Scotsman Obituaries: George Gwilt, pioneering Standard Life leader, musician and patron of the arts

George Gwilt was a pioneer of computing in the insurance fieldGeorge Gwilt was a pioneer of computing in the insurance field
George Gwilt was a pioneer of computing in the insurance field
George David Gwilt, insurance executive and musician. Born: 11 November 1927 in Edinburgh. Died: 9 March 2024 in Edinburgh, aged 96

As an actuary, a leader in insurance and pensions, a pioneer in computing, a musician and a staunch supporter of the arts in Scotland, George Gwilt was a unique fixture of Edinburgh life.

George always strove for excellence and almost invariably achieved it. Having earned a first in mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, he entered the actuarial profession. In 1979 he became General Manager of Standard Life, the largest mutual life company in the UK, overseeing nine years of growth and change.

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Long before being appointed General Manager he transformed the company in various roles, beginning in 1961 with his pioneering work to introduce the first computing systems. With his tenacious attitude and aptitude for influencing people George was instrumental in negotiating the Labour Government’s cross-party reforms to the UK’s state pension system in the 1970s. As Assistant General Manager (finance) he successfully lobbied ministers and treasury officials, leading them to issue index-linked gilts in 1981.

As General Manager (subsequently Managing Director), George used his expertise in pensions to drive forward this area of the business. Under his management, Standard Life became the forerunner in the investment-bond and unit-trust markets, and their long-term assets overtook major competitors.

His leadership went beyond Standard Life. He was President of the Faculty of Actuaries in Scotland from 1981 to 1983, Director of Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust PLC (1989-98) Director of Hammerson PLC (1992-94), and served on various other company boards. He was also a member of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and a member of the UK Government Privacy Committee.

George’s reputation extended far beyond business. Music, in particular, was a lifelong passion. While at Sedbergh school he taught himself to play the flute, on an instrument given to him by his aunt. He became an accomplished and active musician. He was a founding member of the Edinburgh Wind Quintet, and he performed both as a soloist and in many orchestras and chamber groups, from the Edinburgh Gilbert and Sullivan orchestra to Herrick Bunney’s annual performances of the Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor. His prowess in business and passion for music are depicted in a series of three portraits Alexander Goudie was commissioned to paint after George’s retirement from Standard Life. The first two present the profile of a successful business leader, the third of a flute-player in performance. He was actively engaged with many musical circles both as a performer and sponsor. For the BBC he recorded music with, and by, his brother David Gwilt, composer and Professor of Music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He also performed and recorded with Scottish composer James Douglas.

George had a longstanding involvement with the Edinburgh International Festival, serving as Director of the Edinburgh International Festival Society from 1989 to 1995. He remained a steadfast supporter of music and the arts in Edinburgh and Scotland, sponsoring Scottish Opera and the Edinburgh Quartet, among other groups.

It was music that brought him together with his wife, flautist, music teacher and poet Ann Dalton (née Sylvester) Gwilt. They met playing in the Reid Orchestra while Ann was visiting Edinburgh from the United States on a year of study abroad, and in 1956 she moved to Scotland to marry George. They raised their children, Richard, Philip and Christopher, in Edinburgh. Their house was always open to musicians, with year-round visitors from the International Cello Centre run by George’s brother, cellist John Gwilt, and other musical visitors during the Edinburgh Festival.

In the 1980s, George supported Ann’s work in helping found the Scottish Poetry Library, serving at various points in its early history as Convenor, Treasurer and Director. He himself was a voracious, wide-ranging reader, especially attached to the works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

George was born in Edinburgh to Richard Lloyd Gwilt, an actuary and General Manager of the Scottish Widows’ Fund, and Marjory (née Mair) Gwilt, who studied mathematics at Edinburgh University.

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A man who spent his life demonstrating his sharp intellect and ferocious wit, George loved to challenge others, insisting on either the most scholarly, or humorous, of conversation topics. Remembered for his uproarious laughter, George relished fierce intellectual debates, even in his final weeks. His humour and wit were often on display when reciting from memory lines of poetry, jokes and limericks he composed himself (a trait inherited from his mother).

An amateur photographer and film-maker, he directed a memorable series of family movies, including A Queer Happening in the Highlands. After retirement he became a proficient cook, specialising in Indian and Chinese cuisine. From 16 to the age of 89 he rarely missed a week playing squash, finding renown late in life as part of Edinburgh’s octogenarian squash team.

Computer programming remained a passion. He dedicated much of later life to the Sinclair QL system, authored Assembler programs, and is remembered fondly by his fellow QL users. Computers also allowed George to enjoy the regular company of family from afar. Whether engaged in conversation, completing crosswords together or sharing news of his grandchildren and great grandson, twice-weekly video calls were cherished by his sons.

George passed away peacefully at home. He is survived by his brother David, sons, Richard, Philip and Christopher, seven grandchildren and one great grandson. Ann predeceased George in 2014.

In line with his wishes, George was given a green burial at Binning Memorial Wood in East Lothian, attended only by close family. A memorial is scheduled for Saturday 29 June in the St Matthew Hall, Morningside Parish Church at 2pm. RSVP to [email protected] by 21 June.


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