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Walter Purvis Smith: mapping pioneer who led Ordnance Survey

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Walter Purvis Smith with his wife Bettie
Walter Purvis Smith with his wife Bettie

TRIBUTES have been paid to Walter Purvis Smith, a mapping pioneer who became the first non-military Ordnance Survey director general in its 200-year history, who is being remembered at a thanksgiving service.

The service for Mr Smith, who died in December aged 98, will be held at St Michael's Church, Lyndhurst, at midday on Tuesday 26th February.

He lived in the village for 40 years with his wife Bettie, the childhood sweetheart he married in 1946. She died in 2011. The couple left son Geoff and daughter Barbara, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Born in 1920 in a small colliery village in County Durham, Walter won a scholarship to Oxford, took an active role with his surveying talents in the Second World War and had a distinguished professional career as a land surveyor, going on to lead major organisations in the private, public and military sectors.

Having initially enlisted in an artillery regiment at the start of the war, his geography professor Kenneth Mason, previously Surveyor General of India, insisted that he join the survey branch of the Royal Engineers.

After helping map the Normandy beaches, for which he was awarded the Commander-in-Chief’s Certificate, Walter took part in the D-Day landings as second in command of the 519 Field Survey Company advancing into Germany.

In 1945 he was made an MBE for “gallant and meritorious services, carrying out work with exceptional ability, regularly occupying exposed positions in forward areas with no regard for personal danger”.

He also had the sobering experience of seeing the notorious Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated, an episode that made him question an earlier thought of joining the church.

After VE Day he joined the Control Commission for Germany. He was demobilised in 1946 and a month later married Bettie.

Joining the newly-formed Directorate of Colonial Surveys, he was sent to the Gold Coast (nowGhana) to lead its first team to map the Volta Basin, and then to Nyasaland (Malawi) to reconnoitre a 500-mile long triangulation chain to southern Tanganyika (Tanzania).

After four years in the bush without his wife, Walter left the directorate in 1950 and spent the next 24 years in the private sector with Fairey Surveys, an air survey company.

He and his family lived in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) for several years while he was surveying the Kariba Dam project, before returning to the UK in 1954 as joint managing director.

He was responsible for international mapping projects in Africa, Asia, India and the Middle East, using their fleet of wartime Dakotas flying out of White Waltham. But possibly the highest profile job was surveying the disputed border between Argentina and Chile in 1965.

Also serving in the Territorial Army, in 1957 Walter took command of the 135 Survey Regiment (TA) as Lieutenant-Colonel and was made an OBE in 1961 because of his “selfless efforts and outstanding leadership through a critical period against very considerable odds”.

In 1975 he moved on from Fairey Surveys to take on the role of United Nations Advisor, Surveys and Mapping, based in New York. Son Geoffrey said: “He found the politics complex but supervised multi-national teams involved in economic development projects worldwide.”

Then in 1977 Walter was invited to join the Ordnance Survey (OS) as its first civilian director general after 200 years of military management, and was immediately involved in the preparation of a major review that enabled him to incorporate his own vision for the future.

Despite the unease created by a lack of government funding and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s drive for privatisation, Walter expanded commercial map publishing activities and pushed hard for the continuing digitisation of the OS assets.

In 1981 he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, and in 1986 awarded the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) Gold Medal.

His medal citation states: “He did much to modernise and improve the technical excellence of its mapping methods, and it is greatly to his credit and leadership that the morale and efficiency of the organisation is now so high.”

Geoffrey said: “Throughout his professional life he was supported by Bettie, and they both thoroughly enjoyed retirement in the New Forest. They both loved hiking in the UK, the Alps and the Pyrenees and often holidayed in France. Walter had always been very musical and was a member of various choral societies.

“Despite his numerous achievements, by nature Walter was very modest and developed strong friendships with people of all races, creeds and backgrounds.

“One of Walter’s successors as director general, Ordnance Survey, said of his life: ‘In his quiet and thoughtful way Walter was one of the most inspirational people I have known. I frequently sought his advice, which was cheerfully given and always wise. His life was well-lived and full of achievement.’”

Any enquiries concerning the thanksgiving service should be made to Maria Jones Funeral Directors in Brockenhurst.

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