Memories of Mr Raeburn – Headmaster, Mentor and Friend


Dog-eared, a broken spine and heavily annotated by pink highlighter, my copy of “The Winter’s Tale” sits in pride of place on my bookshelf. I often bring it down to flick through and lose myself for a while in the magical worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia. At the book’s margins sit the stage directions provided┬áby David Raeburn, who directed the play in Big School in my Upper Sixth year. A “delicate” here, an “enthralled” there, then “sinister”, “grim”, “indignant”, “reassuring” – each word replayed in Mr Raeburn’s distinctive sing-song voice, so full of passion and deep understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

I remember sitting in the Headmaster’s office with his newly formed troupe of players as he cast me in the role of Camillo, before presenting me with my copy of Shakespeare’s fantastical play. It was to be the only time I was directed in a play by him, but it was a truly inspirational term of rehearsal – memorable not least for when Mr Raeburn, in a highly enthusiastic burst of direction, jigged backwards, arms flailing and disappeared off the edge of the stage to clatter moments later into the rows of wooden fold-up chairs. Stunned silence for several seconds. No movement for what seemed like an eternity, until that familiar voice piped up – “I’m alright, but could someone untangle me from these blasted chairs please?” He was immediately back up on the stage with no fuss allowed.

It was with great sadness that I, like so many of his former pupils, heard that Mr Raeburn had passed away. There is something special and eternal about “your Headmaster”, and generations of Whitgift pupils were fortunate enough to have been at the school during his headship between 1970 and 1991.

My experience of Whitgift during those years was of a very happy place modelled in Mr Raeburn’s image, character and humanity. He oversaw the development of the school physically – sports hall, the science and design buildings – and his vision is rightly reflected through the naming of the Raeburn Library. However, no Headmaster would want their legacy to be purely physical, and I see Mr Raeburn’s true legacy as the many thousands of boys who he guided to adulthood, many of whom went on to become leaders in their chosen fields. Whitgift under Mr Raeburn was no production line. Instead the Headmaster took a keen interest in all “my boys”, as he liked to say.

I found in him a true mentor who understood me and guided me through some challenging years, and provided me with opportunities to grow and develop, not least encouraging me to act, even though I was not a particular talent. He knew it provided a focus and an outlet.

I was lucky to have maintained contact with David over the years since leaving the school and he became a friend as well as my former Head. Like so many other OWs, I would happily accept his invitations to see him for formal dinner at New College, Oxford. It was here that for many years he tutored Classics, in particular helping students to read Ancient Greek and every year directing his charges in a Greek Tragedy to great critical acclaim. He also wrote and recorded on the subject, and I would recommend a listen to his discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on YouTube, if only to hear his delightful and instantly recognisable voice – you can hear the twinkle in his voice as he introduces his subject by saying “some of the more famous ones are rather racy”. I promise you, you will smile.

Dinners at New College would always be preceded by drinks in the SCR, where he would attempt to winkle out the latest gossip and news, always keen to hear about developments at the school and Whitgiftian Association and reminisce about school life and teachers. I was always so proud to see the deep respect and reverence in which he was held by undergraduates and colleagues at New College.

While he followed school events from a┬ádistance after leaving Whitgift, he did return for my year group’s 30th Anniversary celebrations. He received the warmest of welcomes from every former pupil, each keen to share a memory or two with him. At lunch in the Old Library, David stood to give an impromptu speech – effusive, humble, witty and joyful – that will be long-remembered. After the event, he wrote a beautiful thank you letter.

It was, of course, us who should have been thanking him, not just for joining us on that perfect Summer’s day, but for his tender care, guidance and understanding during our formative years. He will be remembered as a great Headmaster and dear friend.

Jonathan Bunn OW (1980-88)


Editors note – The dignified funeral service was shown online from Oxford which enabled OWs to pay their respects at least from afar, the School will hold a proper tribute to David’s time at Whitgift in due course.

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