Death at 70 of a “giant” of mathematics who loved music

Date: Friday 29th February 2008

NICHOLAS Howard, of Johnby Hall, near Greystoke, who has died at the age of 70, was a gifted mathematician who was once described by colleagues as “one of the giants” in his field.

Mr. Howard, who worked at the top secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham after graduating from Oxford University, rose to be head of his division, which specialised in cryptanalysis the mathematical science of codebreaking.

This section had replaced the famous wartime intelligence department at Bletchley Park, some of whose veterans were Mr. Howard’s teachers, early colleagues and mentors.

Away from work, he resided at Johnby Hall, which he inherited from his father, Stafford Howard. Together with his wife, Bethan, he renovated the charming mediaeval manor house, along with its nearby estate, into a comfortable family home in preparation for retirement.

Since 1995 he had lived at Johnby Hall full-time and was able to involve himself more closely with the running of farming operations, the Johnby estate and numerous activities around the village. He took a great interest in agriculture and was immensely pleased that in the last 18 months his articles on farming in Johnby had appeared often in the press, from local to international, as far away as Japan.

funeral service

His death at home followed a long battle against cancer, and a funeral service was due to be held yesterday at St. Andrew’s Church, Greystoke.

Nicholas Stafford Howard was born on 20th July, 1937. He was the elder son of Stafford Howard and the only child of his first marriage to Ursula Horlick.

His father, a cousin of the Duke of Norfolk, inherited Greystoke Castle when Nicholas was a boy. Greystoke had been the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk in the 18th and 19th centuries and has never been bought or sold, having passed through the family by marriage or by descent since the time of the Norman Conquest.

Because of the break-up of his parents’ marriage, Nicholas was brought up partly at his grandmother’s country house in South Wales in recent years he had enjoyed rediscovering his connections in that area partly at Greystoke and partly in East Lothian at Greywalls. The latter was the country house hotel that his mother and stepfather, John Weaver, opened in 1948.

Nicholas was sent to boarding school at a very early age due to the Second World War. He attended preparatory school in Sunningdale before going at an unusually early age to Eton, to which he won a scholarship but one that his parents chose to waive.

In his year of national service he trained as a Russian language specialist and then read mathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford. It was therefore a natural choice that he should join GCHQ at Cheltenham, where he remained until taking early retirement in 1995.

In the early stages of his career he spent a year at the newly-founded Churchill College, Cambridge, and also three years posted to the British Embassy in Washington.

It was at Cheltenham that he met Bethan Duckett, whom he married in 1966. This was shortly before the couple moved to America, where their daughter, Cecilia, was born in 1968. Their son, Henry, was born at Cheltenham four years later.

Mr. Howard’s Johnby Hall residence had been built by the Duke of Norfolk in 1783. It had become a dower house to Greystoke Castle, which was inherited by his brother, Neville, from their father.

Nicholas was thrilled when, in 2002, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd chose Johnby Hall as one of his favourite English manor houses and in a lavish coffee table book paid effusive tribute to Nicholas and Bethan’s evident love and care for their home.

Mr. Howard had been instrumental in organising an ecumenical pilgrimage and service at Greystoke in memory of Catholic priest and martyr Christopher Robinson, who had been caught at Johnby Hall and was the last to be executed at Carlisle in 1598. The 400th anniversary gathering was attended by numerous bishops and dignitaries.

In retirement, he involved himself in a number of initiatives in Eden, including environmental group LA21 and the Millennium Concert, a brainchild of Canon Gervase Markham. Mr. Howard was also a member of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Railway and his passion for the rail industry meant he was also a vociferous supporter of Penrith station when its future came under threat.

He was very much involved with the Historic Houses Association, both locally and nationally, and also Europa Nostra (a pan-European heritage body), for which he found himself doing much useful translation work as a retirement job. He also sat, at the invitation of of the present Duke of Norfolk, as a trustee of the Shrewsbury Hospital Trust, a charitable institution in Sheffield founded by one of his ancestors.


Mr. Howard was also a great lover of music and his principal hobby was singing. He was a long-time member of the Gloucester Choral Society, with which he participated in many Three Choirs Festivals at Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford.

In retirement in Cumbria he joined Penrith Singers and was thrilled to be made the group’s president. He also much enjoyed singing with the Carlisle Cathedral voluntary choir, performing services during the cathedral choir’s holidays.

He was an ardent supporter of many local choirs and music societies and was responsible for organising a number of wonderful concerts in St. Andrew’s Church, Greystoke, a venue at which his family is hoping to organise a memorial concert in his name later this year.

Mr. Howard is survived by his wife, Bethan, of Johnby Hall, and children Cecilia, who lives at Johnby, and Henry, of Edinburgh.

Donations in his memory can be made to Hospice at Home Carlisle and North Lakeland, c/o Richardsons Funeral Directors, Victoria Road, Penrith.