Robert Rae – Staff 53-90

Monday 06 July 2020

Bob Rae. An appreciation of his life

Submitted by David Bawtree

Bob Rae had a distinguished career at Christ’s Hospital, starting in 1953 as a Maths Master and then on to  House Master, Head of the CCF, Chairman of the Scout Group Committee, Chairman of the Outdoor Pursuits Committee, President of the Common Room and Second Master until his retirement in 1990. “He was a good and true friend to colleagues and pupils, utterly reliable and giving constructive and sensible advice to all who sought it.” “He took in his stride the challenges of co-education, sustained by an underlying sense of proportion and a quiet sense of humour.” His award of the OBE was thoroughly well deserved for services to the CCF. In the words of one of his Headmasters “It could not have happened to a better chap!”

Bob was born in Solihull in April 1927, the first child of Harold and Bessie Rae, and was soon joined by his late brother John two years later and his sister Sheila the following year. They had a very happy childhood and from an early age Bob was encouraged to be adventurous.  His father had flown a Sopwith Camel with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and had also participated in Olympic Cycling Trials so it is no wonder Bob grew up to be similarly intrepid.  Only recently he told his family about his first flight, courtesy of Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, when he was seven years of age.  He went up in a biplane, accompanied by his Mother, taking off from a bumpy field and circling over Solihull church before landing back in the field.  When asked if he found it in any way frightening, his reaction was – predictably – ‘good heavens, no’!

He was educated at Solihull School and left in 1945, just as the war ended, with a place to study Mathematics at Cambridge.  This was delayed, however, as he was immediately called up for National Service and sent to India.  He always enjoyed talking about his time there and it is hard not to conclude that it had a significant influence on his future life.  He told of the journey out in the bomb bay of a Liberator Bomber, sitting on a canvas seat, with fuel stops in Egypt, Aden and Pakistan before landing in India four days later.

Bob’s initial role in India was as a typist!  It appears his abilities were recognized and he was soon charged with organising and providing mathematics lessons, running examinations and issuing certificates to his fellow conscripts, as a part of the RAF’s attempt to help those with little or no formal qualifications to become more attractive in the job market once they returned to civilian life.   He was also able to take what little free time he had to visit the foothills of the Himalayas, a foretaste of adventures to come.

On his return from India in 1948 he went up to Cambridge and his first job after graduating was at Clifton College, where he spent four terms before being offered a position teaching Mathematics at Christ’s Hospital in 1952. He clearly settled into the job he loved and showed this in any ways. Once he held a small party for colleagues and a mother with her nine-year old son attended. He asked Adrian (son of the writer) to help pass the drinks round and then gave him half-a-crown ‘for his trouble. (Twelve and a half pence!) After that Adrian could not wait to leave home a be a ‘Christ’s Hospital Boy’!

He is well remembered by those he taught, who knew him as ‘Rocker Rae’. “He used to burst into the classroom at the start of each lesson, already talking, and head straight for the black board, tossing his old briefcase onto the desk as he went. Anyone caught talking or not paying attention he was deadly accurate with a piece of chalk across the classroom, even into the far corner or into the mouth of the target!” “If that did not get the target’s attention the board wiper certainly did, landing on the desk and sending up a shower of chalk” “He was a class act”. “For those less gifted he spent time with individual tuition, thanks for which the writer of this obituary passed the Civil Service Examination and spent the following 38 years in the Royal Navy.”

His love of the outdoors led him to become an outdoor pursuits leader at Brathay Lodge located near Ambleside in the Lake District. It was for his work there, as well as the pamphlets he produced on Norwegian Glaciers,  that he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. With a colleague he started the Outdoor Pursuits Committee for CH and became its Chairman. This led him to become Chairman of the Scout Group Committee for many years.

His involvement with so many aspects of CH life made him a natural Housemaster. He started as Junior Housemaster of Coleridge B and in 1959 moved on to be Housemaster of Lamb B, where he stayed for 28 years. He is remembered by the inmates with respect and affection. “He was a very lovely man. I remember him being kind and humble”: “Rocker was very patient and kind with me”: “He was an excellent Housemaster and inspiration”: “He was a lovely gentle man”: “He was a good’un!”: “He was a great bloke”: “He was a kind and inspiring teacher and completely nice guy”: “He attended my wedding; He was a lovely, kind, generous man”: “the entire school was traveling up to London for a Barnes Wallis memorial service. Mr Rae was co-ordinating the entire operation – no mean feat! When asked if he had a wet weather plan he replied ‘It’s the same as the dry weather plan, except we get wet!’”

During his early years he took to Fives with gusto and this continued throughout his time at CH. He took part in matches against the staff of other schools and displayed a courteous gamesmanship which was a joy to see. The game flagged at CH for a few years in the 1970s as other use was made of the courts but Bob was instrumental in starting it up again, bringing in Old Blues on a Wednesday afternoon to play with the school teams, a practice which continues today.

Bob moved on from Lamb B in 1977 to become Second Master, an appointment he held until he retired in 1990. He combined this with being Head of the CCF in the rank of Wing Commander and under his leadership the organisation flourished, being awarded an OBE for his distinguished service. At his final passing out parade the Inspecting Officer surprised him, telling Bob, as he mounted the dais, he was to take the salute. He carried out the inspection and with immaculate timing there was a fly past by an RAF Jaguar aircraft. “A few of us, aware that an RAF navigation ‘training exercise’ might just coincide with Bob’s retirement, were sitting close enough to the Saluting Base to be able to hear the expletive of total surprise when the recipient of this well-deserved recognition realised what was happening. It was a moment for us all to enjoy!”

One member of staff wrote to say that “he had joined the staff of CH in September 1963 and lived in Lamb A for a term. Bob Rae was the Housemaster of Lamb B and I soon was aware of how competent a Housemaster he was and how friendly he was to me especially over coffee in the morning break with Miss Hull, the Matron of Lamb. One morning he said ‘We are about to start junior rugby cup ties where we play a block side. You will coach them’. Although as a schoolboy I had played rugby I had never coached the game. A baptism of fire. Believe it or not I received a comment from RR ‘Well done” when we won the final. Over the many years we were colleagues, I found him always approachable and ready to give sound advice. His expertise as a Maths teacher was legendary and his change of approach to the pupils at merger in 1985 was exemplary. He is a legend at CH”.

The very traditional single sex school that he had joined as a young Maths teacher in 1952 transmuted into the biggest co-educational boarding school in the country in 1985, a change which he encompassed with sense and sensitivity. Whereas other members of staff found the coming of the girls and the appointment of female members of staff to be intrusive and difficult to understand. Bob took the challenges gently in his stride, with only the occasional “dearie me” followed by silence when he needed time to think. “Rocker was always the best company of all the leadership team up on the dais over lunch”. “Above all he believed in and worked constantly for the good name of Christ’s Hospital”. As President of the Common Room he provided the essential role of anchor man. “He was as successful as he was a clubbable and social person and derived pleasure from his associations and friendships that went with the established traditions of a flourishing society”.

When Bob was appointed Second Master in 1977 and then Deputy Head in 1987, he relished the important role he was asked to undertake. Throughout his tenure he was seen as “a good man, a reliable man, a supportive man, a true friend”. To many he was usually quietly spoken and on the whole undemonstrative. He had an abiding but gentle sense of humour which always helped put a proper sense of proportion into matters which, in the testing atmosphere of school politics, might have become more demanding and even damaging than was justifiable. “His wide experience of every aspect of school life gave him natural authority, combined with his astute mind and natural warmth which ensured that problems would be overcome with minimum of fuss”. Following a dark period in the school’s history he was appointed Acting Headmaster for a time, finally retiring in 1990, “providing competent authority so needed at that time”.

During his school holidays Bob loved to travel, visiting countries all over the world, often leading expeditions for Brathay Hall or mountaineering, another of his passions.  On his travels he frequently met up with CH alumni living in different parts of the world where he was always given a warm welcome.  Indeed, right up until his death he received Christmas cards with annual updates from former pupils.

On his retirement from CH in 1990 he was able to spend more time travelling the world, sailing, playing golf regularly at Mannings Heath Golf Club, enjoying time at his flat in Cowes and seeing friends and family.  “Always the mathematician he was happy marking GCSE Maths papers from overseas students and delivering Maths tuition to children and grandchildren of friends and ex colleagues who were anxious about their forthcoming exams!” He was also a keen member of the Horsham Probus Group for many years. “Bob was always the most marvellous company and his family and many friends will miss his great kindness and sparkling wit.” Bob’s illustrated lectures on his travels and on the history of CH were popular with various groups in the Horsham area.

A colleague wrote “Bob was a true friend as well as a colleague, and I am sure that many of the staff felt that way about him”. The pupils certainly did, best summed up in the words of one of them, ”He was a wonderful teacher and bloody marvellous all-round human being”.

(The writer put this appreciation of Bob’s life together from his own knowledge, together with about 40 contributions from his family, colleagues and pupils. I hope the picture I have tried to create reflects your memories of Bob.)

Submitted by Roger D. K. Thomas (PrepA, PeB, 52-60)

An appreciation of Robert Rae 

I was very sad to receive the news, a few days ago, of the death of Bob Rae.  Last autumn, I was fortunate to receive an award for professional service from the Paleontological Society with which I have been most involved throughout my career.  In my remarks, I acknowledged the value of great teachers in the development of my career.  Bob Rae was one of the foremost of these, quite possibly the most significant teacher with whom I had the good fortune to study.

At school, mathematics was not my forte.  I was much better at history and geography.  However, Bob Rae’s clarity, enthusiasm and encouragement got me through “A level” Mathematics for Science.  This was a prerequisite for my admission to Imperial College, where I consequently had the chance to work toward my undergraduate degree in one of the world’s very best departments of geology.  I have always known that I owed this opportunity, which launched my career, to Bob Rae and also, in another way, to Gordon Van Praagh.

In addition to his teaching, I was indebted to Bob Rae for including me in a group of boys that he took, under the auspices of the CCF, for “arduous training” in the Rhinog Mountains of North Wales.  Also, he introduced me to the Brathay Exploration Group, with which I participated in two schoolboy/industrial apprentice expeditions, one to the Lake District and the other to Slovenia (then Yugoslavia).  I benefited in many ways (including development of my interests in geology and geography) from these experiences.

I met Bob Rae only once again in person after I left school, briefly at CH in the summer of 1971.  However, we were in contact through correspondence in later years, prompted by the expressions of gratitude of which I wanted to make him aware.