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David Hopkinson, financier and railway buff who as head of M&G unit trusts made stock market investment accessible to ordinary savers – obituary

The young 'Hoppy'
The young 'Hoppy'

David Hopkinson, who has died aged 93, was a champion of small investors as head of the M & G unit trust business – and an activist for causes ranging from the financial well-being of the Church of England and St Anne’s College, Oxford, to the interests of railway commuters.

M & G (originally Municipal & General Securities) created the UK’s first unit trust in 1931 and pioneered other retail investment products, including a “thrift plan”, launched in 1954, which allowed savers to make monthly contributions.

As its chief executive and deputy chairman from 1979 to 1987, Hopkinson – widely known as “Hoppy” – pursued a mission to make equity investments accessible to people at all levels of wealth. By the end of his tenure M  & G was the market leader in its sector, managing unit trusts for half a million savers.

Hoppy was particularly alert to mismanagement and boardroom excess in listed companies in which M & G funds were invested: his skill in spotting bad apples was legendary. His team were encouraged – more so than many fund managers of the era – to make close contacts and frequent visits throughout British industry; underperforming chief executives would receive sharp reprimands from Hoppy himself.

A man of many kindnesses, he was also combative when interests he cared about were threatened. He distrusted the City establishment, prized M &  G’s independence (protected by a charitable trust as its major shareholder) and had no truck with tycoons such as Robert Maxwell and Tiny Rowland when they sought M & G’s support for their deals.

After the “Big Bang” Stock Exchange reforms were unveiled in 1983, heralding the creation of Wall Street-style investment banks in London, he warned against “large financial conglomerates … using their petty cash” to acquire excessive power “at the expense of the smaller institutions and the smaller men”.

David Hugh Laing Hopkinson was born in London on August 14 1926, the son of Cecil Hopkinson, a Welsh-born engineer-turned-bookseller, and his wife Leila, née Laing.

After their parents divorced in 1929, David and his older brother Geoffrey (who died on war service in 1943) were brought up by their mother. David was educated at Wellington and Merton College, Oxford, where he read History until his studies were interrupted in 1944 for service in the RNVR.

After two years as a lieutenant in minesweepers in the Bay of Bengal he returned – a somewhat restless student – to graduate in 1949.

He achieved admission to the Civil Service and was a House of Commons clerk, and briefly a junior Treasury official, before joining the merchant bank Robert Fleming in 1959.

David Hopkinson: he was a Church Commissioner and played the organ at his parish church for 50 years

In 1963 he moved to M & G – then a small, old-fashioned firm with just £25 million under management – to become its first investment director. He recruited a talented team who attracted new customers and achieved remarkable investment returns; by the time he retired, funds under management had grown to more than £4 billion.

Outside M & G, Hopkinson was chairman of Harrison & Crosfield – a trader in tea, rubber and palm oil which he helped to reposition as a chemicals and building supplies conglomerate – and deputy chairman of English China Clays.

He was a non-executive director of Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries and of Lloyds Bank’s southern board, a member of the Housing Corporation and an adviser to the Bank of England.

Among his many projects beyond business was the expansion of the Pallant House Gallery of modern British art in Chichester; during his chairmanship of its trustees from 1992 to 2002 the gallery doubled in size and added greatly to its collections.

He was also a trustee of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton; chairman of the Edward James Foundation, which provides arts education at West Dean College near Chichester; and a deputy lieutenant and former High Sheriff of West Sussex.

Further afield, he received the Distinguished Friends of Oxford award in 2007 in recognition of many years as an adviser to St Anne’s College, Oxford, whose fortunes he helped transform; he was also a trustee of the National Association of Almshouses and a governor of Sherborne School and Wellington College.

A lifelong railway enthusiast, Hoppy was also a long-suffering commuter who regularly reached his office “with steam coming out of his ears” (a colleague recalled) when his train ran late.

He carried replacement light bulbs in his briefcase because those in his compartment often failed – and wrote so many letters of complaint to the Southern Region of British Railways that he was eventually invited on to its board and was its chairman from 1983 to 1987. To his dying day he maintained that the Arundel and Portsmouth line was slower than it had been before the war.

His contributions to the life of the Church of England ranged from playing the organ for 50 years at his parish church of St Nicholas Poling to membership from 1970 to 1990 of the General Synod and Central Board of Finance; he was chairman of the Church Army board, chairman of Chichester Cathedral’s finance committee and a trustee of its Development Trust.

It was principally for his work as a Church Commissioner from 1973 to 1982 that he was appointed CBE in 1986.

His marriage to Prue Holmes in 1951, at Udimore in East Sussex, was conducted by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958), who was a friend of Prue’s parents. When Bell was posthumously accused of sexual abuse, Hopkinson was one of a group who remained loyal to his memory and campaigned for the unproven allegations to be set aside.

Prue survives him with their two sons and two daughters.

David Hopkinson, born August 14 1926, died October 24 2019