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David Hilling obituary | World news

My colleague David Hilling, who has died aged 85, was a geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London, with a particular interest in maritime transport, port development and inland shipping: throughout his career he contributed to attempts to revive freight waterways in Britain.

David was born in Eastbourne, East Sussex, the son of Jessie (nee Hobbs) and William Hilling. His father’s job with Thomas Cook took the family to Bristol, where David soon became interested in ports and freight handling. He went to secondary school first in Tredegar in Gwent, before moving to Kingswood grammar in Bristol.

He studied geography at Aberystwyth University, specialising in port development, and graduated in 1957; he obtained a PhD in 1974. From 1961 to 1966 he taught at the University of Ghana, in Accra; this underlay his later books Africa: Geography and Development (1988, co-written with Alan Mountjoy) and Transport and Developing Countries (1996).

From 1966 he taught geography at Bedford College, London. David’s research and publications helped to enlarge the field of transport geography, then in early development. He was acting head of department when Bedford College merged with Royal Holloway and moved to Egham, Surrey in 1985. After retirement in 1996, he was made an honorary research fellow.

In 1974 David joined the Inland Shipping Group of the Inland Waterways Association, a small expert pressure group of carriers, academics and enthusiasts formed by the canal historian Charles Hadfield in 1971-72. The IWA itself was predominantly concerned with promoting canal development for leisure use – narrowboats on small waterways – but the Inland Shipping Group (now the Inland Waterways Freight Group) studied and campaigned for a modernised, competitive approach to waterways traffic, including modern vessels and handling, to encourage the development of freight.

He was to chair the group; at meetings, his contributions were careful and realistic, his chairing courteous but firm. When some enthusiasts drifted into lengthy digressions on waterway details, he gently moved them along with the slightest raise of an eyebrow. Outside meetings, he was serious in encouraging learning but good and amusing company. In 1977 he published Barge Carrier Systems – Inventory and Prospects, detailing recent developments in shipping technology that allowed inland waterway barges to be transported across open seas, including LASH (lighter aboard ship) systems and BACAT (barge aboard catamaran) vessels. He was disappointed, but sanguine, when these proved a relative failure.

He served on the Freight Study Group, set up in 2000 by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and then joined the freight promotion group Sea and Water. He was involved in the Commercial Boat Operators Association, becoming vice president in 2019. He was made MBE in 2004 for services to inland waterways.

In 1962 he married Wendy Hubbard, whom he had met the previous year at the University of Ghana, where she was teaching English. She survives him, along with their sons, Christopher and Hugh.

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