My friend Eric Beak, who has died aged 84, was Cheshire county council’s first health and safety officer. In retirement he became a dedicated youth worker much loved by a generation of young people.
Born in West Ham, east London, Eric was the son of Ellen (nee Connor), a seamstress, and Herbert Beak. In the early years of the second world war the family moved to Wallasey, Merseyside, where Herbert, who worked for Spillers, the flour merchant, was appointed foreman at the Birkenhead docks, a fortuitous move as their London house was destroyed by the Luftwaffe two days after they moved. The family returned south after the war, to Welling, where Eric attended Dartford grammar school for boys. The girls’ grammar was next door; at the boundary between the two schools he got to know Angela Tilyard. They married in 1962.
Eric qualified as a chartered electrical engineer at Woolwich Polytechnic with an apprenticeship at Vickers Armstrong and work at AEI Ltd. He held training posts with the Food, Drink and Tobacco Industry Training Board, and with Bicc in Wrexham from 1967, before becoming staff tutor in the training section of Cheshire county council in 1973.
The family, by then including two daughters, settled in south-west Cheshire, first in Tattenhall and from 1979 in Malpas, where he and Angela were to live for the rest of their lives. Eric was appointed Cheshire’s first chief safety officer in 1978 – just as waste disposal environmental hazards, alcohol and drug addictions, and “mad cow disease” became public concerns. His survey on the extent of violence to council staff received regional and national attention, among the first to focus on this new threat to occupational health and safety.
As a parish councillor, Eric became the driving force behind the creation of the Malpas young persons’ parish council in 1997. He believed strongly that young people should be heard. A new, purpose-built youth centre opened in 2003 after a six-year fundraising mission spearheaded by the youth council, which was also involved in the design. When Eric became a full-time voluntary youth worker in 2003, his tolerance and understanding of young people influenced all who worked alongside him. His capacity for justice and forgiveness in equal measure defined the man. No matter how difficult their behaviour, Eric would say to those youths he had to reprimand, “Despite everything, I do like you,” and they knew he meant it.
Many young people – some quite troubled – were sustained through their adolescence by his belief in them. Once, when he and I were running the youth centre stall at the town fair, a young man and his girlfriend strolled over to talk to us. He had been unruly and aggressive when attending the centre but here we were engaged in friendly conversation. As the young man turned to leave, he pointed to Eric and said to his girlfriend: “I want you to know that this is the man who saved me.”
Angela died in 2020. Eric is survived by two daughters and five grandchildren.