In Memoriam: Robin Chapman 1976 – 1981

Robin Chapman (Dynevor 1976-81) died suddenly and unexpectedly on 18th October 2020, aged just 57.

Dr Robin John MA(Oxon), MAst(Cantab), PhD was brought up in Richardson Street, Sandfields, Swansea by parents Cyril and Marjorie Chapman.

The Robin I Knew 

Robin’s academic achievements are well documented. My personal memories of him began around 1979 when he entered the sixth form to study pure maths, applied maths and physics. I was to teach him pure maths and Mary Jones, a gifted mathematician in her own right, applied maths. She also guided him through Oxbridge entrance.

The class was extremely small in number but very close. I think they tended to treat Robin as their mascot. In class he would listen attentively then sometimes get agitated. This was when I knew he had found ‘a better way’ to solve a problem. This he would illustrate by writing it up on the chalk board. One of the likeable things about him was that he never displayed any aloofness or distain for anyone less able. He would listen patiently then show them the error of their ways.

Another side to Robin was his sense of humour. Climbing the stairs to Room 13 (a prime room) I could hear laughter in the corridor as this small class waited to go into the room. When I arrived Robin was leaning against the wall in fits of laughter reading The Beano comic. The others were used to this!

Robin was a great sci-if fan and enjoyed classical music and Monty Python, he also appeared on Mastermind.

During Christmas vacation from Merton College he would travel to Swansea and pop into school at the end of a morning and sit at the back of the class waiting for the lesson to end. We would then then go across the Kingsway to The Hanbury where we would have what he referred to as a ‘liquid lunch’ and catch up. These visits continued throughout his student days at Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester when he would come to Swansea to visit family.

Dynevor has had three headmasters who were mathematicians, the last being Allan Smith, but it was under Hubert Davies’ watch that he told me of his stay at Merton where heads of feeder schools were invited. Whilst at high table one evening he happened to be sitting alongside Robin’s tutor. Each was wearing a name tag. When Hubert enquired as to how Robin was progressing the tutor just smiled and said he couldn’t be sure as Robin rarely turned up for lectures or seminars but only for tutorials.

After I retired, Robin would phone me when he was back in Swansea and we would make arrangements to meet for lunch or dinner. On one occasion I went to pick him up at the Grand Hotel to drive him to my home for dinner. On the way I asked him how he managed to juggle two jobs, one in Exeter and one at Bristol. He then told me he had three jobs. I asked what the third one was, his reply was that if he told me he would have to kill me. All he could say was that it was based in Cheltenham. He also recounted a visit to Japan which really impressed him.

I rang Bob Howells to tell him the sad news and he told me that Robin was very fluent in Russian; Bob had hoped he would have continued his study into the sixth form.

Robin will be sadly missed by his brother Keith, sister-in-law, nephew and the wider mathematical community. He was his own man. 2020 was the first year I didn’t receive a Christmas card. I shall never meet someone of his intellect again. It was a privilege to have taught him, in a subject he continued and made his career in.

Leslie Jowett


Dr Tony Gardiner remembers Robin as was one of many remarkable people to emerge from whatever Dynevor had to offer.  He left in 1981 and must have been an academic star – if a rather quiet, gentle, unassuming one (something he remained throughout his life).  In an era when Oxbridge was trying to open up to students from ordinary backgrounds, the norm (at least in mathematics) of applicants waiting until their “7th term” (after A -levels) could not survive.  This tilted the applications process in favour of those from private schools, who had spent 6 months (June-December) being prepared for the entrance process.  Robin applied to Oxford in his final year (1980-1) – before taking A-levels.  Although 1 year younger than most of the competition he came top in the maths entrance paper!  And he kept this up throughout his time as an undergraduate reading mathematics at Merton College.  Robin then moved to Cambridge and took Part III of the Mathematical Tripos in 1985.  He remained in Cambridge to start a PhD with Martin Taylor, moving to Manchester when Taylor was appointed to a chair in UMIST.  

Robin returned to Merton as a Junior Research Fellow, but after only one year, was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Exeter in 1989, where he remained for the rest of his career.

At the time of his death, he was the longest serving member of the Mathematics Department.  

His published papers were mostly in number theory, particularly its more combinatorial aspects, but also included contributions to graph theory and coding theory.  He had a vast knowledge of mathematics, and had an amazing knack for problem-solving.  Indeed, he was known in some parts of the mathematical community for his frequent submission of solutions to posed problems in the American Mathematical Monthly. (There were even rumours that “Robin J. Chapman” was actually a problem-solving collective rather than an individual.) He was frequently consulted by colleagues stuck on problems in their own research, and could quickly suggest a reference or come up with a trick to solve their problems.  While at Exeter, he taught a wide range of mathematics modules, and was a very efficient examinations officer.

He also had several periods of secondment to the Heilbronn Institute in Bristol. 

Robin was a much esteemed colleague who will be sorely missed.  His untimely death is a great loss to the Mathematics Department at Exeter.

He died on 18 October in his flat in Bristol, after a short illness. His quiet humanity will be greatly missed.

The following further reflections were provided by Dr Gardiner who was Reader in Mathematics at Birmingham University and founder of The United Kingdom Mathematics Trust.  

My first meeting with Robin was memorable: he had applied to be a Ph.D. research student with me when I was at Trinity College, Cambridge. He looked rather dishevelled; he thought carefully before speaking; and there was never a spare word in any of his answers.  This appearance all fitted with the remarkable reference that Merton College, Oxford, had supplied: they said that they had been unsure about accepting him as an undergraduate, as they felt his background from an unremarkable comprehensive school in Swansea might mean that there was too large a mathematical knowledge deficit for him to bridge.  They went on to say that they took the risk, and that it had paid off extraordinarily well: indeed, Robin went on to obtain the top first in Oxford in his year.  Cambridge said that he would have to take Part III and that he should be aware that the Part III exam tended to favour those who had been an undergraduate at Cambridge.  Well, they need not have worried: Robin also came top in Part III. Roughly halfway through his time with me I was appointed to a chair in Pure Maths at UMIST.  It was agreed that Robin would move with me from Trinity to Manchester, and he settled in very well and easily made friends in the new, but somewhat different, environment.  I recall one of his friends telling me that Robin was doing rather well out of a General Knowledge quiz machine in the Student Union.  I asked Robin for more details, and he explained that he would sit near the machine and watch others lose their money.  Then, when he judged the time to be right, he made his move and answered, invariably correctly, the next set of questions on the machine, and then got his cash reward.  He spoke of it as a useful source of supplementary income! This expertise would in due course stand him in good stead in Mastermind.  Robin had an extremely quick mathematical mind, but it was hard for me to get him to focus on a particular topic for his thesis.  In the end he settled on the problem of classifying equivariant vector bundles on curves over fields of positive characteristic.  It was a beautiful piece of work.  It was agreed that Robin should apply for a JRF at Merton.  For this he needed to submit a piece of work.  My previous supervisor, Ali Fröhlich, was a great fan of Robin and recognised his special talent.  He asked Robin if he had prepared his work for Merton and Ali told me that he produced some grubby crumpled pieces of paper from his pocket.  This would have to compete with the beautifully prepared work of the other candidates.  I think Bryan Birch was Robin’s expert interviewer and, with the support of a strong letter from Ali, together with the College’s prior knowledge of his ability, all went very well and he was awarded a JRF.  At this time Ali and I were writing a book entitled “Algebraic Number Theory” which was published by CUP.  Robin very kindly agreed to read the chapters as we wrote them.  He did a quite amazing job, correcting here and adding a different and better proof there.  Here he showed a side of his talent that I had not encountered before: he had a wonderful command of the “right word” in English, and he also corrected a good number of spelling mistakes.  We were both extremely grateful to him – as we acknowledged in the book’s introduction.  Then Robin returned to Merton to take up his JRF.  As was often the way with such talented JRF’s, my memory is that he was not long there before he was tempted with a permanent lectureship at Exeter University.  It is an interesting historical twist that, just a few years later, another of my research students, Nigel Byott, obtained a Research Fellowship at New College Oxford and was similarly tempted away quickly away by Exeter University.  He and Robin would be firm friends and colleagues for over thirty years.