Skip to main content

Jan 2014: Lord Kingsdown - A Tribute

Gordon Stringer writes:

Lord Kingsdown, KG, PC (1927 – 2013)

It is with a great sense of loss that we record the death of Robin Leigh-Pemberton, Lord Kingsdown, who had been Patron of the EFA since 1997. He followed another distinguished Old Etonian, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and filled the role with equal aplomb.

It was a stroke of good fortune that the Association was able to gain his attention when competing with the demands of an illustrious career, which, at various stages, included being Governor of the Bank of England, Chairman of NatWest Bank, chairman of several industrial companies, a director of many others, as well as serving on public committees and a host of other commitments.

It was as Chairman of NatWest that Robin facilitated the bank’s sponsorship of Eton Fives, but as they were a national company they were anxious not to be seen to be supporting a competition as overtly elitist as the Alan Barber Cup, exclusively played for by public school Old Boys. With Robin’s public affairs man, the EFA came up with a solution: the creation of the NatWest County Championship. Obviously, the same people played, but they were under county groupings. Smart programmes were produced, the finals were played at Eton, and there was a reception in the Luxmoore Room afterwards at which the trophy was presented, often by Robin himself, or if not, by a senior dignitary at the bank. The bank paid all the expenses and also made a contribution to the EFA. NatWest was also responsible for sponsorship of the EFA Coaching Manual, written by John Reynolds; without their financial support, it might never have been published.

In 1925, Robin’s father built what is now one of the last privately-owned Eton Fives courts in the UK, in the grounds of his estate, Torry Hill near Sittingbourne. Just a few years ago, one of Robin’s sons, John, oversaw the refurbishment of the court and added a roof and lighting to ensure its use for generations to come. There has been an ’open day’ each summer, combining informal games with an exhibition match by leading players, all watched keenly by Robin. The uniqueness of this occasion is much cherished by those who have been able to enjoy the day and the generous hospitality provided by Robin’s wife, Rose.

Robin’s prep school was St Peter’s Court, Broadstairs, which had its own Eton Fives court, and from there he went to Eton, showing early promise in mathematics and classics. He progressed quickly up the school and became a member of the Eton Society (‘Pop’). His House Master, WR Colquhoun, wrote in the house book: “The biggest star in the house is definitely Leigh-Pemberton. He took a treble remove having won a scholarship and won the new boy Fives. All rather brilliant and at the same time he is not conceited.”

A scholarship to read ‘Greats’ at Trinity College, Oxford was followed by service in the Grenadier Guards, after which he embarked on legal studies. He was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple and practised in London and the South-Eastern circuit for a number of years.

The Leigh-Pemberton family have been landowners in Kent since the 19th century and Robin inherited from his father the 2,500-acre Torry Hill estate, which included several properties in and around the village of Frinstead. A major figure in the area, Robin was Lord-Lieutenant of Kent for several years, a Kent County Councillor later becoming Chairman, Pro-Chancellor of the University of Kent, Seneschal of Canterbury Cathedral, Honorary Colonel of the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Squadron and a magistrate. A talented cricketer, he was President of Kent County Cricket Club and at Torry Hill Robin hosted cricket sides from all over Kent and beyond: The Band of Brothers, of which he had been Chief, The Old Stagers, of which he had been President, I Zingari, Free Foresters and many others.

During his time as Governor of the Bank of England he used to invite the staff to Torry Hill for a day: a game of cricket on the pitch which his father had created in the 1920s, with Robin playing for the Bank’s team and a ride on the narrow gauge steam railway, also built by his father in the 1930s. It is complete with viaduct and tunnel and Robin would be wearing an engine driver’s cap.

It was as Chairman of NatWest that Robin oversaw a period of sustained recovery and expansion to be ready to overtake its main rival, Barclays, as the leading British commercial bank. He became the industry’s chief spokesman as Chairman of the Committee of London Clearing Banks and began to attract attention in Downing Street. Whilst some in the City expressed concern over Robin’s experience to be sufficient for him to become Governor of the Bank of England, he held office for ten years and proved his competence as a modernising Governor in one of the most turbulent periods of its history. Weathering banking collapses and forceful disagreement over monetary policy, he won the respect of his colleagues by showing himself to be decisive, approachable, and highly effective in managing by delegation.

He was admired as a man of stature and unforced grandeur of style. He was urbane with transparent integrity and he effortlessly entertained the great and the good, including the Queen. He was practical and resilient and was sustained by an inner confidence which communicated itself to those around him. Tall and imposing, he had understated Englishness and despite the pressures of Governorship, he maintained a relaxed and squirearchical style. A born leader, he enjoyed good relations with the Treasury, was well-regarded by fellow central bankers abroad and was notably popular within the Bank itself. He once said – with genuine insouciance – “It’s funny but whenever I agree to join some board or committee, they ask me to become chairman”.

The void left by such a figurehead as Robin is immeasurable and to Rose and their four sons, we send our deep condolences.

GDS/JDCV/RMK (With acknowledgement to The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian).