Oliver Popplewell

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Sir Oliver Bury Popplewell (15 August 1927 – 6 June 2024) was a British judge and cricketer. He chaired the inquiry into the Bradford City stadium fire, presided over the libel case brought by Jonathan Aitken MP against The Guardian newspaper which eventually led to Aitken's imprisonment for perjury, and was widely reported for asking "What is Linford's lunchbox?" during a case over which he was presiding, brought by Linford Christie. He played first-class cricket for Cambridge University and was president of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) from 1994 to 1996. He wrote a memoir of his legal career, published in 2003.[1]

Personal life


Popplewell's father was a civil servant.[2] He was the father of four sons,[2] the eldest of whom is the former Cambridge University and Somerset cricketer and now solicitor, Nigel Popplewell,[3] and another of whom, Sir Andrew Popplewell, is now a Lord Justice of Appeal.

A widower, Sir Oliver married Dame Elizabeth Gloster in March 2008.[4] He was the godfather of Stephen Fry,[5] and the grandfather of Anna Popplewell and Lulu Popplewell.

Popplewell died on 6 June 2024, at the age of 96.[6]



Popplewell went to Charterhouse School as a scholar, where he played cricket with Peter May and future politician Jim Prior,[7] and after spending two years of National Service in the Royal Navy,[2] he went to Queens' College, Cambridge as an exhibitioner. He was awarded a BA degree in 1950 and an LL.B. in 1951.[8]

In 2003, Popplewell became one of the oldest mature students at the University of Oxford when he started reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Harris Manchester College.[9][10][11]


Oliver Popplewell
Cricket information
Career statistics
Competition First-class
Matches 41
Runs scored 881
Batting average 20.48
100s/50s 0/2
Top score 74*
Balls bowled 3
Wickets 0
Bowling average
5 wickets in innings
10 wickets in match
Best bowling
Catches/stumpings 63/16
Source: CricInfo, 12 April 2023

Popplewell was a right-handed wicket-keeper-batsman, playing 56 innings in 41 matches, scoring 881 runs for an average of 20.46 including two half-centuries.[12]

He played for Cambridge University from 1949 to 1951 at the time when the Rev David Sheppard was playing for the university, for the MCC in 1953 and for the Free Foresters from 1952 to 1960.[3]

His sole bowling stint was three balls[12] for the MCC against Cambridge University in 1953.[13] He was president of the MCC from 1994 to 1996.[2]


Popplewell was called to the bar in 1951. He was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1969.[14][15] After serving as Recorder of Burton upon Trent and Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Quarter Sessions, he was appointed as Recorder of the Crown Court in 1971.[14] He was a High Court judge from 1983 until 2003.[16] During this time, he chaired the Bradford Inquiry into Crowd Control and Safety at Sports Grounds in 1985. He was a judge of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, vice-chairman of the Parole Board, and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.[8]



In 1975 Popplewell defended his godson Stephen Fry, who was 18 at the time, at his trial for credit card fraud. Popplewell and his wife had long been friends of Fry's parents.[2][5] Stephen Fry writes about the event in his autobiography Moab Is My Washpot.

Following the fire at Valley Parade, the Bradford City stadium, on 11 May 1985, Popplewell was chosen to chair an inquiry held under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. Following this inquiry, he was chosen to chair a Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds. In 1999, he donated the papers of the inquiry to the University of Bradford.[17] A copy of the Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety and Control at Sports Grounds' Interim Report is published online in PDF format by the Bradford City Fire website.[18]

He presided over the libel case brought by Jonathan Aitken against The Guardian and Granada Television.[2]

While presiding over the High Court case brought by the athlete Linford Christie against former criminal John McVicar, the editor of Spike Magazine, he was widely reported as asking, "What is Linford's lunchbox?". He later claimed that this was intended as a joke.[11] The question was in the tradition of British jurisprudence, in which the judge asks seemingly inane questions relevant to the facts of the case on the assumption that the jury, which cannot ask questions, is ignorant of them. Following this case, the name "Mr Justice Cocklecarrot" was revived by Private Eye magazine (it was originally the name of a character in the Beachcomber column in the Daily Express) which became the magazine's generic name for unworldly and out-of-touch judges,[9] though Popplewell asserts that this description did not apply to him.[2]

He upheld the defence of Reynolds privilege, established in the House of Lords in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd in 1999, in an action against the Yorkshire Post for reporting that a local karate company was selling "rip-off" lessons.[19]

After his retirement, Popplewell spoke up for the right of judges to impose the sentences they see fit. He had an argument with Home Secretary David Blunkett who was seeking to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for some serious crimes.[2][20]

Hillsborough controversy and the Bradford City stadium fire developments


On 19 October 2011, Popplewell sparked fury by calling on the Liverpool families involved in the Hillsborough disaster to behave more like the relatives of victims of the Bradford City stadium disaster. He made the comments in a letter to The Times following the Commons debate[21] on 17 October 2011 calling for all Cabinet papers on Hillsborough to be released. He said: "The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage. They did not harbour conspiracy theories. They did not seek endless further inquiries".[22]

His letter was published by the Times sister paper, The Sun, which is boycotted on Merseyside, the day after it was revealed to Parliament that senior policemen had changed the evidence of junior policemen whose evidence contradicted the official version given to the press by police spokesmen. Popplewell was widely criticised for his comments,[23] including a rebuke from a survivor of the Bradford stadium disaster.[24]

In April 2015, Popplewell expressed the view that it was "bizarre" to suggest that the Bradford City stadium fire was anything other than accidental. This was in response to the publication of an article in The Guardian newspaper of an extract from a newly published book Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire by Martin Fletcher. The extract of the Fletcher book contained previously unpublicised information about eight earlier fires allegedly connected to the Bradford City owner and chairman, Stafford Heginbotham (who died in 1995).[25][26][27]

Popplewell later qualified his remark and suggested that the police should look into the "remarkable number" of fires allegedly connected to Bradford City's then chairman "to see if there was anything sinister". He had earlier said that he remained convinced that the fire was "undoubtedly" started by accident by a discarded match or cigarette, despite the new evidence.[26][28]


  • Benchmark: Life, laughter and the law. Foreword by Stephen Fry. London: I.B. Tauris. 2003. ISBN 978-1-86064-886-1.
  • Football in Its Place: An Environmental Psychology of Football Grounds by David Canter, Miriam Comber and David L. Uzzell with an introduction by Sir Oliver Popplewell, Publisher: Taylor & Francis (1989); ISBN 978-0-415-01240-9
  • Final report of the Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety and Control at Sports Grounds, London: HMSO, 1986, ISBN 9780101971003, Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Secretary of State for Scotland by command of Her Majesty January 1986. (Archived 5 June 2023 at the Wayback Machine. [Archived PDF copy sourced – via Hatful of History website by historian Evan Smith])
    • Interim report of the Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety and Control at Sports Grounds, London: HMSO, 1985, ISBN 9780101958509


  1. ^ [Publisher's notes] – Benchmark: Life, laughter, and the law by Oliver Popplewell. London: I.B. Tauris. 2003. ISBN 978-1-86064-886-1. {{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Dyer, Clare (20 May 2003). "The real world of Oliver Popplewell". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
  3. ^ a b "Teams played for by Oliver Popplewell". CricketArchive. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
  4. ^ "Profile: Dame Elizabeth Gloster". The Independent. London. 31 August 2012.
  5. ^ a b Fry, Stephen (1997). Moab is my washpot. London: Hutchinson. pp. 318, 332–333. ISBN 978-0-09-180161-8.
  6. ^ "Sir Oliver Popplewell, High Court judge and MCC president famous as 'Mr Justice Popplecarrot' – obituary". The Telegraph. 7 June 2024. Retrieved 7 June 2024.
  7. ^ Popplewell, Oliver (2003). Benchmark: Life, laughter, and the law. Foreword by Stephen Fry. London: I.B. Tauris. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-1-86064-886-1. Online access via Internet Archive available to users with print disabilities.
    • —; Fry, Stephen (2003). "Foreword". Benchmark: Life, laughter, and the law. p. xv.
  8. ^ a b "The Honourable Sir Oliver Popplewell". ADR Chambers International. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
  9. ^ a b Johnson, Rachel (1 November 2003). "The oldest fresher in town". The Spectator. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
  10. ^ Burns, Emma (10 May 2005). "The old course at St Andrews?". The Times. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ a b "Oliver Popplewell Profile – Cricket Player England". ESPNcricinfo.
  13. ^ "Cambridge University v Marylebone Cricket Club". CricketArchive. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
  14. ^ a b "Sir Oliver Popplewell". Brick Court Chambers.
  15. ^ "Honorary Graduates 2015". University of Buckingham.
  16. ^ Cardwell, Peter (11 November 2003). "Retired high court judge enrols at Oxford". The Guardian. London. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  17. ^ The Papers of the Popplewell Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds, 13 December 2007 – via J.B. Priestley Library University of Bradford (Special Collections). "Catalogue of the Popplewell Inquiry Papers" J.B. Priestley Library University of Bradford. 2013. Archived 25 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety and Control at Sports Grounds' Interim Report, bradfordcityfire.co.uk, 29 September 2012; accessed 7 April 2016.
  19. ^ Speker, Adam (17 May 2007). "Privilege, And This Time We Mean It". Publishing: UK. Mondaq. Mondaq Ltd (legal industry news aggregator).
  20. ^ "Blunkett branded 'a whiner'". BBC News. 14 May 2003. Archived from the original on 13 May 2016.
  21. ^ "Hillsborough decision 'a victory for democracy'". BBC News. 18 October 2011. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
  22. ^ "Former judge tells Hillsborough families to drop 'conspiracy theories'". The Guardian. London. Press Association. 19 October 2011. Retrieved 7 April 2016.
  23. ^ Holehouse, Matthew (19 October 2011). "Sir Oliver Powell outrages campaigners with comments". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
  24. ^ Conn, David (20 October 2011). "Bradford fire survivor attacks judge over Hillsborough comments". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
  25. ^ Taylor, Daniel (15 April 2015). "Revealed: former Bradford chairman linked to at least eight fires before Valley Parade disaster". The Guardian. London.
  26. ^ a b Gibson, Owen (16 April 2015). "Sir Oliver Popplewell calls on police to look at spate of Bradford fires". The Guardian. London.
  27. ^ Popplewell, Oliver (27 April 2015). "Suggestion that Bradford City fire was arson is nonsense – Sir Oliver Popplewell". Letters. The Guardian. London. With reference to your recent coverage of the Bradford City fire and Martin Fletcher's book about it ('No accident': stadium fire that killed 56, 16 April, and several subsequent reports) [...]  while Mr Fletcher's book is rightly a tribute to his industry and is an emotional record of the terrible tragedy suffered by his family, I have to say that his conclusion that the fire was caused by arson is, in my view, nonsense.
  28. ^