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Obituary: Sir John Margetson

by
04 December 2020

Kenneth Shenton writes:

SIR John Margetson, who died on 17 October, aged 93, was a man of many parts. While by profession he was a distinguished member of the diplomatic service, he was also a church organist and singer of longstanding. He was the first non-bishop chairman of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), and the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music benefited from his leadership, also.

Born in Edinburgh, where his father served for many years as Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, John William Denys Margetson was educated at Blundell’s School in Devon. There, his friends and contemporaries included the pianist David Parkhouse and the organist Peter Hurford. He then went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, with a choral scholarship, singing under Herbert Howells, who was standing in for Robin Orr, who was away on active service. He read archaeology and anthropology, and took organ lessons with Boris Ord at King’s College.

Margetson undertook National Service with the Life Guards, and returned to Cambridge to complete his degree. He then spent nine years in Tanganyika as a district officer in the Colonial Service. Moving on to the Diplomatic Service in 1960, his postings took him to the Hague, then Brussels, and, finally, New York. He also served two spells in Vietnam, first in Saigon at the height of the Vietnamese War, and secondly, to Hanoi as Ambassador after the war had ended. He finally retired as Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1987. Moving back to settle in Suffolk, there he served as organist at his local village church.

He became Chairman of the RSCM in its Diamond Jubilee year, and was able to attract numerous benefactors to its highly successful appeal. Keen for the organisation to widen its scope to become more acceptable to churches in the evangelical tradition, he also set up the RSCM’s annual National Music Day, later to become World Music Day. Overseeing the RSCM’s response to the 1992 report In Tune With Heaven, as well as the appointment of Harry Bramma as its new Director, he also began preliminary discussions for the organisation to leave its base at Addington Palace, Croydon, and move to Cleveland Lodge.

In 1989, the former Arts Minister, Lord Gowrie issued a report on behalf of the Polytechnics and College Council, which recommended replacement of both the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music with one well-funded, but smaller, institution. Margetson, as chairman of the joint committee representing the London Royal Schools of Music, fought a successful campaign to get the proposals quashed. He would later rather modestly reflect that “It was the one good thing I did.”

Other work includes chairing a Third World charity, World Family; directing the John S. Cohen Foundation, a charitable trust that did much to support music and the arts; chairing the Yehudi Menuhin School; and, from 1990 to 1998, a trusteeship of the Fitzwilliam Museum. He retired in 1988, owing to serious illness; but he did go on to complete a most delightful monograph, Gorty, reflecting on the life his former school headmaster, the Revd Neville Gorton, who became Bishop of Coventry.

He is survived by his wife, Miranda, and a son and daughter.

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