Obituary: John Maitland Hunt, headmaster and author

Born: 4 March, 1932, in Winchester. Died: 16 January, 2014 in Fife, aged 81

John Maitland Hunt: Fife-educated teacher who was the first man to head the exclusive Roedean girls school
John Maitland Hunt: Fife-educated teacher who was the first man to head the exclusive Roedean girls school

John Maitland Hunt broke new ground as the first man to take charge of the illustrious independent girls’ school Roedean.

He took over the reins in 1971, the first headmaster to be appointed since it was founded in 1885, and proceeded to improve, expand and modernise the school through a series of imaginative initiatives.

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Under his stewardship the young women reaped the benefits of a dedicated science centre, where projects included the construction of a working hovercraft, a new home economics department, extended studio facilities and squash courts and the forward-thinking provision of a facility providing accommodation to help prepare senior pupils for university living.

His contribution to the life of the quintessentially English institution was huge and his career as a teacher and manager was a runaway success – rather unlike his initial line of work in accountancy, for which he proved totally unsuitable.

The son of Richard Hunt, who owned a specialist paint business, and his wife Eileen, he was born in the village of Itchen Abbas, just outside Winchester, and sent to be educated at Craigflower Prep School at Torryburn in Fife, near to the family’s Scottish estate.

He was schooled there during the Second World War before returning south to attend Radley College in Oxfordshire. After leaving school he spent a few short months as an accountant and was as spectacularly unsuccessful has his father had been before him, mainly due to the fact that he was incapable of adding up, he said.

He then decided he would like to go up to Oxford but there was the small stumbling block of the lack of Latin O level to get round first. He overcame that, thanks to tutoring by a friend of his mother, and by the time he was in his early 20s had gained a place at Wadham College, graduating with an MA in Geography. He followed that with a BLitt, researching trading links between Scotland and the Low Countries in the 17th century.

His love of geography was to take him, in 1957, to Stowe School, then exclusively a boys’ school, where he taught the subject for 12 years. He had planned to become a bachelor housemaster but that ambition was foiled when he fell in love. He met his wife Sarah, through friends and family links, and they married in St Mary’s Cathedral Church, Edinburgh in 1969. After leaving Stowe, the couple moved to Scotland for a year or so, living on the estate near Dunfermline while he debated his next move.

A potential answer presented itself as he was visiting the Oxford appointments office. One of the staff popped her head round the door and suggested he apply to Rodean. It was a totally new departure not only for the tall, handsome 38-year-old but also for the school, and his success attracted a great deal of publicity at home and internationally.

The academic aspect of the school suited him and fortunately all the long-standing members of staff immediately clicked with him and could not have been more supportive. They also took his wife under their wing and she became a highly valued extra member of the team.

He raised academic standards through an imaginative approach to science teaching, oversaw the expansion of home economics under a particularly inspirational department head and presided over the opening of Lawrence House, which introduced the older sixth formers to university-type accommodation.

He had always had a great interest in drama, theatre and music, producing many plays during his time at Stowe, and at Roedean he was also able to boost the speech and drama department with some excellent new appointments. His own powers of entertainment included a ready wit and a marvellous knack of being able to mimic any member of his staff, but above all he is remembered at the school for his warmth and compassion, generosity, fairness and kindness. Hunt remained there until 1984 when his traditional departing head’s portrait was a striking image photographed by Lord Snowdon.

The decision to leave Roedean meant he could devote more time to writing and to managing the family estate and his love of historical geography prompted him to start work on a book about early Dutch settlers in South Africa. However, in 1988 a fire at his home, Logie House, destroyed his manuscript, his desk and everything in it. The room was gutted and the whole house blackened by smoke. Undaunted, he started all over again. The house was restored with the help of a team of Edinburgh experts and the ruined room brought back to its former glory by local craftsmen.

Hunt’s book, Dutch South Africa: Early Settlers at the Cape 1652-1708, was finally published in 2005. Over the years he also wrote on art and architecture for various publications, conducted tours of Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival and gave talks on Venice In Peril, the fund that finances the restoration of Venetian works of art, buildings and monuments.

A devoted family man, he is survived by his wife Sarah, their sons Jonathan and Richard and grandchildren Alexander, Venetia and Isla.