Obituary: Vernon Donnison

Frank Siegfried Vernon Donnison, colonial administrator and historian; born London 3 July 1898; married 1923 Ruth Singer (died 1968); died Moulsford, Berkshire 11 June 1993.

Vernon Donnison's long life - he was a few weeks short of 95 when he died - encompassed a distinguished career as a colonial administrator, 17 years as an official historian in the Cabinet Office, and another two and a half decades devoted to family, friends, and music.

Donnison came from a musical family (his second name was Siegfried). His father, who organised some of the great Handel festivals of the last century, wanted his son to study the piano; but the boy found the keyboard uncongenial, and preferred playing a tin whistle surreptitiously in his bedroom. By the time he entered his teens he had his first flute.

In 1916 he went straight from Marlborough into the Army where he was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards. He was twice mentioned in despatches, but rarely spoke of his wartime experiences. When peace returned he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. After graduation, and a further year spent preparing for the Indian Civil Service, he went to Burma in 1922, to be followed by Ruth Singer, who had just graduated from Cambridge. Their marriage in Rangoon was the beginning of a devoted partnership that lasted more than 40 years until her death in 1968.

She shared his love of music, and between them they founded the Rangoon Symphony Orchestra, which gave its first concert in November 1940. Recruitment of instrumentalists was effected by driving around the city - where, because of the heat, windows were rarely closed - listening to people practising.

Donnison was Judicial Secretary in Rangoon when the Japanese attacked. During the retreat up country he was variously employed disbanding the administration in successive centres liaising with a Chinese general and running steam railway engines into a convenient river. That done he walked over the Chin hills the remaining distance to India, a journey that took him two and a half weeks, taking as his only possession his precious flute, wrapped in a sock. He became the representative in Delhi of the Government of Burma, and when the Fourteenth Army started the fight back he assumed responsibility for Military Administration in Four Corps, with the rank of Brigadier.

As early as 1944, at a time when the British authorities were reluctant to deal with U Aung San and his Anti- Fascist Peoples' Freedom League because of their earlier collaboration with the invaders, and when most of the officials who had served with him in Burma wished to postpone independence until the country could be restored to its orderly pro-war prosperity, Donnison argued - in a memorandum to the Supreme Commander, south-east Asia - that there was no realistic alternative to accepting Aung San as the future ruler, and to arming his forces. Donnison regarded this memorandum as the single most significant contribution he made to British colonial policy.

After the Japanese surrender Donnison became Chief Secretary and a member of the Executive Council. But, although his excellent relations with the Burmese meant that he was welcome to stay longer, he decided to retire before independence. He returned to England in 1946 and settled near Didcot. He had no firm plans; but an invitation came in 1949 to join the historical section of the Cabinet Office, for which he produced four substantial volumes before retiring for the second time in 1966. A fifth book, an account of Burma and its peoples, was published in 1970.

Apart from his work as a historian, the four and a half decades that he lived in East Hagbourne were remarkable for the way in which he maintained his contacts with a wide circle of friends from many countries, including especially Burma. Even after his wife's death he continued to entertain with polished and mellow generosity. The cooking skills he had learnt from her were never more valuable than during the many musical evenings, when up to two dozen friends crowded into his house to make music.

The nature of these musical activities changed as the years passed. In the 1960s the emphasis was on choral music. He was one of the moving spirits behind the Sabrina Singers who gave polished performances of Renaissance church music. But gradually, as voices aged, it became simpler to concentrate an chamber and orchestral music. For 20 years there was an annual 'musikfest' at his home, during the autumn weekends when summer time ended. The 18 or so musicians who could be fitted into his music room produced an annual offering of chamber music, concerti grossi, Brandenburgs - with the host as flautist - orchestral suites, and audacious assaults on more than a dozen symphonies. This Donnison Festival ended only when, at the, age of 91, he felt unable to handle the load of administration and entertainment.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Chief Executive

£28, 700: Whiskey Whiskey Tango: Property Management Company is seeking a brig...

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?