David Browning obituary

My friend David Browning, who has died aged 83, was a dockworker for 15 years before becoming an academic and passionate advocate of informal adult education, working with local communities.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, as the outreach tutor at Northern College Barnsley, David worked with its founder, Michael Barratt Brown, to set up creative short residential courses that empowered local communities and changed people’s lives, particularly women’s.

With the future Labour politician and Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, then the college administrator, and the folk singer Roy Bailey, a founding governor, David encouraged skills for community action as well as for trades union leadership, and established a residential block and creche to ensure women could attend courses.

One of three children of Faith (nee Wynn), a domestic servant and school cook, and Thomas Browning, a shipyard engineer and trade unionist, David was born in Hartlepool, County Durham. As boy, he built raised beds in the family’s tiny backyard, understanding the importance of sustainable local food growing.

Aged 15, he left Princess Louise boys’ school to take up an apprenticeship as a fitter at Blyth shipyard, later attending night school at Northumberland College to gain an ONC (ordinary national certificate) in mechanical engineering (1960). The following year he worked for Shell Tankers as a sea-going engineer, then joined the National Coal Board as a maintenance fitter (1962). During this time he did a draughtsman’s course, then worked as a draughtsman and design engineer for MacGregor International Naval Architects. While there, he was shop steward for the Draughtsmen’s Union.

He had married his childhood sweetheart, Sally Ellison, in 1960. As their two daughters, Paula and Claire, grew up, David found time to go to night school. He subsequently won a scholarship to study for a diploma in social studies at Ruskin College, Oxford (1971), then a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Magdalen College, Oxford.

After graduation in 1973, David stayed in Oxford to work as a staff development and training officer for Oxfam. In 1977, the family moved to Edinburgh, for David to take up a training officer job for Scotland’s Manpower Services Commission.

After Northern College (1979-85), David became director of Manchester Open College Network (1985-93), which enabled adult education tutors to develop community-relevant programmes.

Moving to Rothbury in Northumberland in 1993, he worked as an education and training consultant before joining Northumberland Care Trust as a health development manager (2000-2004), establishing men’s health projects and linking an organic community farm project to city sales outlets, promoting sustainable food production before it was fashionable.

This interest in growing continued when he retired to Huddersfield and chaired the Kirklees Environment Partnership, supporting the development of local community groups in learning how to grow food.

David’s marriage to Sally ended in divorce in 1981. A second marriage, to Lydia Meryll, in 1993, also ended in divorce, in 2007.

He is survived by Paula and Claire, two grandchildren, Gemma and Dan, his brother, Michael, and sister, Margaret.