BERNARD WINCHESTER pays tribute to a learned and much-admired teacher and stalwart of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society
It has been said that Paul Sowan was an unworldly man, and in a sense he was, as the commonplace passions for family, fame, status and money passed him by.
Paul Wenning Sowan, who has died aged 81, was for more than half a century one of the great characters of Croydon.
The force which dominated Paul’s life was his thirst for knowledge, a thirst which also drove him to impart what he learned to others.
He was known to thousands in the borough and beyond for his work in schools and learned societies, as the many fond tributes paid to him on social media by former pupils attest.
As a boy, he went to Selhurst Grammar School, and then, having obtained a degree from University of London in geology, chemistry and physics, he went on to teach those subjects himself at Norbury Manor and Shirley High schools.
In his youth, Paul was in many ways the pattern of a 1950s intellectual, being not only an industrious scholar, but socially concerned with an earnest desire to learn about and improve the world, expressed in his study walks and holidays and his vegetarianism.
His life as a campaigner began at this time, with him not only marching to Ban the Bomb, but also to save Croydon’s magnificent Davis Theatre after it closed in 1959, a crusade which came within a whisker of success, with the council vote hung on the issue. Unfortunately, the chairman sided with the Philistines and gave the casting vote to the demolition party.
Sowan remained a campaigner throughout his life, and his later causes benefited from the weight he could bring to bear through the authority of his acknowledged and often unique expertise: for example, he lived near Croham Hurst and his studies there over many years were instrumental in it being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSI.
Paul was horrified when, after the financial crisis of 2008, the council threatened to close not only most of the town’s libraries but also its archive, a place particularly dear to his heart. Fortunately this campaign, in which he played an important role, also succeeded.
Paul’s involvement with learned societies, of which he once startlingly declared that he belonged to more than 300, also began at a young age.
He joined the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in 1960 when he was only 20. The CNHSS is Croydon’s longest-established society, and Paul had intended to participate in its 150th anniversary celebrations planned for 2020, but called off due to covid-19.
The Society embraced Paul’s interests in industrial archaeology and local history, and not being shy of responsibility, he was elected CNHSS secretary in 1963, made a director upon its incorporation in 1967 and was President twice, as well as Honorary General Secretary, Company Secretary and permanent Honorary Librarian and Archivist.
In the 1990s, Paul was in many ways the face of the CNHSS, chairing meetings and delivering countless talks and guided walks. He was such an accomplished lecturer that, in the event of a speaker being delayed or prevented from appearing, he could give an impromptu talk without notes at the drop of a hat. At a time when the media is dominated by current affairs, it was soothing to be able to sit back and hear Paul tell us calmly about the railways of the Betchworth chalk-pits, or some other curiously arcane, but intriguing, subject.
In the CNHSS’s obituary notice, they stated, “Many of our members and others remember Paul for his enthusiasm, his many talks and walks, his environmentalism, his generosity with his time and with his immense knowledge, as an interesting raconteur and as a convivial and genial companion.”
His local history knowledge was exceptional: once, for instance, he regaled his audience with an extempore of a visit in 1895 by Whitgift schoolboys to the town’s new gasworks. When asked how he knew about it, he replied nonchalantly, “From reading The Whitgiftian”, as if perusing century-old school magazines was the most natural pursuit in the world.
The loss of such detailed knowledge of the past is particularly grievous to Croydon, where it was not without practical significance. Developers of housing estates, for instance, could ask Paul whether the land they wished to use might be toxic due to past, and perhaps forgotten, industrial use, or whether the geology or tunnelling might cause subsidence.
One of the interests which took Paul out of Croydon into Surrey and then into the whole of Britain and Europe was in fact his fascination for underground man-made structures. He knew all the local mines, of which there is a considerable number, and with Subterranea Britannica, of which he was chairman for almost a quarter of a century, he explored many strange places. He said that he had a gas mask hanging in his toilet which was given to him when he visited a disused East German nuclear bunker.
When travelling anywhere, even Scandinavia and the Ukraine, Sowan always went by rail. His innate concern for the environment led him, ahead of his time, to avoid the combustion engine, whether in car, coach or plane.
Similarly, he disliked consumerism, and lived a simple life, with no email or even television.
Nevertheless, he could be a convivial and genial companion, and his many industrial archaeology walks generally ended in a pub, conversing over a friendly drink and meal.
One of his favourite subjects was Reigate Stone, his knowledge of which resulted in him being consulted about its use in buildings as historic as Westminster Abbey.
Paul was as much part of Croydon as the Reigate Stone used in the archway to the Minster. It is hard to imagine the town without him.
- Paul Wenning Sowan Bsc FRGS FGS FLS, April 1940 to June 4, 2021. He is survived by his brother, Adam
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