Geography 50

Challenges, Changes and Achievements – celebrating 50 years of geography at the University of Plymouth (PDF)

Behind the book

When Professor Mark Brayshay, Emeritus Professor, was first asked by his former colleague Professor Jon Shaw if he would be prepared to compile a history of Plymouth Geography, he had little idea how challenging it would prove.
Mark, who was a member of the department from 1975 until 2015, already had a great deal of material and memorabilia when he began the task in 2017. He would soon discover, however, just how much further research and interviewing would be required in order to gather the complete story.

“As a historical geographer, archival research has always been my 'bread and butter', but this project was certainly a challenge,” he said. “No single archive of information about Geography at Plymouth exists, and it was therefore necessary to piece the story together by reassembling the evidence that was needed wherever I could find it.”
Mark scoured the Registry records for several months because he wanted to include the names of every student who had graduated – a task he achieved with the exception of some of those who took a combined honours degree with Geography as their minor. He also used both the University Library and the British Library to research and record the thesis titles of all higher degree students.

“One of the particular and enduring hallmarks of Geography at Plymouth is that everyone is valued, staff and students.

“Everyone counts, and that has been a major motivating imperative for me with the book, and making it as inclusive as possible.” 
Despite the task faced by Mark, and some of the hard choices he had to make in terms of what would be omitted from the book, it proved to be a hugely rewarding experience – not least the chance to catch up with a number of former colleagues through the interviewing he conducted. And it has left Mark with a new appreciation of the legacy of the department.

“Geography has made an immense contribution, in all kinds of ways, to the great success of the institution since 1969.

“Finding out more about the impressive record of so many Plymouth geography graduates has powerfully confirmed for me just how worthwhile it has been to offer courses in the discipline for five decades, and to contribute to knowledge by undertaking research in our field.

“The stellar careers pursued by some staff perhaps also indicates another dimension of the contribution made by Plymouth in shaping 'great futures'. Moreover, the need for well-educated geographers in today's world has not in any way diminished; indeed, as modern society attempts to confront unprecedented challenges and threats, the particular expertise and approach of geographers is more relevant and more important than ever.” 

Looking back on 50 years of geography

The autumn of 1969. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidshoots its way into cinemas, Monty Python silly walks onto British TV screens, The Beatles release Abbey Road, and Vietnam rumbles on amid howls of protest.
The end of the 60s may have marked the end of a cultural era, but it also signified the dawn of a geographic legacy in Plymouth that still thrives today.

Facts and figures

  • From 1969 to 2019, there have been 90 full-time Plymouth geography academic staff.

  • 12 of our scholars have come from overseas: Australia, The Netherlands, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, and South Africa.

  • In 1969, there were no designated geography laboratories or classrooms of its own. Among the early spaces used included the ‘Old Bakery’, a former catering space.

  • When the University installed an environmental simulation cabinet on the 8th floor of the Davy Building, it had to be manually hauled up 16 flights of stairs because it was too heavy for the lifts.

  • During the 70s and 80s, some geography students produced spoof publications that were an homage to particular members of staff and much-loved option courses. These included TansleyNews, issued by the biogeographers in 1977, and the Cossack Weekly by students undertaking the Communist World course.

  • In 1983, Geography procured its first APPLE desk computer with a store capacity of 48k and two disk drives, and a monitor capable of displaying results in colour.

  • In 1984, four members of staff were arrested in the former Yugoslavia when photographing potential sites for a planned new field trip. Their cameras were confiscated and only returned some days later (minus the film).

  • With great distinction, Plymouth hosted the prestigious Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in 2001.

  • Between 2000 and 2018, Geographers produced 1,051 academic publications (29 authored books; 30 edited books; 235 book chapters; and 757 refereed journal papers). In the same period, they secured a total research grant income of £16,028,231; and hosted 84 academic conferences in Plymouth and at other venues.

  • Nearly 5,000 students have graduated in geography in 50 years – two of whom went on to become Head of Geography later in their career.

  • A further 370 have secured postgraduate degrees.

  • When totalling all students to have been taught geography at the institution (including those for whom the subject was a minor or those on the environmental science degree) the figure rises to 8,985.

  • Since 1972, 49 technicians have held a post with Plymouth geography – of these, ten are Plymouth graduates.

  • For several years, the Western Ireland module for all the geography and earth sciences undergraduates was the largest residential field course offered by any British Isles university department.

Fifty years of geography research

The flourishing of a vibrant research culture in geography has been one of the defining stories of its 50-year journey.
Professor Ralph Fyfe, who provides strategic leadership on research in the school, picks out some of the key themes and areas that have emerged and defined geography at Plymouth, and influenced the wider discipline.
Geography 50