keep your eye on the dimensions of the needle.” As well as good humour the content and delivery of his address to this audience of “Mathematics Missionaries” left a lasting and indelible imprint on all those who attended. As a respected primary headteacher from Rochdale commented, “Despite coming from Yorkshire he spoke our language.” This was praise indeed from a colleague who could be highly critical of some of our speakers who did not always live up to expectations.

Following the formal part of the evening we retired to the bar of the hotel and were joined by Bill’s second wife, the soon to be Lady Cockcroft, the former Vivien Lloyd, a British film actress. Sometime later she revealed that Bill always considered himself most fortunate as he claimed he was paid well to enjoy his hobby. To him it never seemed to be work.

He had just returned from an Oxford college where he had made arrangements for one of his sons to receive pastoral care and tuition from an ancient don whom Bill had discovered close to hibernation in the labyrinth of rooms there. We also conducted a further analysis of the strengths of his former colleagues in the Pure Mathematics Department, Hull. He seemed relieved that most of those that he had appointed met with students’ approval. He agreed that in this kind of situation you have to be pragmatic and work with what you inherited whilst bringing new blood to liven things up.

His time at Hull was punctuated with several audiences with the Vice Chancellor, Brynmor Jones, and by his own admission, not all of them were cordial. Even though born just over the border the VC was regarded as being a somewhat austere Welshman. His character was in stark contrast to Bill’s typical Gemini characteristics: outgoing, a typically enthusiastic social being and, as he had proved previously, a highly intelligent person with a cheerful disposition who always had interesting things to say.

He was also a man with an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. Following recent interviews at the New University of Ulster he had offered a place to a bricklayer from the Creggan. Diversity had been counterbalanced by offering a place to a very bright boy, from Shankhill, attending Cairnmartin Grammar School. However instead of accepting the offer the potential student, Norman Whiteside, signed professional football forms with Manchester United. He then became the youngest player to appear in the World Cup when he represented Northern Ireland in 1982. He eventually graduated from the University of Salford later on in his career.

Bill was a great admirer of Sir Keith Joseph who was appointed Secretary of State for Education in 1981. Despite holding disparate political views a deep mutual respect was developed between the two men. Joseph was renowned for his assiduous attention to detail, casting a lawyer’s eye over the documents presented to him. The Secretary of State’s other admirable quality was to keep the civil servants and ministerial special advisers in their place during discussions with Bill. Any that attempted to intervene were soon reminded that their role was solely consultative. With both men deep in discussion the officers soon realised the force they were up against.

Kath Cross, a good friend, a member of the Cockcroft Committee and accomplished raconteur, would relate a story in relation to the civil servants and Bill’s sense of fair play in supporting his colleagues. The Committee would meet in London with Bill insisting that they retire to a modest Italian restaurant for lunch. Kath, being an experienced oenophile, chose a medium priced Côtes du Rhone from the wine list as she considered the house red to be of very poor quality. The member of staff from the Department of Education and Science responsible for the dining arrangements informed Kath that the budget would not support members having free access to the wine list. So it was clear: it was house red or nothing. On reporting this embargo to Bill he suggested politely to the official that for one attached to a committee focussing on mathematics his arithmetic was somewhat lacking in rigour. In his characteristically robust manner he reminded him that if Miss Cross, rather than travel on a day return, was to take her full entitlement by travelling first class return from Accrington the day before the meeting, then stay overnight in a hotel suitable for a single lady, the extra cost incurred would fund several bottles of Premier Cru, not merely a bottle of reasonably priced Côtes du Rhone. Kath got her choice which she shared with her table. This proved to be a wise investment as she continued to make a significant contribution to the work of the Committee. This was recognised as she was appointed to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools where she was further promoted to the position of the Staff Inspector for Mathematics and then Head of the Improving Schools Division.

A Double Edged Sword

Careers are defined by a series of consequences that are not always planned or anticipated. The publication of the Cockcroft Report in 1982 became a double edged sword by firstly removing my responsibility for the curriculum development of modern mathematics in the Wirral and secondly by a change of career. Post 1983 funding was provided to appoint Advisory Teachers in Mathematics, known as Cockcroft Missionaries, two of whom were appointed to the authority, one with responsibility for primary mathematics and the other secondary. With the removal of these areas of operation there was a greater personal concentration on more general duties. These included the pressing need to pilot the new Technical and Vocational Initiative, sponsored by the Department of Industry, which was initiated in six Wirral secondary schools in 1983 as part of the government’s response to the Toxteth Riots in Liverpool. As a result I was transferred in 1984 to Eastham Secondary School to support the senior leadership team with the introduction of TVEI.

As a result of Bill Cockcroft’s flexible and visionary skills as the Chair of the Secondary Examinations Council, the first cohort was to be examined by the new GCSE in 1988. This prospect presented another irresistible challenge so in 1985, as part of planned demotion, I left the Wirral Education Inspectorate to take up the post of Deputy Head at Mirfield High School (13 – 18) near Huddersfield. A major attraction was to continue classroom teaching in Mathematics whilst the examination reform was taking place. This included a group of 32 GCSE final year students scheduled to be assessed in the summer of 1989. The new exam had been introduced the previous year so there was no dilemma as to whether a pupil in this Set 3 should be entered for CSE or O-level. They were all examined for a restricted grade C, which was roughly equivalent to an O-level pass with all, apart from two students, achieving the target grade. There was a great deal of professional satisfaction to be had participating in this long overdue innovation, particularly in the classroom.

Further promotion led to more than sixteen years of secondary headship in Clwyd, North Wales and Leeds. Despite ever increasing administrative and pastoral responsibilities I kept my hand on the tiller, so to speak, by continuing to teach mathematics to all abilities in the classroom, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Final Reflection

Bill Cockcroft once remarked that a senior colleague exhibited all the rigidity of poker but without any of its occasional warmth. By contrast he was charismatic, mercurial, possessing deep human sympathies, being inordinately patient with people. Never to be underestimated because beneath the charm lay the defining characteristic of great leadership: an occasional streak of ruthlessness when things needed to get done.

In paying tribute I hope that in a varied career also committed to the improvement of maths education across all age ranges as well as secondary school leadership, his decision to offer me a place at Hull University all those years ago without an interview has been justified.

Sir Brynmor Jones B.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc.

(1903 – 1989)

Appointed to the GF Grant Chair of Chemistry in 1947, he was Vice Chancellor of the University of Hull from 1956 – 1972. He was born in North Wales near Wrexham; he attended Ruabon Grammar School, the University College of Wales, Bangor and St. John’s College, Cambridge where he gained his Ph.D. Although he and Bill Cockcroft, from Oakworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire, were brought up just over a hundred miles apart they were considerably more distant in terms of temperament. This divergence led to some encounters, not always restricted to academic issues, usually as a result of Bill’s intuitive risk taking and infectious zest for life.

Image from the University of Hull Archives at the Hull History Centre


• Children and Mathematics. Nuffield Maths Project. W. H. Cockcroft. Jan 1968.

• University of Hull, The First Fifty Years. T. W. Bamford. Oxford University Press 1978.

• In Memoriam. Bill Cockcroft. Hugh Socket. Tribute at St. Michael’s Church, Warmington. Oct. 6th, 1999.

• Obituary. The Times. 22nd Oct. 1999.

• Mathematical Gazette Obituary. Sir Wilfred Cockcroft by Peter Reynolds (1999).

• Memories of Sir Wilfred Cockcroft.Tony Crilly.The Mathematical Gazette.Volume 85.

Number 302.March 2001.

• 50 Years On: Loten Hall Reunion. Private Publication. P. A. Bailey 2014.

P. A. (Bill) Bailey

B.Sc., Joint Pure Maths and Physics

1964 – 67

B.Phil., Education

1971 – 72

13 thoughts on “Key Figures on Campus: Sir Wilfred Halliday Cockcroft

  1. I was in Downs Hall 1966-68 and remember Bill Cockcroft and Rhona running a very sensible and friendly ship, including one quite memorable Christmas (or was it NYE?) party in the Warden’s House with a number of Profs & other Lecturers and spouses as well as any students who had stayed over. We spent the afternoon preparing a vast bowl of punch so memories of the complete evening are quite sketchy. I do remember dancing a lot. Hall funds were regularly replenished by standard fines for various offences – water fights between blocks was a common one. The block carpets shrank so much that consultants were called in and blamed the central heating. Everyone knew better. When fining you for offences, Bill would offer a cuppa or a beer, depending on the time of day, and settle down for a good chat too.


  2. I remenber Prof. Cockcroft because he was part of the reason I came to Hull University (Geography 1964-67). He was the guest speaker at our school (Sunbury Grammar School) presentation day in, I suppose, 1962 or 1963. I can’t remember what he was talking about, but it impressed me enough to apply to Hull!


  3. I was reminded by Roy Seddon,who also studied for a joint maths degree,of Professor Cockcroft’s welcoming talk when we entered Hull in 1964.
    He warned of the dangers of spending too much time in the Buttery.’Many a good degree has been thrown away there!’
    Bill Bailey

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the memories concerning Prof Cockcroft. I too had happy memories of him particularly discussion of some Complex Variable questions! I was a year earlier than Bill being there from 1963 to 1967 and then joined the recently promoted Heriot-Watt University.


  5. I was a Joint Honours student 1969-1972 Prof Cockcroft’s lectures were the best! I remember many of the Staff mentioned, too! However my story is more personal and shows what an absolutely amazing man he was. I failed my finals. My friends went to Prof Land and demanded he keep my PGCE place available for the following year! They also went to see Prof. Why not me? I had gone home to Germany. Cockcroft told my friends that I was to return to Hull and go and see him. So, of course, I did. He had a proposal for me. I was to go to Aysgarth School and teach for a term. It was the prep school his sons attended. Then I was to return to Hull for 2 terms and go to lectures with the intent of taking a Pass degree in the summer. He said that my Dad would pay as I wouldn’t be eligible for a grant. I agreed! There wasn’t any option not to! I turned up at Aysgarth. On the day the pupils returned Prof Cockcroft came and found me to make sure all was going okay. A very kind man! I taught his younger son that term! At the end of term I was paid £200! I returned to Hull in January and did as told! I took the exams in the summer and got my degree. I was the only repeater who did! My tutor had great delight in telling me that, had I been taking an Honours Degree I would have got a 2:1! We all did the same papers. I then returned and did my PGCE! A year later I was on holiday in South Wales with my family when my Father and I went into a local beach shop and Prof Cockcroft was there! After I introduced them my Father tried to thank the Prof for everything, Prof said he may have presented an opportunity but I was the one who made it work! A great man in so many ways.

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    1. Thank you for this lovely story, Sarah. It shows another side to Professor Cockcroft’s story and is certainly a nice way to remember him.


    2. What a wonderful story.
      Did you follow a teaching career after your initial experience?
      It is a pity I was unaware of you experience because it would have been included in my tribute.
      If you would like a hard copy of the tribute which has been produced as a little booklet
      just contact by email with your address.

      Bill Bailey


      1. Yes please! Yes I taught from 1974 through to 2011. With a 5 year gap while our boys were young. I came from a private school, army child background, and wasn’t convinced about teaching in the State system! I think my background contributed to Prof Cockcroft choosing me to teach at Aysgarth. As he said I would understand the system! I think the Headmaster had approached him for a recommendation. Lucky me! Especially as I hadn’t graduated at that point! My first post was a Bluecoat prep school in Birmingham where I met my husband. When he moved on to a secondary school I followed! From 1978 I taught in state secondary schools and it was good. Never boring, never dull and full of surprises. However the increase in bureaucracy and record keeping made me happy to retire! I loved teaching and endured the rest but would think twice about starting in teaching now! Since 2011 we have travelled even more including our own 3 month Round the World trip! I was incredibly lucky to have such a mentor as Prof Cockcroft and am still so grateful for all he did.


  6. Thank you! On top of this, when I started applying for teaching posts, I asked Prof Cockcroft if he would be willing to give me a reference? No problem, of course he would! I had 3 interviews over the next 20 years or so, every time the conversation would get round to how did I know him? I got all 3 jobs! I loved the piece in the article about his theories on interviews! I, too, was not interviewed for my place at Hull. I didn’t get the required grades but I certainly got the place! Hull was recommended to me by 2 Maths lecturers at Warwick University who were friends of an Aunt. Once at Hull I realised they were also friends of Cockcroft! Hull was lauded as a place that looked after its students. I am proof of that!


  7. Hi Les
    I was in C block at Downs from 1965 when it opened until 1968. I can recall your name but can’t put a face to it. Which block were you in and what were you studying? Your comments re Bill & Rhona are spot on. They were lovely people even allowing me to stay with them when I returned to Hull for three months in 1969. The water fights were huge. In one particularly memorable one Bill was unwise enough to come into the block and promptly had a bin of water thrown over him. He took it in good stead and remarkably I never had a fine.
    Bob Ashton


    1. I was on the middle floor of C Block. First year sharing a double with Keith Findlay, then the next year in a single.


  8. I was looking up information about Sir Bill and Lady Vivien Cockcroft who were great friends of my husband and myself from 1980-1991. I was not an academic but we used to stay with them and sometimes looked after their house and cats when they went away.
    Bill and I often cooked together as we sipped wine, he being a big man wearing an enormous blue apron. We were staying at their house with Vivien before and after Bill died, memories of sad and wonderful times!
    We lost touch with Vivien when she moved to Cornwall and we went to live in France.


    1. I was pleased to receive your response.

      You are welcome to hard copy of my tribute from which the entry on the alumni website was derived.If you would like me to send a copy then let me know your address and its way.

      You are right he was a giant of a man and quite guileless.He always related to his students offering them enthusiastic engouragement.

      Obviously we both have happy memories of him.

      Bill Bailey


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