Lord Chorley obituary

Chairman of the National Trust during the debate over whether stag hunting should continue on its land

Roger Chorley, Lord Chorley, who has died aged 85, took over the chair of the National Trust in 1991 at the most strife-ridden period in its history. He was by profession an accountant but by background and temperament a politician and committee man who could smooth over dissension and get decisions. Hence, perhaps, his appointment at the height of the controversy over whether the National Trust should continue to allow its land to be used for stag hunting.

From the start, he set his face against impetuous decisions. The charity’s 1990 annual meeting, said to have been packed by a minority faction, had voted to end stag hunting on National Trust land, but Chorley set up a two-year working party. “This is not a delaying tactic or pussyfooting around,” he said. A ban was the emotional response, when what was needed was a study of what the ban would mean to the herd of deer.

Not a hunter himself, Chorley acknowledged the view that the red deer population in the West Country was preserved only because of hunting. If it were banned, farmers would destroy the animals within three to five years because of the damage they caused. The trust’s job was conservation, to preserve a healthy and viable deer herd. The working party’s job would be to advise on how best to do that; the immediate upshot was that a vote in 1993 saw off the anti-hunting lobby, on the basis that the issue was for Parliament to decide rather than the trust, though it has remained a matter of contention and changing policy since.

Chorley was a lifelong environmentalist, especially interested in the role of geography and the geographer in increasing understanding of the environment and also the development of environmental economics – a fusion of his professional skills as an accountant and his passion as an environmentalist. He chaired the government’s inquiry into the handling of geographic information (1985-87) and was a member of the Natural Environment Research Council (1988-94).

He was the second Lord Chorley. The title was created in 1945 for his father, Robert Chorley, an academic lawyer who stood for parliament in the 1945 general election. The landslide of successful Labour candidates did not include him, and Clement Attlee shrewdly sent him to the Lords where his far-left opinions did not rely on election and where he posed a lesser threat of embarrassment.

Roger Chorley had a different personal style, sitting as an independent on the cross-benches of the House of Lords when he succeeded his father in 1978, though he shared his father’s passion for mountaineering and nature – the first Lord Chorley had served for 45 years on the National Trust’s executive committee. His son served for more than 20 years on its finance committee before becoming chairman.

From Stowe school, Roger Chorley went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he became president of the Cambridge University mountaineering club. At 23 he went on an expedition to the Himalayas and at 26, a year after a friend with whom he was climbing in the Alps was killed, to Nepal. He was climbing in the Himalayas when he was paralysed in both legs. It was polio, and he climbed no more, though he loved to visit mountains and was honorary secretary of the Climbers’ Club (1963-67), a member of the management committee of the Mount Everest Foundation (1968-70) and president of the Alpine Club (1983-85).

He joined Cooper Brothers & Company, later Coopers & Lybrand, in 1955, manned its New York office for a year from 1959 and worked in Pakistan on the Indus basin project in 1961, before becoming a partner (1967-89). Internationalist in attitude, he was sought out for his committee skills by organisations as various as the National Board for Prices and Incomes, for which he was accountancy adviser; the Royal Commission on the Press (1974-77); the Ordnance Survey Review Committee (1978-79); the British Council (from 1981); the House of Lords select committee on science and technology (for periods between 1983 and 2007); the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was president (1987-90); and the board of the National Theatre, from 1980.

Following reforms to the House of Lords, he was one of the hereditary peers elected to remain as working peers, and served from 2001 until 2014, when he retired.

He is survived by his wife, Ann (nee Debenham), whom he married in 1964, and their two sons, Nicholas and Robert, and four grandchildren.
Dennis Barker

Hella Pick writes: Roger Chorley and I were childhood friends. My mother, newly arrived in Britain in 1939 as a refugee from Austria and obliged to earn her living, had become the Chorleys’ family cook. We all spent August 1939 in their holiday home in the Lake District. This led to close and enduring friendships.

The Lake District remained the backdrop to Roger’s love of mountaineering, to his concerns for the environment, and to his lifelong commitment to the National Trust. He always maintained a home in the Hawkshead area, and though polio had ended his climbing ambitions, he continued to walk on the Cumbrian fells. As his legs weakened, he still managed until fairly recently to hobble around his beloved Tarn Hows. He formed close friendships with mountaineers and applied his considerable powers of low-key diplomacy to the often complex politics of the climbing fraternity.

In his later life Roger also established himself as a peer who brought sound judgment, experience, commitment and sheer hard work to the multitude of tasks he undertook in the upper chamber. He led an inquiry into the handling of GIS (geographic information systems) and his 1987 Chorley report remains a seminal work on the subject. It gave him enormous pleasure when he was elected by his fellow hereditaries to become a working peer after the House was reformed in 1999.

Roger had a low-key personality, and was not given to displays of emotions. His passions ran deep and he had many interests. He enjoyed theatre, classical music and travel, was deeply interested in architecture and taught himself to become a consummate photographer. Ruthless in weeding out second-best shots, he conserved the ones that passed muster in vellum-bound volumes that indexed his travels around the world and sat proudly in his Lake District home. Having served on the Royal Commission on the Press, he continued to follow the fate of the leading news organisations. But modern technology was one step too far for a man attuned to a slower culture. Computers and smartphones were for his much-loved children and grandchildren. He was a man for hard-copy newspapers, for books, for conversation and time for friends.

• Roger Richard Edward Chorley, Lord Chorley, accountant and environmentalist, born 14 August 1930; died 21 February 2016

Dennis Barker died in 2015

• This article was amended on 28 February to make it clear that the immediate result of the working party on hunting was a defeat for the anti-hunting lobby in 1993.


Dennis Barker and Hella Pick

The GuardianTramp

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