Rex Walford OBE
A tribute from Australian geography teachers

Rex WalfordRex Walford lost his life in a tragic accident on the River Thames on Sunday 2 January 2011. The news came as a shock to so many geography teachers in Australia from the 1970s and up to the present day, because with Rex the relationship was never just professional. With Rex the relationship was also personal and very caring.

On the cover page of Simulation in the Classroom, one of Rex’s books, is a quotation from a DH Lawrence poem:
There is no point in work, Unless it absorbs you,
Like an absorbing game.
If it doesn’t absorb you, It’s never any fun,
Don’t do it.

Rex Walford lived this philosophy in all his many endeavours.

Australian geography teachers first heard of Rex Walford through his book Games in Geography that came to Australia at the start of the 1970s. This, and his other writing about using games, signalled what Rex had to offer geography. His thinking would always be innovative and thought provoking but also based soundly on a rigorous approach to learning and teaching. Using games and simulation was not some quirky idea but was deeply based in a very thoughtful and challenging understanding of geography education. Now, four decades later, pedagogues are beginning to acknowledge what Rex and his devotees have long promoted. Games are engaging; they teach the curriculum in fun ways and people — young and not so young — love them.

In 1976 the AGTA Conference was held in Perth and the organisers very courageously found the money to invite the first international contributor to an AGTA Conference and they invited Rex Walford. His contribution was outstanding. It demonstrated his deep approach to learning and teaching in geography and the quiet way he challenged and provoked us to rethink what we were doing. This impish, humorous and thought provoking man made a unique impact on so many people. Following the conference he travelled to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and in his workshops continued to challenge us in his approaches. Simulation and gaming was just one manifestation of the way his enquiring mind found means to involve young people in geography learning.

He also began to show us his many sided nature. He loved cricket and in each capital city had to be taken to the major ground to see a game. His encyclopaedic knowledge of cricket astounded us. And as our knowledge of Rex as a person developed, we became aware he was interested and highly skilled in so many things — drama, theatre, music, theology, sport and life in all its manifestations. In every area he excelled and made an enormous contribution. His collection of dinky cars and fine motorcycles just shows the wide range of his interests. As his GA Presidential Address demonstrated, to Rex, geography was connected with so many things in life and Rex’s multi-faceted life was a true example of this.

In 1996 Rex returned to Australia and was involved in the AGTA Conference in Perth. His contribution to the conference was based around a new simulation of human life that he had constructed. But he also spoke informally about the curriculum struggles that the geography community was involved with in UK and in which he played a leading role. His analysis of this was very significant for developments in Australia. He then toured across the other states, this time with Wendy, his wife.

From the beginning of the 1970s Rex played a leading role in geography education in UK always developing innovative and rigorous ideas in classroom teaching and learning, teacher training and curriculum. So many of the present geography education leaders in England testify to his contribution to their commitment to geography. The Charney Manor conferences, begun by Rex in 1970, were exciting celebrations of new ideas in geography teaching. In the area of curriculum Rex was deeply involved in the campaign to develop National Geography Curriculum and have it included in the English National Curriculum. From 1983–1984 he was President of the English Geographical Association and was, for a number of years, Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society. He was still, at his death, a member of the RGS Education Committee. He also led the 3rd British land use project in which school children across the country were deeply involved in field studies. For Rex, the spirit of the ‘game of geography’ was at the core of his beliefs. Deeply spiritual and connected to the English landscape, his talents coalesced with fieldwork and simulations of real world events. The name, Rex Walford, turns up in so many places — school governors, government education committees, drama and music festivals, to name but a few — and in each case he was always so much more than a seat-filler. In 2000 he was awarded an OBE for services to Geographical Scholarship.

His 'retirement' from the University of Cambridge in 1999 provided him with the time to write a history of Geography in British Schools from 1850–2000, a thought provoking analysis of the changes that have occurred in geography classrooms that has close parallels with Australian geography teaching. As Professor David Lambert, the CEO of the Geographical Association, points out, its subtitle — “Making a World of Difference”— is an appropriate summary of a remarkably full life. He also found time to complete a Ph.D. on the role of the Christian churches in suburban London in relation to the poor.

David Lambert, has written — “Everyone who met Rex knew very quickly they were in the company of an extraordinary man. He had a huge heart, boundless curiosity, sharp intelligence and above all commitment and enthusiasm which was infectious and mobilising. He is an enormous loss to the world of geography education.”

At the recent AGTA Conference in Adelaide, Barrie McElroy and Roger Smith spoke about Rex following the presentation by Dr Rita Gardner from the Royal Geographical Society in U.K. who had dedicated her presentation to Rex.

The following websites contain tributes and a link to the most significant GA Presidential Address by Rex — “Geography and the Future”. — contains the link to the presidential address.

Bill Stringer prepared this tribute with contributions from Barrie McElroy, Margaret Robertson and Roger Smith.