Michael Rowntree

QUAKER, pacifist, humanitarian and dedicated bird watcher, Michael Rowntree, who has died aged 88, was the great nephew of Joseph Rowntree, the philanthropist and cocoa manufacturer of York. Michael's father, Arnold, was a man whose large size – inherited by his son – earned him the nickname "Chocolate Jumbo".

Michael went to Earnseat School, Arnside, and Bootham School, York, where he was head boy and developed a life-long interest in ornithology. In later life it led to extensive travels, and chairmanship of the Oxford Ornithological Society. On one occasion it also saved his life.

From Bootham, Michael went up to Queen's College, Oxford, where his studies – he read politics, philosophy and economics – came to an end after two years when war broke out and he decided to help re-establish the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). As members of it, he and those who joined him were in the curious position of being conscientious objectors under military command.

It was in this role that he was involved in an ambulance convoy, bombed by the Russians, which was sent in 1940 to help Fins fleeing the Russian invasion of their country.

Afterwards he went to North Africa, and driving to Bir Hakeim, Libya, he stopped to observe a bird he identified as a mourning wheatear. When he reached his destination, he saw that the slit-trench in which he would have been consulting had been destroyed by shellfire.

Later, when his unit leader was killed in action, Michael took over the unit, remaining in charge throughout the subsequent actions, including the advance from Alamein into Italy, where his unit took in wounded from the battles at Cassino and beyond.

As the war drew on. he went to Germany to co-ordinate the work there of all the Friends Ambulance Units. The FAU was a democratic organisation, and he was invariably elected to the positions of leadership which he held.

When the war was over, he chose not to join Rowntrees, the family firm, and went the Northern Echo, working in a variety of departments. In the winter of 1947 he was with the circulation department, and delivered papers to an isolated village on his skis.

From Darlington he went to Oxford, in 1950 becoming assistant general manager and then general manager of the Oxford Mail and Oxford Times.

He was by then already involved with Oxfam, and in 1967 he left his job in newspapers to concentrate on his work with the charity. He became a committee member in 1951, was made a trustee in 1952 and chairman from 1971 to 1977.

At Oxfam he was known as a man who, even late at night and at weekends, was "never too busy, tired or uninterested" to discuss the challenges that the charity often faced. In 1991 he was made Chair Emeritus, a position he held until his death.

At the end of the war he had married Anna Crosfield, an artist who works in textiles, and they had three children.

A man of energy and great dedication, Michael held many appointments but was particularly involved in the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust which, amongst many other things, supports charities working for racial justice in the UK. During the apartheid years, the Trust supported organisations working for human rights in South Africa.

He was a director of Friends Provident; he was vice chair of the Oxfordshire Area Health Authority; he chaired Quaker Peace and Service, and was a trustee of the weekly Quaker magazine, The Friend.

For some years he chaired the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, a non-charitable grant-making trust. His leadership in all things was unruffled, realistic and practical, and behind it lay a self-effacing and modest character.

Michael had a firm sense of what was right, and conveyed it unmistakably while preserving a gentle demeanour through which a mischievous sense of humour frequently surfaced.

At home in Yorkshire, he enjoyed walking on the North York Moors and the birdlife to be seen there. He is survived by his wife Anna and three children, Jenni, Scilla and Hugh.