Obituary: George Cawkwell, New Zealander academic and author who was proud of his sole Scottish rugby cap

George CawkwellGeorge Cawkwell
George Cawkwell
George Cawkwell, academic, author and rugby player. Born: 25 October 1919. Died: 18 February 2019, aged 99.

George Cawkwell, who has died aged 99, was Scotland’s oldest rugby international having won one cap against France. He was also a distinguished academic, author and teacher in the field of ancient Greek history at Oxford ­University.

Born in Auckland, New ­Zealand to a Scottish mother and father of English descent, he lived there till 1946 and came to Oxford to study at Christ Church College after war ­service.

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Within months he won his first of two ‘Blues’ playing at second row for Oxford ­University against Cambridge in the Varsity match in December 1946, after which promotion to the Scottish team came quickly with his cap against France in Paris on New Year’s Day 1947.

Although later that year he represented Oxford against the touring Australians and won a second ‘Blue’ against Cambridge, his services were never called upon again by Scotland.

In 1948 he graduated with a first class honours degree in Greats, the study of ancient history and philosophy, and a year later became a Fellow of University College, Oxford, the beginning of a mutually rewarding association that would endure for the rest of his life.

Although he fulfilled many important roles including ­College vice-master between 1980 and 1985, he will be ­particularly remembered for the quality of his teaching, his immense contribution to ­general university life and the valuable and empathetic support extended to students, many of whom remained in contact with him long after graduation. He is believed to be the college’s longest serving Fellow and one held in the highest regard and affection, reflected in the endowment of a permanent Fellowship in his name.

He wrote several books including Philip of Macedon, Thucydides and the Pelopennesian War – for which he won the Runciman Prize – and The Greek Wars – the Failure of Persia.

Although he formally retired in 1987 he remained heavily involved in college activities as Emeritus Fellow. A physically commanding presence in his prime at 6ft 4in, and tipping the scales at over 15 stones, he could be a dominating figure but his generosity of spirit, genuine interest in others and commitment to educating and improving his students’ lot endeared him to generations.

George Law Cawkwell was born to George and ­Isabella, née Kemp, younger brother of Peggy. His father ran a ­chemist’s business in ­Auckland before coming to Edinburgh to study medicine in 1910, where he met ­Isabella, who returned with him to Auckland.

Cawkwell attended the city’s famous King’s College where he was head boy and his sporting potential came to the fore as a member of the rugby and cricket teams for several years.

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He also shone academically and on admission to the city’s university was awarded the Lissie Rathbone scholarship, leading to graduation in 1941 with first class honours in ­Latin, attaining the highest marks in New Zealand.

That year he also received a postgraduate scholarship in arts from the University of New Zealand and was appointed president of Auckland ­University College Students’ Association.

On the rugby field he ­represented the university, captained Auckland Colts and played for the Auckland ­representative senior team while on the cricket square he represented the university.

War brought sporting activities to a temporary halt when he was seconded as lieutenant to the 3rd battalion of the Fijian Forces and saw action against the Japanese at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, where he was wounded.

Recipient of a special Rhodes scholarship for servicemen, he came to Oxford with wife Pat Clarke, whom he had ­married in Auckland in 1945, sharing a long and happy marriage and having three children, Simon, Sarah and Tim. At Oxford the couple’s hospitality became legendary as they entertained students and others at home, including later US president Bill Clinton, whom Cawkwell thought ‘an agreeable young man’.

After his debut in the Varsity match, Scottish selectors asked which country he would be interested in representing to which he immediately replied “Scotland”. Following a successful trial match at Galashiels, the “outsize” ­forward, as one report described him, was picked for the international against France while six days before then, on Boxing Day, he made the first of two appearances for the Barbarians against Leicester.

The Paris fixture was the first against France since 1931, the hosts having been excluded because of allegations of professionalism. The Scots, who only featured one previous full cap given the war years, Henderson of Edinburgh Accies/Wanderers, were accommodated in the palatial Hotel Lutetia, previously Gestapo headquarters.

France were clearly stronger although the plucky Scots held them to 8-3 but afterwards spirits were raised by a ­lavish banquet at the ­Eiffel Tower.

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Although disappointed not to be selected again, he was proud to have gained his cap and felt genuinely attached to Scotland. During the ­independence referendum, he thought that if the vote went in favour it would be “like cutting off a limb”.

His Scottish attachment was underlined by annual family holidays at Morvern by Lochaline where he learned to fly fish. While he continued to ­follow rugby, he thought it was a different game nowadays, resembling “mercenary warfare”.

He also maintained his interest in cricket, his true sporting love, in which he was happy to support England against all comers but in rugby his native All Blacks remained his number one team. He and his wife returned several times to visit New Zealand, once ­enjoying a sabbatical term at Otago University.

Friendly and compassionate, he lived life to the full and remained very engaged ­culturally, socially and politically. He is survived by his children, four grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren.