Obituary: Vernon Murphy

Vernon Murphy,  former chairman of Scottish Airports. Picture: Contributed
Vernon Murphy, former chairman of Scottish Airports. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 28 July, 1944. in Shrewsbury. Died: 14 July, 2014, in Aylesbury, aged 69.

Some of Vernon Murphy’s earliest memories were of watching the steam engines belch through post-war Southall Station as a small boy. It was then just a fledgling fascination for all things mechanical but became an obsession that would later encompass an encyclopaedic knowledge of transport systems.

That all-consuming interest would also form the core of his career and a lifetime’s passion for planes, trains and automobiles, buses and classic cars – an enthusiasm that took him from being a gap year worker at Geneva Airport to chairman of Scottish Airports, the British Airports Authority International and Heathrow Express.

As a result he developed a perspective and understanding of the civil aviation industry that was arguably unrivalled in the UK, making him one of the country’s leading figures in air transport policy and a great loss to his field with his death, just short of his 70th birthday.

Born in Shrewsbury, where his family was evacuated to during the Second World War, he was the son of Sir Leslie Murphy, a government adviser, oil executive and financier, and his wife Lady Marjorie.

On returning to Greater London as a baby, he was raised in the boroughs of Norwood Green and Hillingdon, from where he would cycle to his grandparents’ home in Southall where his interest in steam trains was fuelled.

After an education at Gunnersbury Prep and then Westminster School, he won a place at Caius College, Cambridge where he read economics, graduating with an MA before taking a gap year working with Swissair.

His role at Geneva Airport involved calculating vital figures for luggage weight, distribution and fuel consumption. Once his work was completed, he would cycle out onto the runway and hand over the calculations to the pilot in the cockpit.

On one occasion his father happened to be flying out of Geneva and struck up a conversation with a particularly nervous flier seated beside him. As they waited for take-off, his father drew the passenger’s attention to a scene on the tarmac. “See that young man on a bicycle, he’s my son, and if he’s got his sums wrong this plane will probably crash!”

Needless to say it did not, as the young Vernon was already a reliable and dependable hard-worker.

His career began in 1966 as the first graduate trainee to join the British Airports Authority, then in 1969 he became assistant to the chief executive, followed by posts as deputy manager of Heathrow’s Terminal 2, sales manager at the airport and then general manager of its Terminal 1. In 1980 he came to Scotland as manager of Aberdeen Airport.

Four years later he returned to the London area – where he knew the precise route of most buses in the English capital – this time as deputy managing director of Gatwick Airport Ltd before heading north again.

From 1988 he held posts as managing director of Glasgow Airport Ltd and managing director, then chairman, of Scottish Airports. During his time in Scotland he was also chairman of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and deputy chairman of Renfrewshire Enterprise.

Later he became managing director of BAA Rail, chairman of Heathrow Express and of BAA international, which included board appointments in Australia, Italy and the USA.

He retired in 2006 and since then had been chairman of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport’s aviation forum. Along with two others, he wrote the books Extreme Steam and 21st Century Extreme Steam, featuring the hundreds of steam trains that still remained on China’s huge rail network – a task that entailed 26 visits to China. He was also an adviser to the Railway Heritage Trust.

An enthusiastic and accomplished photographer, he regularly contributed images and articles to various publications including railway and bus magazines. He married Joan, in 1974, who always referred to him as her “resident expert” due to his ability to provide the answer to virtually any question of fact, and they had two girls to whom he was a generous, patient and adoring father.

However his other great love, aside from his wife and daughters, was cricket. His was a sporting family: his father and grandfather had both been great sportsmen, the latter playing professional cricket for Middlesex and football for London’s Queens Park Rangers.

When his parents moved to Gerrards Cross when he was 19, he joined the cricket and tennis club which was literally at the bottom of the garden.

A member of the MCC, he was involved with his local cricket club for almost half a century, serving as team captain at one time. Years later, when he and his wife moved from Denham Green to Gerrards Cross, they built a house in the orchard of his parents’ property where he had lived as a young man. Once again, he was on the doorstep of his beloved cricket ground, accessed through garden gate.

Murphy is survived by his wife, daughters Olivia and Juliet and grandson Conrad.