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Rev’d Brian Roberts

(Elected 2015)


‘I am very proud to have been of service to Birkbeck and its students, and I'm delighted to receive a Birkbeck Fellowship,’ says the Rev’d Brian Roberts, who retired in 2005 as Birkbeck’s Secretary and Clerk to the Governors, a post he held since September 1999.

The Secretary and Clerk to the Governors is the legal representative of the College, responsible to the Master for the central administration and services. One of his roles was to help represent Birkbeck staff at graduation days and student receptions.

Brian says: ‘I’ll always remember the new students’ receptions. Some students cluster together in groups for mutual support as they wonder what is ahead of them. I set this against my memories of the degree ceremonies, and the sense of achievement and celebration, which is a wonderful contrast. It’s inspiring to see the beginning and the end of that process.’

‘I’m also very pleased that, during my time as Secretary, Birkbeck introduced a unified library into one location at Malet Street, which is great for the students.’

‘Birkbeck’s provision of part-time, face-to-face evening education is very special, and it is not shared by other universities. I believe that Birkbeck in its very nature transforms lives.’

As a mature student himself, Brian understands very well the pressures faced by Birkbeck students juggling other commitments. He is in his final year of a distance-learning bachelor’s degree in Theology with the University of Wales, and is writing a dissertation on Celtic spirituality.

He says he’s had his fair share of ‘struggling to get an essay finished before it’s gone half past two in the morning. Studying part-time is particularly stimulating, but it can be a great jolt too, because if your work is very different from your study, you've got to change gear when you’re probably quite tired in the evening. People who study and work are to be admired. It takes toughness, resilience and aspiration, and Birkbeck students have all these qualities.’

Brian’s studies are for what he refers to as ‘the next phase’ of his life, which is as a priest in the Church of England. ‘I was ordained as a deacon in 2003, and I'm now working as a curate full-time at the Holy Trinity of St Mary’s in Guildford,’ he says.

When asked if he hopes for a stress-free retirement, he replies: ‘Well, life has stress, doesn't it? It depends on how you manage it and what comes from it. Life without stress suggests something very bland and flat, and that’s not life as I understand it.’

Born in 1944, Brian was educated at Kingston Grammar School, and graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1966. He worked in government service at home and overseas until 1970, including posts in the civil service, the colonial service and the British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

He served in three other colleges of the University of London before Birkbeck: as Assistant to the Academic Secretary at LSE; Assistant Secretary at the Royal Veterinary College; and as Clerk to the Council and Secretary at the School of Pharmacy - where he became a Fellow in 2003.

His Birkbeck colleagues wish Brian a healthy and happy retirement.


President, Master, Governors, Graduands and Guests.

The subject of my oration today is the Reverend Brian Roberts, who served as Secretary and Clerk to the Governors of Birkbeck College from 1999 to 2005. Brian Roberts went from Kingston Grammar School to Balliol College Oxford to read English Language and Literature in 1963. He graduated in 1966, scooping up on the way the Andrew Bradley Shakespeare Prize and gaining the Cecil Spring Rice Award to study Renaissance Art and Architecture at the British Institute, Florence.

After university, he joined the civil service. Within a year, he had signed up for a tour of duty in the Colonial Office, working as District Officer in the Solomon Islands, at that time, before its independence, known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. I blush to say that I had to remind myself that the Solomon Islands are to be found in the Pacific, east of Papua New Guinea. They constitute a geographical confetti of some 992 islands, of which only 347 are inhabited. It would be nice to report that their name came from the fact that the number of islands corresponds pretty closely to the total number of female consorts that Solomon had (700 of the former and 300 of the latter, according to the Book of Kings). Nice if it were true; but in fact their name comes from the discovery of alluvial gold in Guadalcanal, which prompted the hope in their discoverer that he had stumbled on the legendary mines of King Solomon.

Brian had three years of beachcombing and island hopping. Then, in 1970, he decided it was time to pack his flip-flops, and wash the South Pacific right out of his hair. He returned to London, presumably unencumbered with legendary gold, to take up a job as Assistant to the Academic Secretary at the London School of Economics. This began an involvement with the University of London that has lasted until the present. After four years at the LSE, he became Assistant Secretary in the Royal Veterinary College. In 1985, he moved to School of Pharmacy, to take up the post of Clerk to the Council and Secretary.

So when he came to Birkbeck in September 1999 he brought to us almost 30 years in the service of the strange and hydra-headed organism that is the University of London. Indeed, it must at times, over the years, have seemed to him to be quite as exotic and uncharted an archipelago as the Solomon Islands. The pomp and grandeur of Brian’s title was wholly appropriate, for the range of his responsibilities was huge. The College Secretary and Clerk to the Governors oversees and coordinates the central administration and services of the college, which are sub-divided into a number of sections whose senior officers are answerable to the Master through the Secretary. These include, for example, the whole of External Relations, Planning and Human Resources, along with a sprawling archipelago of as many committees, sub-committees, steering groups and working parties as Solomon had concubines, all of them possessed of similarly insatiable appetites and given to equivalently immoderate demands. Brian did a vast amount of reading up, looking over, sitting in and signing off – including signing off every application for research awards made by members of Birkbeck academic staff, which gave him an insight into the research that is going on across the college that few could match. As the legal representative of the college, Brian’s was the name that appeared on documents, which accounted for his lynx-eyed vigilance with regard to the legal and contractual commitments into which the College might enter. As his title suggests, he was also the go-between and matchmaker between the College and the governing body.

Perhaps the most time-consuming and important of his responsibilities has been with the physical fabric of the College. One of the most important tasks of Brian’s first year in the College was negotiating the sale of our building in Gresse Street, and the following years had him seeing through work on the £18.5 million extension project which has resulted in the recall from trans-Tottenham Court Road exile of our Geography and Economics departments and the gathering of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences to the bosom of, well, not Abraham exactly, but the Malet Street mothership. The Malet Street building now has 45% more space, without encroaching a foot to left or right, and the new library has transformed the outlook of Torrington Square. Negotiations on the purchase of 7 Bedford Square and, more recently, of 27-29 Russell Square have given Brian a fearsome reputation in the University as a property dealer. The fluorescent yellow hard hat with which Brian was now sometimes accoutred sat on him as naturally as any District Commissioner’s pith helmet, and one could easily imagine him after hours springing into the cab of a mechanical digger to finish off a troublesome bit of trenching.

Brian’s particular concern for matters relating to accommodation may derive from some early and formative experiences in this area. On his arrival Brian discovered that the Secretary’s material estate had been considerably diminished by piratical sallies from the Master, who had himself only arrived in the College a year or so previously. A quatrain, composed by an anonymous folk poet of the administrative corridor, to the tune of Flanders and Swann’s ‘The Gas Man Cometh’ cast his predicament in poetic form:

’Twas on a Monday morning the Master came to call

‘I rather like your furniture. Though I will not take it all,

I’ll have this writing bureau and the antique table too,

And if I move the bookcase out, you’ll have a better view.

When Brian arrived, the Secretary’s office had been reduced to a positively monastic condition, the only surviving furnishings being a dissipated chair, a decaying table and the ancient paint on the wall. Not surprisingly, once new fixtures and fittings had been acquired, Brian became extremely house-proud, and, it is said that, if a scuffmark appeared on a skirting-board, he would have to be restrained from running down to the basement to borrow a paintbrush with which to effect the touching-up himself.

Brian’s responsibilities have also included overseeing the integrated Student Information System and the administration of the Faculty of Continuing Education. Beyond Birkbeck, he also lent his insights and shrewd financial sense to various committees of SAUL, the Superannuation Arrangements for the University of London, the multi-employer pension scheme that is subscribed to by most of the University’s clerical and manual staff. (Perhaps he should be glad that it is now not usual for the Secretary also to be involved in interviewing new academic staff, as it was when I arrived in the college in 1979.  The incumbent who interviewed me was a very keen cricketer, and much of the interview involved trying to find out how well I could bowl, as the College’s 3rd XI had just lost their off-break specialist.)

Brian has been the sharpest of analysts, the most diplomatic of mediators and the most temperate of administrators, always on the alert for the good in people and the laughter in things. He diffused a kind of energetic ease through the Secretary’s office, which gave it an enviable reputation in the College for being both utterly dependable and completely approachable. Perhaps most important of all has been his role in supporting the Master, acting by turns as good angel, privy counsellor, reproving aunt and unpaid, part-time psychiatrist.

Brian has also put in more than his fair share of hours on this platform, and, as he has applauded the many hundreds of students who have passed across it to receive their degrees, has never failed to be moved and impressed by the stories he has heard of student persistence and triumph.

And, as for many Birkbeck students, one life has not been nearly enough for Brian. And, in the early years of the new century, when some others might have been starting to take an interest in golf-club subscriptions and the price of seaside bungalows, he began to feel the tug of another calling. For the last few years, he has come to know the stresses and occasional ecstasies of part-time study, as he has been following a degree in Theology from the University of Wales. In 2003, he was ordained as a deacon of the Anglican church, followed by his licensing in 2004 as a minister. Since his retirement from Birkbeck in September of this year, he has been a curate in the parish of Holy Trinity and St Mary's, Guildford.

The church to which he is going was probably founded before 1066, though it is first mentioned in documents of the 1170s. The twinned parish dates from the end of the seventeenth century, when the collapse of the wool trade, which had supported Guildford’s prosperity, meant that there was insufficient income to support a rector for both Holy Trinity and the nearby St Mary’s in Quarry Street, and so the two benefices were combined into one. During the Civil War, one of Brian’s predecessors, the Rector, Thomas Wall, was dismissed for drunkenness, probably because the town of Guildford was strongly puritan and parliamentarian and they objected to his religious opinions. From 1927, when the Diocese of Guildford was formed, Holy Trinity acted as the cathedral until the completion of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on Stag Hill in 1961.

Within the Church of Holy Trinity lies the tomb of Archbishop Abbot. An inscription records that, having risen from humble origins in Guildford to the highest office in Canterbury, the local-boy-made-good could go no farther on earth and so rose to heaven. Substituting the University of London for earth (a little bathetically to be sure), we may hope that Brian’s move to his new parish will constitute, or at least anticipate a similar transition.

The word ‘deacon’ comes from Greek diakonoz, a servant; while ‘curate’ comes from Latin curare, to care for, and so means one entrusted with the care, or even occasionally the cure, of souls. Both of these roles will come naturally to Brian. While we wish him every happiness in his new life, we also take pleasure in detaining him just a little today, to confirm his indissoluble association with the college he has both served so well and taken such gentle, determined care of. It is a great personal privilege and delight to welcome him as Fellow of Birkbeck College.