Sir John Boyd KCMG, 17 January 1936 – 18 October 2019

21st October 2019 in Alumni, News and Events, People

Image above L-R: Lord Howe, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Sir John Boyd and Lord Hurd. Taken at the Foreign Policy Witness Seminar, 2006.

The College is saddened to announce the death of former Master of Churchill, Sir John Boyd, on 18 October, aged 83.

Sir John was the Master of Churchill from 1996–2006, having previously been the British Ambassador to Japan from 1992–96. During his time as Master, Sir John was also announced as the chairman of the British Museum in 2001 having previously been a trustee of the museum for five years, working closely with the Museum’s Department of Japanese Antiquities.

Speaking in 2018 of his time as Master of Churchill, Sir John recalled: “We were extraordinarily lucky and happy to come to Churchill and we never regretted it for a day. All the main points about Churchill were things that were very near to our hearts: the flexibility and the strong talent, offset by this kind of family feeling. The lovely link with Mary Soames in particular was always a joy. The link with Mr Møller also. He was a lovely man - so careful and courteous. And then the other major thing was that Julia and I could both be involved and it was the ultimate happiness for us both as a couple and each doing our thing in the College.

There was a low point when I had a stroke and others I knew in Cambridge or elsewhere had been pretty much waved goodbye by their colleges when they got seriously sick. So, it was one of the most human and lovely things the College did was to tell me: ‘Take your time, we want you back.'

Educated at Clare College, Cambridge and Yale, Sir John joined the Foreign Office in 1962, where he was sent to Hong Kong almost immediately to continue his language studies in Chinese, before returning to the UK in 1967 to work in the Northern and then First Eastern Departments. IN 1969 he was sent to Washington where he – in his words – 'was covering the Nixon phenomenon, Kissinger's re-balancing of the world [and] Mel Laird’s managing of the Pentagon.' In 1973 he moved back to China, before heading to Bonn as Counsellor Economic in 1977. In 1981 he went to the United Nations in New York, where he was 'responsible for the Economic and Social Council, the Second Committee, which was economic affairs, the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which was social affairs, and a whole range of relations with the Specialised Agencies - population people, development people, food people and so on.'

After New York Sir John returned to the Foreign Office as an Assistant Under Secretary of State in 1984, before becoming political advisor to Hong Kong in 1985. After two years in this role he returned to the UK to become Deputy Under-Secretary of State (Defence and Intelligence), a role which he said 'suited us in family terms to bring up our small family in the UK for a change. We lived in a tiny basement in SW1 and I walked to the Office. It worked out well.' He then became Chief Clerk from 1989–92 before moving to Tokyo in his final role before joining Churchill College.

Speaking about his long and varied career that spanned 3 continents in an interview in 1999, when asked if he would do it again Sir John said 'Without hesitation. I always thought when I was young that I would probably pursue the family traditions of medicine or academia. I thought, or persuaded myself, that that is what I wanted to do and had periodic chews at it, none of which was totally satisfactory. I think that probably up until my last year at Cambridge I thought I would be an academic of some kind, but I am profoundly glad I wasn't. The Service provides a perfect home for people like me, who want to be active, but who are not actually first class academics; there are lots of people in the Foreign Office much brighter than me but they were nice tolerant colleagues and one could make some use of one's life. So I have absolutely no regrets and I am just very lucky that I have this [Master of Churchill] as a cherry on top of the cake at the end of it, largely by luck.'

Remembering Sir John, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre, Allen Packwood said, 'He was a great supporter of the Churchill Archives Centre and his personal diplomacy undoubtedly helped us acquire many important collections. He knew everybody and was liked by everyone.'

Rosemary Saunders, who was Sir John's Personal Assistant for many years said, 'Sir John was a remarkable person to work for. He was thoughtful and supportive and I will always remember John with high esteem. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have known him both professionally and personally, sharing many happy occasions  with both he and Julia.'

Sir John will be recalled with great affection by all those members of the College who knew him during and after his time as Master, and valued him both as a distinguished holder of that post and as a fine person. A commemoration service will take place in the Chapel at Churchill, the College of which he was so fond, at a date to be announced soon. Our thoughts are with Julia and the Boyd family.

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