Professor Ron Johnston
Geographer, campanologist and life-long Swindon Town fan
1941 – 2020

Are you aware that the work of a son of Swindon is largely to thank or blame – depends on your viewpoint – for the way our politicians do their campaigning?  His obituary in The Guardian observes: ‘Ron Johnston, who has died aged 79, was a human geographer whose work in the field of electoral geography was drawn upon by political parties and policymakers, and influenced legislation on constituency boundaries.’ And we’ll come back to that in a bit.

Ron’s early years

The offspring of Louis and Joyce Johnston, Ron entered the world on 30th March 1941. He grew up in Chiseldon where his parents ran the post office. And no doubt that start in life helped him put his stamp on the world. Boom! (It doesn’t get any better I’m afraid!

Ron’s father had the misfortune being captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore, in WWII. One of Ron’s early memories is that of his mother introducing him to his father, when he returned in late 1945.

In his school career he performed well enough. Ron passed his 11+ and attended Commonweal grammar school. There he did well. Though in later life he derived much amusement from being described as ‘cheerful but irresponsible in one of his reports.

For more sons and daughters of Swindon go here:

Professor Ron Johnston Geographer
Professor Ron Johnston Geographer – with thanks to the Swindon Advertiser

Geography – a passion

Though fascinated by maps, Ron’s true passion lay in geography. Like many children of his generation, he didn’t at first consider university. But both his father and his teacher encouraged him to think about it. Thus he went on to get both a degree and a Master’s degree at the university of Manchester. From there he went to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia where he completed a doctorate. He met his wife, Rita, in Manchester and they married in 1963.

A stellar career

Ron worked at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand from 1967–1974. He then returned to England for the appointment of Professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield. He moved to Essex university in 1992 to become Vice Chancellor. From there, 1995 saw Ron go to Bristol to return to being a professor of geography. He was there still when he died in 2020.

Over his long career, Ron authored or co-authored fifty books and over 800 papers.


Professor Ron Johnston Geographer remains in people’s memories for, amongst other things, his work on electoral geography. His research showed that local effects and local campaigning could have a measurable effect on the outcome of elections, particularly in tight races. This research went against the prevailing view that, in an era of television, national campaigning was all that mattered. His book, Geography and Geographers, remains one of the key studies of the history of human geography. He was known for trying to use Swindon-related examples in his work. Indeed, this Royal Geographical Society obituary says: ‘As anyone who talked to him, or head him lecture or present a paper would quickly find out, Ron Johnston had an uncanny ability to weave a reference to Swindon, his home town, into the discussion, no matter what the topic.

Those name-checks for the town (and its football team) revealed much about Ron. More often than not, they were wryly humorous and self-deprecating: Ron’s lively sense of humour was a large part of his personality. But they were also apposite to the point he was making. Further they illustrated his strong appreciation of the importance of place, in a very concrete form, in human affairs. Throughout his highly distinguished academic career, Ron devoted himself to tracing the ramifications of space and place.’

With a hatful of awards

Ron found his work recognised with a hatful of awards. The Murchison Award (1985) and the Victoria Medal (1990) by the Royal Geographical Society. Then came the Prix Vautrin Lud at the International Geography Festival 1999, and a lifetime achievement award from the Association of American Geographers (2009). He received too, honorary degrees from the Universities of Essex, Sheffield and bath, and Monash University in Australia. In 2011, he received an OBE for services to scholarship.

The bells, the bells

Were all the above not enough, Ron held an interest in campanology. A active bell ringer, he published two books on the subject and co-complied three editions of ‘Dove’s Guide to the Church Bells of Britain’. He served as ringing master at Sheffield Cathedral from 1980 to 1992.

A life-long town fan

Ron died on 29 May 2020. In an appreciation of his life, it was noted that he was a life-long (and often unrewarded) Swindon Town fan.

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