Sir John Cowperthwaite KBE CMG
Hong Kong financial secretary and merchant banker
Born: 25 April, 1915, in Edinburgh. Died: 21 January, 2006, in Dundee, aged 90.
SIR John Cowperthwaite was financial secretary for Hong Kong (1961-1971), during what many regard as its golden era of economic prosperity, and was subsequently a merchant banker, acting as international advisor to Jardine Fleming & Co, Hong Kong (1972-1981). He had a lifelong association with St Andrews, Scotland.
The son of John and Jessie (ne Jarvis) and James Cowperthwaite, he was descended from talented and creative stock, including Captain James "Brace-winch" Jarvis, the inventor of a brace-winch for sailing vessels "close hauled", who was his maternal grandfather. His brother David Cowperthwaite was under-secretary in the Scottish home & health department, Edinburgh (1974-1981).
Educated at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, Cowperthwaite proved to be a brilliant student. He took a first in classics at St Andrews, followed by a double first in classics at Cambridge (Christ's College), and then took an accelerated track to first-class honours in economics, back in St Andrews again. In the latter phase, he came under the influence of the economist Professor Wilkie Nisbet, a noted intellectual figure at the university, and a resolute free trader. He was to become a lifelong friend.
Cowperthwaite was not just a cloistered student, but participated fully in student life. He was a keen rugby player and cricketer. Always a man of impressive stature and powerful physique, he played First XV rugby for Merchiston Castle School, St Andrews University and for Christ's College, usually as full back. He also nurtured a lifelong interest in golf, being at his best a five handicap player. He was a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews, and of the (Royal) Hong Kong Golf Club. He continued to be a keen player until his late eighties.
It was in St Andrews University, during his period of studies in economics, that Sir John met his wife to be. He was married in 1941, to Sheila Thomson, a medical student (seen on left of photo). She was the ideal partner to John, for over 60 eventful years, and proved to be a talented artist and homemaker.
Cowperthwaite spent six months in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). One of his first duties, in May 1941, had been guarding Rudolph Hess, who had parachuted into Scotland, after his Messerschmitt 110D had crashed.
He entered the Colonial Civil Service in Hong Kong in 1941, and was subsequently posted to Sierra Leone, as district officer in Freetown, in 1942, for three years. Their only son, John was born in Sierra Leone, and went on to become an architect, practising in Hong Kong. He was tragically killed, murdered in the Philippines in May 2004.
Cowperthwaite is best known for his distinguished service in Hong Kong. He joined the Hong Kong government in exile in London in 1945. He arrived in Hong Kong itself shortly after its liberation in August 1945. A cadet in the administrative service, he was to rise to head of department, to depute financial secretary, and then, famously, to financial secretary from 1961 to 1971. He is justly credited with a major role in laying the foundations of the great economic success of Hong Kong in the late post-war period. Sir John's important services were recognised with many honours: KBE (1968), OBE (1960), CMG (1964).
Sir John and Lady Sheila had purchased a beautiful house in St Andrews in 1969. Of classical town-house proportions, located in central St Andrews, it was extensively refurbished over a three-year period, and was visited with increasing frequency from three-month periods, alternating with residence in Hong Kong, ultimately to full residence in St Andrews.
Life in Hong Kong was lively and exhilarating. Cowperthwaite was a keen member of the (Royal) Hong Kong Golf Club, and the (Royal) Hong Kong Jockey Club. He was an enthusiast for the turf, and was joint owner of three race horses in Hong Kong, Black Arrow, Justin, and more notably, winner of two "first past the post", Persian Rose. One of his pleasures was visiting horse training at 5.30am. Another fond pursuit was playing lawn bowls at the Indian Recreation Club.
After his "second retirement" - from merchant banking - Sir John and Lady Sheila travelled extensively, for nearly 20 years. These travels were worldwide, and especially focused on the United States where many of his family lived.
In his leisure hours, including those made free on long journeys, Cowperthwaite read extensively, but as Sheila put it: "Rarely in English, except for newspapers." A scholar of French and Italian, especially their 18th-century literatures, he also enjoyed reading the classics in Greek and Latin. He was an expert crossword puzzler, particularly favouring the difficult puzzles of the Telegraph and the Spectator.
Until his very last days, Cowperthwaite was a well-known and recognised figure in St Andrews: walking to collect newspapers and fresh rolls in the morning. He performed a quiet, but distinguished service for St Andrews University. He was very much part of the fabric of this university city.
He is survived by his wife, Sheila, two grandsons and two great grandchildren.