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Guthrie, Robert Isles Loftus [Robin] (1937–2009), charity administrator and public servant, was born on 27 June 1937 at 30 Barrow Road, Cambridge, the son of , classical scholar and later master of Downing College, Cambridge, and his Australian wife, Adele Marion, née Ogilvy (1905–1992). He had a sister, Anne, who died in her twenties.

Guthrie enjoyed a classical education at Clifton College, Bristol, where he was head boy and discovered a lifelong passion for music. National service with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, where he received a commission, delayed further studies, but he then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read classics. He subsequently gained a certificate in education at Liverpool University, before reading for an MSc degree at the London School of Economics. During his time as a student he followed in his father's footsteps when, between 1958 and 1962, he joined expeditions to Anatolia organized by the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara.

At Cambridge, Guthrie had been deeply influenced by the radically minded chaplain Eric James, and it was James who invited him to become warden of Cambridge House, a university settlement in south London. He worked there from 1962 to 1969, in an area of poverty and rapid redevelopment, which he unsuccessfully fought against. He taught for two years in a Brixton comprehensive school (1964–6), did pioneering work on race relations, and learned how to deal with distant bureaucracies. On 5 October 1963 he married Sarah Julia (Sally) Weltman, a 23-year-old school care organizer and fellow settlement resident, whom he had met at Cambridge. She was the daughter of Joseph Weltman, an education officer with ITV. The marriage was to be vital in creating a happy family life that sat behind an increasingly public one. They had two sons and one daughter.

In 1969 Guthrie moved to Peterborough to take up the post of social development officer with the local development corporation. He was appointed even though, said one who interviewed him, he appeared ‘too radical, too left-wing’ for the appointments panel (The Times, 18 May 2009). From the start he established close links with inner London boroughs to encourage and enable families in housing need to move to the new town and then to help them settle. He also forged links between health, education, and social services providers and encouraged the growth of the voluntary sector. This experience convinced him that families wanted a house and a garden and that his advocacy hitherto of high-density, high-rise development was mistaken.

Guthrie's four years as assistant director of the social work service of the Department of Health and Social Security from 1975 to 1979 were frustrating and he disliked commuting, so the invitation to become director of the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust in York was a deliverance. In his nine years with the trust, from 1979 to 1988, he moved it from its concentration on housing to an interest in social change by identifying need and commissioning reports with money provided to fund the implementation of recommendations. The trust became the largest independent funder of social research. With Robin Huws Jones, and through the associated Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, he also helped create Hartrigg Oaks, the country's first continuing care retirement community.

From 1988 to 1992 Guthrie was chief charity commissioner for England and Wales. In this post he not only overhauled an old bureaucracy but also pushed for what became the Charities Act of 1993. He left the year before to become director of social and economic affairs at the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg. There he was responsible for myriad areas of intergovernmental co-operation across the continent, among them migration, social security, and drugs control. He came to recognize how little the role of the Council of Europe was appreciated by those at home. He retired in 1998.

Guthrie held various honorary posts throughout his career and into retirement, which included membership of the Arts Council (1979–81 and 1987–8) and the councils of the Policy Studies Institute (1979–88) and the University of York (1982–94). He chaired the Yorkshire Arts Association (1984–8) and the council of the Regional Arts Association (1985–8). As chairman of the council of St John's College, York (2003–8), he oversaw its achievement of university status, as York St John University. At his death he was chairman of the governing bodies of Jessie's Fund (since 1998), which provided music for children in hospices, and the York Museum and Gallery Trust (since 2002), both of which he helped to set up, and was a trustee of the Thalidomide Trust (since 1999). He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was made an honorary DLitt by Bradford University in 1991.

Guthrie's combination of steely determination and charm furthered his aims, but he was capable of great personal kindnesses. The question he always put to himself (and others) was: ‘What difference might this make to the people in the back streets and the tower blocks?’ (The Independent, 15 May 2009). It was one to which he always sought an answer from his early days in Camberwell to his time in Strasbourg at the end of his career. He died of heart failure on 12 April 2009 in York Hospital. He was survived by his wife, his sons, Andrew and Thomas, and his daughter, Clare.

Terry Philpot


The Times (6 May 2009); (18 May 2009) · The Independent (15 May 2009) · The Guardian (17 June 2009) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

£312,503: probate, 11 Oct 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales