Arthur Fredrick Whillock 1912 - 2006

[ Roger J Parsons 2006]

(Roger Parsons is Arthur Whillock's son in law. He has been married to Arthur's daughter, Anne, for 34 years. A Zoologist, specializing in Tropical Agriculture, he is now teaching Science in Lincolnshire.)


I first met Arthur in 1971, the year his daughter Christine married. Actually, it was the very day before Christine married John, and I slept that night on the floor of Arthur's study. It was typical of the extended Whillock family to take an unexpected guest under their wing and show the best of hospitality, even on the eve of a daughter's wedding.

Arthur's extraordinary range of interests was immediately discernable from the contents of his study. Books on science and mathematics rubbed shoulders with philosophy and politics. Over the years I was to discover more of Arthur's interests and qualities. He would introduce me to circular chess, base twelve logarithms and slide rules, barleycorns as a datum for early measurement, and the story of the well that went dry when the privy was replaced by a flush toilet. A keen bird watcher, we shared a fascination for natural history. A visit to Moulsford in later years gave us an opportunity to enjoy the local red kites.

We both enjoyed making home brews and there were often strange bottles of fermenting liquids at work under the kitchen table. Arthur liked to share these, but he was never a seasoned drinker. After Anne and I married, he and Ruby came up to stay at Christmas. Arthur and I were over-lavishly entertained with tumblers of spirits by Dennis Welstead, our landlord at Shudy Camps Park. I recall our unsteady return home, with Arthur leaning against me for support, saying "Don't tell Ruby!"

Arthur professed no religious belief, yet he was fascinated by the human quest for spiritual experience. His library included literature ranging from Helena Blavatsky to Immanuel Velikovsky, from Lenin to Carl Sagan. We shared an interest in science fiction, especially the work of Robert A. Henlein, with its rich vein of imaginative scientific and political thinking.

Any mathematical or numerological reference was pounced upon and considered. He was especially pleased to discover a quotation or a paradox that captured a point with clarity, irony and humour.

A treasured gift from Arthur was Friedrich Engels' "Dialectics of Nature", which attempts, rather laboriously, to squeeze the natural sciences into a Marxist-Leninist framework. But that was typical of Arthur's approach, you never needed to subscribe to a particular view, you just had to extract the relevant 'juice' of the idea.

Arthur was one of the great recyclers. He hated to see anything going to waste. The throw-away society offended every fibre of his being, and he was always on the lookout for useful materials he could salvage and re-use. I recall teaching a science class in Cambridgeshire when Arthur arrived unannounced. I did not know he was in the area, and how he found my laboratory I can not imagine. I saw the eyes of my pupils move to the opening door as Arthur entered, laden down with armfuls of old electric wiring. He dumped this load on my desk with the remark that he hoped I would find it useful, and disappeared off to wherever he was going. The pupils watched his departure open-mouthed.

When he visited Lincoln Cathedral, he poured over maps of the building, concluding that it had been built using "the French Foot" as the basic unit of measurement. His interest in measurement, and in particular the history of units of measurement, was profound, and a real eye opener to me.

But he was equally at home on trek in West Africa, meeting the people of Misera to discuss the problem of erosion of a causeway. He was pleased that the local board game was played using a 12 hole system, and dozenal ideas permeated many of our conversations.

Arthur's taste in music was equally eclectic, from Segovia to a song about "The very fat man who waters the workers' beer".

Even music provided an opportunity to look for patterns in nature, and underlying systems that suggested the practical virtues of base twelve. He loved to find order and to discover that nature was getting it right when humans were getting it so wrong. In his final weeks in Lincolnshire we were chatting about modelling patterns of seed germination in pyramidal orchids, and what ratios might account for the way they minimized competition and maximised their use of light.

Arthur's association with The Dozenal Society of Great Britain lasted for many years.

His deep understanding of the origin and history of practical measurement [he was a founder of the British Weights and Measures Association] gave him a special insight into the issues. As a scientist and a practical engineer, he knew from hard-won experience that Base 10 metric units were not necessarily appropriate for human tasks.

Brian Bishop wrote of him: "He contributed much to the Duodecimal/ Dozenal Society of Great Britain (which I had founded) and he was highly esteemed also by the Duodecimal Society of America. In what some people think as a tiny area of activity, but which we, and he, see as important, he was full of innovative and practical ideas."

Shaun Ferguson commented: "Arthur took over the job of Secretary ("bloke in charge" would be a better title) when Don Hammond died in 1993. He's always been the Information Secretary - as far back as I can remember. I took over the Secretary/Editor job from Brian Bishop in the sixties."

Up to a few weeks before his death Arthur returned to the discussion of dozenal matters, and the need for the British and American organisations to focus on the common ground of the major issues of Base 12 mathematics. His view was that much time could be wasted on debating minor matters, when the aim should be to promote the overall case for Base 12 in a clear way.

His conviction was that the artificial conventions and mathematical convenience of the Metric System would never improve upon the user-friendly systems on which Imperial Units were based. These all were centered on human need and human experience, and had evolved to suit human tasks. To him the Metric System represented a debasing of measurement, an act of mathematical vandalism by those in power who should have known better; easier to calculate, perhaps, but less convenient for practical people. Having worked with a blacksmith, I understand this point very well. To him, the old measurements were as much a part of our national heritage as our language, music, literature, historic buildings, archaeological sites and landscape.

Few people bring together an intellect such as Arthur's with the range of practical skills which he commanded. He could fathom how most things worked and usually could find a way in which they could be improved. The only weak point in all this was time, for there never was enough time to do everything that needed doing or improve everything that needed improving. Eventually time ran out for Arthur, who up to the last was thinking about his writing and many other tasks he had on his list of 'things to do'.

Near the end he said to me: "The only thing I can do is to put myself into neutral". Within a fortnight he was gone. But he leaves behind, in all who met him, a picture of a man true to himself; practical yet intellectual; frugal yet generous; retiring yet anxious to communicate his ideas; modest yet held in respect and affection by all that knew him. I shall miss him, and expect to find myself wishing that he were here to share an interesting quotation or debate, and already I can hear myself saying to Anne, "Arthur would have enjoyed that".

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