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News > Deaths & Obituaries > AUSTIN, Robert Edward

AUSTIN, Robert Edward

You are warmly welcomed to leave a message below, share your memories, and celebrate the life of Robert Austin, who we sadly lost in 2017.


AUSTIN, Robert Edward
Died on 3 September 2017, aged 92. Formerly of Tonbridge, much loved husband of Valerie, father of Tim and Sarah-Jane, father-in-law of Megan, Grandad to Jen, Kate, Alison and Dave, and ‘Gogo’ to his many great-grandchildren.

The following article was written by Barry Orchard for the Tonbridgian upon Robert Austin’s retirement:

Thirty-eight years. That takes us back to 1949 when this School was a very different place, as was this country, as was the world for that matter. The post-war years had a serious purposeful feel to them. There was a Labour Government that at least seemed to base its policies on ideals and to be guided by principle. Sartre and Camus were at the height of their powers, existentialists were philosophers rather than long-haired weirdos hanging about in night clubs, television was still in its infancy, the Beatles were little boys whom no one had heard of and the film ‘If’ had not even been thought of. In the Spring of 1949 Lawrence Waddy, the newly appointed Headmaster of Tonbridge School, before officially entering upon his duties, made his first appointment to the Staff, and the young man he chose was a Scholar of Queen’s College, Cambridge who had never got less than First Class Honours in the Modern Language Tripos, Parts I and II – French and German. His name, Robert Austin.

You might think that a man who has lived through these years without learning to drive a car must be something of a fuddy-duddy who has failed to adapt to modern conditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways, Robert has been something of a pioneer. When Lawrence Waddy, in one of those attempts that Tonbridge Headmasters have made down the years to counteract the over-preponderant prestige of games players (a task that must resemble one of those bad dreams when one is trying to run away from a pursuing bear), founded the Athena Society in order to raise the status of those boys who were merely intelligent and went in for thinking rather than scrummaging, it was Robert who helped to guide and foster the new Society.

Like many a young Tonbridge Master, he found one day that he had been chosen to produce the School Play. He broke with tradition doubly, by choosing to put on a play that had not been written by Shakespeare and by (wait for the shock) actually including some girls in the cast.

I hope you have not got the impression that the young Robert was some pale and willowy intellectual; that would be totally inaccurate. For one thing, he was an officer in the CCF – nothing remarkable about that of course, when every boy in the School had to belong. All the same, he was something of an exception. He had served in the RNVR during the War, but he found himself in khaki here and, on one occasion, in deep snow, on an expedition in the hills of central Wales during the first ever arduous (as it then was) training week undertaken by Tonbridgians.

Then again, he was an important part of the Rowing Club. Indeed, for two years he found himself actually running it, in conjunction with Gifford Wood (and both of them were Housemasters at the time). And what Tonbridge Master can escape blowing a whistle on a rugby field? In those days, the bottom game, S5, used to play on some ground known (I am told) as Shipbourne fields. This land was later sold to property developers who proceeded to build the houses in Chiltern Way, in one of which Robert now lives. From time to time he must enjoy the thought that his house stands on the spot where many years ago, he used to referee the fainthearted struggles of S5.

No account of Tonbridge in the 50’s and 60’s would be complete without mentioning the Tonbridge School Employees’ Social Club, which Robert started up in 1954, and to which he and Valerie devoted so much of their time and energies; and perhaps nothing illustrates more vividly the changes that have occurred in society and in this School. Who in the frenzied rush that passes for living these days would see the need for the numerous activities that Robert used to organise? Yet they were always well attended and, I am sure, it was because of them that Tonbridge School was characterised by such a strong feeling of community.

In January 1962 Robert and Valerie moved to Hill Side. They took over two terms early because the previous incumbent had been ill; a Tonbridge Housemaster cannot afford to be ill… Between them they ran Hill Side quietly, efficiently, successfully, for the next 15 years. 1962 to 1976 is a span of time that saw four different Headmasters at Tonbridge; it also saw the changes that have transformed the School from the reality only slightly characterised in the film ‘If’, to the School as we know it today. I should imagine that those four Headmasters, when, in reviewing the state of the School, they turned their thoughts to Hill Side, felt a certain confidence and relief that the House was in such capable hands. I am certain also that the many Hill Siders who sang “Austin (oft in) danger, Austin woe” with such frequency and gusto at House prayers really felt, and still feel a deep affection and respect for both of them, even though these feelings may not often have been given the symbolic, almost sacramental, manifestation that a certain Indian boy demanded. The day after the end of term Robert was woken at 5.00 in the morning by Ramesh Bhura who asked him to bless him for his journey. While Robert sprinkled some yellow powder over his head, Ramesh kissed Robert’s feet, saying: “You are my father” …

Above all, however, Robert saw his main role here, believe it or not, as that of a teacher, and always gave his teaching the highest priority. He combined the best traditions of meticulous scholarship with a readiness to adopt new techniques and adapt to new requirements. He was as painstaking and effective in his coaching the high-flyers of Oxbridge as in teaching the weaker brethren for GCSE. He was among the first to see the advantages and to make use of the Language Laboratory, overhead projectors, video recordings.

In 1979 Robert took over the Modern Languages Department. This was another hard assignment fraught with difficulties. Yet during the six years he ran it, with hardly a ripple disturbing the calm elegance of Old Judd, the Department was transformed as though a most dynamic whirlwind had been at work. We now have link schools in Evreux, Madrid and Hamburg; we have permanent, native speaking assistants in French, German, Spanish and Russian; we have a Language Laboratory that works; we have a well organised office with teaching materials methodically filed (‘til I get my hands on them). We also have a new Head of Department. That sounds like irony. It is not meant as such. The point is, as I am sure the new Austin will be the first to admit, that it is only because Robert is the way he is, that the changeover has been so smooth.

Well, for many years, I had a classroom next to Robert’s. At the end of a day’s teaching, one feels in need of reassurance, at least I do. What more reassuring sight than Robert’s upright figure and twinkling smile? The world cannot be that bad a place, I say to myself, while there is someone like that about in it, someone you can be sure of, someone who is not out for himself, someone who has given his prodigious talents in the service of the School for the last 38 years.

Like the serious 40’s there is something inherently serious about Robert, but recently it seems to me that there has been a brighter than usual twinkle in the smile, and jauntier seat on the bicycle. Perhaps it is the joys of retirement that beckon. We have been more than lucky to have had Robert with us for all this time, so we cannot complain that he leaves us now; and did not the Headmaster say something about making calls on his services? Thirty-eight years, but my guess is that they are not over yet…

(Housemaster of Hill Side and Head of Modern Languages 49-87)

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