Obituary: Jack Tunnicliffe, former mining engineer

Jonathan Frederick Tunnicliffe, who has died at 92, spent his working life as a mining engineer at pits in Yorkshire before turning to academia as a professor at two universities.

Jack Tunnicliffe
Jack Tunnicliffe

Jonathan Frederick Tunnicliffe, who has died at 92, spent his working life as a mining engineer at pits in Yorkshire before turning to academia as a professor at two universities.

His final appointment with the British Coal Board was as general manager at the newly opened Selby Coalfield in 1981, having risen from underground working as a trainee through the management ranks to become responsible for the collieries at Gascoigne Wood, Wistow and Stillingfleet. Shortly after the opening of Wistow he had the honour of accompanying the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, during a visit to the pit.

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His vast knowledge of the industry, and contribution to it, were recognised over the years with many awards, including for his particular interest in the development of young engineers. He saw it as giving something back to an industry which had given him so much for nearly 40 years, and with which he was still associated when he died.

He was heavily involved in both the Midland and National Institutes of Mining Engineers, being variously honorary secretary, president and treasurer of the Midland Institute between 1974 and 1992, awarded Honorary Fellowship in 2021. He was National President from 1987-1988.

The earliest example of his commitment to the development of young people came in 1978 when he instituted the JF Tunnicliffe competition to encourage junior members in public speaking, by delivering a presentation on a topic within the mining and minerals industry. This has since been combined with the CS Littlewood award, part of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining Young Persons’ Lecture Competition.

Known as Jack to his family and wide circle of friends, and John to his mining colleagues, he was a perfect gentleman with a dry wit and a genuine interest in people, always quick to make them feel at ease.

He was born in Grassmoor near Chesterfield, the only son of William Frederick and Doris (nee Thompson) Tunnicliffe. His father also started at the coal face before becoming a colliery manager.

Jack was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School then, from the age of 14, at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, after the family moved to Castleford. It was there that he first shone at sport which played a great part in his life. He was captain of cricket for three years, of athletics for two years and was also vice-captain of the rugby team. He played rugby for Sandal, but after injury forced him to retire he played cricket for Paton and Baldwins – now Wakefield Thornes – from 1952 to 1966 as a left hand batsman and wicketkeeper, and also captained the first Xl.

He graduated from Leeds University in 1954 with a BSc Honours degree in mining engineering having also been awarded the ICI Mining Prize, and joined the National Coal Board as a management trainee. He initially worked underground as an under manager, then as colliery manager at Snydale, near Featherstone, Newmarket Silkstone Colliery, as general manager at the Prince of Wales Colliery, Pontefract, and at Lofthouse before going to Selby. In 1982 he left mining to become Milburn Professor of Mining Engineering at Newcastle University. When that closed nine years later he moved to his former alma mater of Leeds in a similar role, becoming Emeritus Professor when he retired in 1991.

He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1989. From 1995 to 2013 he was chairman of the Headstart Board which monitored a course for students with good O-levels results interested in an engineering career.

In 2020, he was presented with the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining Outstanding Contribution Award in recognition of his contribution to the Institute’s core activities.

The last recognition of his service, sponsored by the Midland and North of England Institutes, was the creation of the John F Tunnicliffe medal presented annually to an outstanding young engineer. The first was awarded last November a few weeks before he died.

In 1951 he married Barbara Richardson, who he had known from their schooldays, but who predeceased him in 2016. He is survived by his children William, Sue, Anne and Jonathan, eight grandsons, a granddaughter, six great grandsons and two great-granddaughters.