Hugh Playfair's Obituary

Posted: 20 August, 2019

Hugh George Lyon Playfair, OBE

1935 - 2017

Hugh Playfair was born in St Andrews, Fife, on 5 December 1935, and educated at Oundle, where his lifelong interest and career in history was first kindled, along with a fascination for church architecture. From Oundle he passed into King’s College, Cambridge, to read history, followed by National Service with the Somaliland Scouts (1957-9), before embarking on a career as a schoolmaster. A Diploma of Education from New College, Oxford, set him up for his first teaching post at Marlborough College, starting in 1960. After eight enjoyable years at Marlborough, he was keen for new challenges and obtained a two-year leave of absence to take up a post at Cranbrook School, little knowing that it would turn into a five-year stay from 1969-74, not least because he soon met Bridget Garland, who would become his adored wife of over 47 years. In Hugh’s words, “It had become quite obvious that my adventure to Australia had been meant for a purpose. The Almighty had blessed me.” At Cranbrook, Hugh became Head of History, was founding Housemaster of a new day boy house, Hone House, and was also master in charge of rowing.

The bulk of his career was then spent at Canford School, teaching history, politics and religious education. There his chief interest was the CCF, for service to which he was appointed OBE in 1989.

He took early retirement in 1993 to enable a return to Australia on a Royal & Ancient Golf Club tour to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Sydney Golf Club. Golf was a passion throughout his life, being a native St Andrean. He had joined the club on turning eighteen, following in the footsteps of some forty members of the Playfair family, and won the R&A’s Jubilee Vase in 1954.

His long-standing interest in church history and architecture, together with his calling as a Lay Reader from 1987, led to him becoming Chairman of the Bath & Wells Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches for seventeen years, helping churches to repair and reorder their buildings. He also founded the Friends of Somerset Churches and Chapels in 1995 (now the Somerset Churches Trust), and was Chairman for its first ten years. The trust honoured Hugh with institution of ‘The Playfair Prize,’ awarded annually for the best church restoration project in the county. His service to the church was recognised in 2016, when he was nominated to receive Maundy Money from HM The Queen at St George’s Chapel.

Hugh passed away on 22 December, 2017, leaving his loving wife, Bridget, three children, Patrick, Edward and Elizabeth, and five grandchildren. He was the author of a number of books reflecting his interest in family and church history.

An edited excerpt from Hugh Playfair’s “Memories,” written in 2017:

Early in the Michaelmas term 1968 the Master [of Marlborough College, where Hugh was teaching], John Dancy came up to me and said he thought I ought to have a change from being resident house tutor in B3 and would I think about it. I believe he meant a change within the College. Anyway after Half-term he asked me if I had thought about it. I said that I would like if possible to have a spell in Australia and he generously said he would fix it if I told him where I would like to go. I had heard a lot about Melbourne Grammar School and I had been encouraged to think of Cranbrook School in Sydney by Gethin Hewan an Old Marlburian who had just finished being Headmaster there. There were also distant Playfair cousins in Sydney, whom Mother and Father had met by chance on a visit to my brother in Ceylon. John Dancy wrote to both schools. Melbourne Grammar School did not reply but Mark Bishop, the Headmaster of Cranbrook School said he would like me to join the staff in January. So there I went on a most momentous adventure on a generous two years leave of absence. Little did I know that I would marry and stay in Sydney for five years.

On arrival in Sydney I was met by the Headmaster of Cranbrook School, Mark Bishop, who took me straight away to Bondi Beach for a swim and breakfast. He and his wife Noela looked after me extremely well and I stayed in the school until I found somewhere to rent or buy. After staying for a few weeks with a New Zealander Dennis O’Rourke and with George and Susanna Footner (George was also teaching at Cranbrook on a year’s leave of absence from Lambrook Prep School in Berkshire), I rented and shared a house in Woollahra with an Englishman, Guy Ormiston, who was a stockbroker. Eventually I took the plunge and bought a small house in Campbell Avenue, Paddington. This turned out to be a good investment, though it was rather frowned upon by the management at Cranbrook. Members of the Cranbrook Common Room were very friendly and I was made to feel at home, teaching History, even Australian History, and Commerce. I coached rugger and rowing, and before long I was invited to be Head of History and founding Housemaster of a new Day Boy House, Hone House, named after a Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School. In the first year, 1969 I met and visited many delightful and hospitable Australians, … A Cranbrook School rugby tour of New Zealand enabled me to see much of both islands and gave me an insight into the country’s dedication to rugby football…

Life at Cranbrook continued to offer fulfilment and opportunities. The Master of Marlborough John Dancy wrote to ask of my intentions as I was due to return to Marlborough at the end of 1970. It was not difficult to burn my boat and stay on at Cranbrook. Apart from bring Housemaster and Head of History I became Master in charge of Rowing. We had a good coaching team including an Australian Olympic oarsman and an experienced coach from Sydney Church of England Grammar School, who taught me a great deal about the sport. We had some successful regattas and it was a delight to coach crews on Sydney Harbour in the shadow of the Opera House early on Saturday mornings. I pioneered historical tours of Sydney using question sheets to point pupils in the right direction. One holiday Bridget, Graham Burnet and I took a party of boys to Norfolk Island to savour the remains of the convict settlement.

[He returned to the United Kingdom in early 1974]