Dandyish headmaster and avid classicist who augured a student’s success in the entrails of a rabbit
During Bob Bairamian’s tenure as headmaster, Holmewood House, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, became one of the most highly rated prep schools in England, vying academically with the Dragon School in Oxford, but never outdone for swagger.
Success bred success and the whole show was superbly choreographed by Bairamian with a flamboyance both natural and carefully managed. The handshake was vigorous, the talk was knowing and the laugh was enormous. From the top pocket of his well-cut pinstripe suit flowed a dandyish red polka dot silk handkerchief, and from his pen bold lines of red ink.
The effect on young boys was spellbinding (the first word they had to be sure to be able to spell was Bairamian), and his leadership made the staff instinctively loyal; but his real audience was the customers — paying parents and the headmasters of public schools, where he cut deals for his charges.
His headmaster’s review for 1972 began: “I well remember a Chevalier de Tastevin saying to me in 1959 that he thought that the particular vintage might be the wine of the century”, and went on to discuss the crop of boys who at 13 had matured and won 28 scholarships, “a national postwar record”.
Here, as the awestruck parents of seven and eight-year-old applicants could see, was a man who understood the good things in life, had friends in the right places and could offer a chance to share in the spoils. The numbers spoke for themselves.
Bairamian was a man of the world in another sense. The second part of his review was a reflection on “our African adventure”, a trip with his wife to Nigeria and Ghana to drum up business. As well as lectures in 20 schools, there was an audience with “the Asantehene, King of all the Ashantis, in the Palace of Kumasi, surrounded by the autographed mementoes of every crowned head in Europe.”
Bairamian understood that the world believed that English public schools offered the best possible education. And because the best are oversubscribed, the rich will pay for the access that a good prep school provides.
Bairamian sought to enrol members of African high society, whose contributions enabled him to offer bursaries to bright children whose parents might not otherwise afford the fees. The subsidised scholars gave Bairamian leverage with the public schools looking for eventual Oxbridge entrants.
A lover of cricket and above all squash and hockey, Bairamian marked out each individual pupil with erudite nicknames. Every achievement earned a word of praise and, with a whole-school assembly every morning, there was such a profusion of cups, medals, ties, prefectorial grades and prizes to award that each boy had a chance to be proud of something. “The headmaster is a classic”, one inspector’s report concluded. Bairamian made Latin memorable by using it around the school, whether describing the weather as “Jupiter Pluvius” or a new facility as “Cloaca Maxima”.
The son of Sir Vahe Bairamian, a high court judge in colonial West Africa, Robert Bairamian was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1935. After Dover College, where he won the Astor Award for all-round achievement, he then read classics at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, twice playing cricket for the university. His claims about National Service were not exactly accurate.
Before going up to Cambridge he had already done six months’ teaching at Holmewood, which was founded in 1945 as a new use for a Decimus Burton country house. After Cambridge Bairamian returned to the school and just two years later, when the first headmaster died unexpectedly, the mantle was passed to “Bob”. He was 24. In the 1960s one or two small prep schools in Kent and Sussex closed every year, which gave Holmewood the opportunity to grow. During that decade pupil numbers more than doubled from less than 150 and by the time Bairamian left in 1974 more than 400 were enrolled.
Good food, fine wines and glamorous women are all expensive and potentially troublesome pursuits. Bairamian enjoyed all three and he did not entirely avoid trouble. He would have scoffed at his scholars for failing, as he occasionally did, to distinguish meum from tuum when it came to wives.
Bairamian was serially married and had eight sons. With Jane Crawford, he had Rupert and Justin, who is the director of BBC Creative; with Jill Hume-Kendal, he had Simon, Julian and Rupert; with Shelagh Kittermaster, he had Philip, Johnny and Nigel. He married Ros Daunt in 1986 and they were together until her death in 2013.
After retiring from Holmewood he worked at Aberdour, near Banstead, Surrey, occasionally claiming to be headmaster. He did become a head once more in 1982 at Claremont, near Battle, East Sussex. This small prep school had fallen on hard times, and Bairamian’s charisma helped it to flourish again. The scholarship tally rose healthily until, in the early 1990s, the supply of foreign students dried up and the financial promises could not be met.
Bairamian’s death triggered some strange recollections from his students. One recalled that while driving him to Sherborne for his exams, Bairamian stopped the car, inspected the entrails of a dead rabbit, looked up excitedly and said: “The omens are good!”
Bob Bairamian, headmaster, was born on March 18, 1935. He died on September 7, 2018, aged 83