In Memoriam: Professor Gordon Woodman

Professor Gordon Woodman, who had been a member of the faculty at Birmingham Law School since 1976, died on 24 October 2017.

For all of that time, Gordon was an important and insightful presence in the School, and his final PhD student was awarded his doctorate in the days following Gordon’s death. Here, two former students of Gordon’s—Dr Gavin Byrne (Birmingham) and Professor Ambreena Manji (Cardiff)—offer their reflections on Gordon’s career and work. All in Birmingham Law School lament his passing, and offer their commiserations to his family.

Biography of Professor Gordon Woodman

Gordon Woodman went to Ghana in 1961 to work on his doctorate, which was on the subject of customary land law in Ghana. After completing it he became a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Ahmadu Bello University Nigeria for two years. Thereafter he returned to the University of Ghana as a lecturer, where he stayed until 1976, becoming an Associate Professor and editor of the University of Ghana Law Journal. He joined Birmingham in 1976. Since then, he frequently travelled and worked for periods of time in universities elsewhere, including New York University, the University of Papua New Guinea, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of the West Indies, the University of Mauritius, the University of Vienna, the International Islamic University Malaysia, and the University of Dar es Salaam.

Obituary for Professor Gordon Woodman

Professor Gordon Woodman passed away peacefully on the 24th October 2017.  He was eighty years old. 

Gordon was an immense figure in the life of Birmingham Law School. He was among the most influential and gifted academics in its lengthy and prestigious history.  His distinguished career began at the University of Cambridge where he read for a BA, an LLM, and a PhD.  He held lectureships at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria and the University of Ghana, before he joined Birmingham Law School in 1976.  He remained with us for the next forty-one years. A truly global scholar, he also held visiting positions at New York University, the University of Papua New Guinea, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of the West Indies, the University of Mauritius, the University of Vienna, the International Islamic University Malaysia, and the University of Dar es Salaam. He was also a consultant for governments, aid agencies, NGOs and the World Bank. He was President of the Commission on Folk Law and Legal Pluralism from 1984 to 1990, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law from 1994 to 2011.

Gordon amassed an array of much deserved and highly prestigious awards along the way.  In 2016 he was made a Member of The Order of the Volta, one of Ghana’s highest civilian awards. He was also awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Bayreuth and the University of Ghana. Throughout his career his academic output was so prolific and of such consistently high quality, that it is hard to pick out specific highlights. His interests were so varied and his range of expertise so broad as to defy summarization. His work on customary land law in Ghana remains particularly influential, including his book Customary Land Law in the Ghanaian Courts (1996). So too is his work on customary and comparative law more generally, including African Law and Legal Theory (1995) co-edited with A O Obilade, and Local Land Law and Globalization: A comparative study of peri-urban areas in Benin, Ghana and Tanzania (2004) co-edited with Ulrike Wanitzek and Harald Sippel. A rigorous scholar to the end, his final work, a co-edited collection titled The Trials and Triumphs of Teaching Legal Anthropology will be published posthumously by Routledge.

Gordon’s accolades and publications are immensely impressive, the manner in which they were achieved is even more so.   He was the most generous, gracious, and collegiate scholar imaginable. Even in his Emeritus years, he was among the most frequent attendees at research-related talks, papers, and discussion groups at Birmingham Law School. His contributions were, without fail, both constructive and insightful.  Colleagues within Birmingham Law School and far beyond have fond memories in particular of his unwavering support for young academics and new colleagues.

In many respects, Gordon may have seemed to younger colleagues and students as the avuncular epitome of the ‘old guard’ – a well-spoken and impeccably mannered English gentleman. But he was a true progressive and always way ahead of his time.  He was a considerate and inspirational mentor, long before these relationships were formalized. He was naturally both sensitive and inclusive, long before universities started to develop policies around these important issues. And he went zooming around Sub-Saharan West Africa in a Volkswagen Beetle, long before anyone thought of a ‘gap year’. The gravitas that he exuded masked the driest and readiest of wits. Although he had suffered from physical ill health for a period prior to his death, he was still as razor sharp and thoughtful as ever. Gordon was his inimitable, unique, and vastly intellectual self, right up until the end.

Countless leading academics, the world over, have thanked their lucky stars to have had Gordon Woodman as a teacher, a PhD supervisor or a co-author. It was an even greater privilege to have had been able to call this most intensely private man a friend. Gordon is survived by his wife Margaret, his children Daniel, Elaine, Patrick, Cheryl and Koby, his brother, Chris, and his beloved grandchildren. Our thoughts are with them at this sad time.

Dr Gavin Byrne, Birmingham Law School

Professor Gordon Woodman: A Remembrance

It was with great sadness that I heard the news of the death of Professor Gordon Woodman on 25th October 2017. Gordon was a cherished friend, my doctoral supervisor between 1995 and 1998 and a source of quiet support for over two decades.

Gordon was the best of supervisors. He was pleased that I intended to work on Tanzania and on land law and the first year of my doctorate was spent in a happy haze, sitting in a sunny window reading RW James and GM Fimbo on Land Law in Tanzania, Cory and Hartnoll on Customary Law, papers on legal pluralism and all the legal anthropology I could find, interrupted only by trips to see Gordon. ‘What have you been reading this week?’ he’d ask. He insisted on rigour. ‘Oh?’ he would say when you had finished talking. Then silence. Gordon was unafraid of silence. I knew to wait whilst he formulated a question. When I was in Tanzania in my second year, I would spend my evenings writing to Gordon about my fieldwork on blue fold-a-letter airmail paper and he would reply, so that when I came to write up my thesis I had a beautiful record of our conversations piled on my desk.

Gordon was, I think, also pleased that my interest in land law endured and grew, and he kept closely in touch with work I wrote on Uganda and latterly Kenya. He had gone to Ghana from Cambridge in 1961 to work on his PhD on customary land law. He had edited Ghana’s ‘Land Cases’ law reports and had written pathbreaking work on customary land law, including his book Customary Land Law in the Ghanaian Courts and his Ollennu’s Principles of Customary Land Law in Ghana, both of which remain points of reference for Ghanaian scholars and lawyers. But across the continent, Gordon is known amongst us for his deep commitment to African scholarship. In one of our last correspondences, he told me with evident pleasure that he had three new African colleagues at Birmingham Law School and asked if I might meet them when I visited.

In his reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Law Faculty of the University of Ghana, Nana SKB Asante recalls the early years of the Law Faculty at Legon: ‘Gordon Woodman was doing research for his Cambridge PhD. In 1962, I had the honour of serving as the honorary supervisor of his PhD thesis.  He did not need any supervisor.’ I, on the other hand, came to Gordon as a PhD student who most certainly did need a supervisor. He was the most dedicated of teachers. He gave you to know that he was pleased when your first paper was accepted, or when you wrote with other good news, but Gordon was not a man to be effusive. To be his student was to believe that academia was a place of quiet work and kindness. That I later discovered that it is not always so has only strengthened my affection and respect for the example he gave me. I owe him a great debt.

Gordon has gone to his rest. I express my heartfelt condolences to Margaret and his family, and to Gordon’s colleagues in Ghana and across the world.

Professor Ambreena Manji, Cardiff Law School