A housemaster at The Leys School, he was born on 12 May 1869 and attended schools at Greenwich and Gravesend before going to Elmfield PM College near York, where he studied for an external London BA and taught the younger boys. In 1891 he became an assistant master at the School for the Sons of Missionaries (now Eltham College), where he obtained his London MA. In 1894, at the age of 25, he was awarded a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a double first in Classics. After a short period working with Professor Gilbert Murray in Glasgow and teaching at Woodbridge School, in 1900 he started his long career at The Leys.
He soon became housemaster of West House, a post he held until retirement in 1929. He became a legend among old boys, who remembered him as quiet, extremely concerned and kind and always encouraging. In retirement he lived nearby, visiting the school daily and dining in the Masters' Common Room every evening, even in the late 1940s. New boys would be invited to tea; former pupils would visit him in his rooms. James Hilton (a pupil from 1915 to 1918) was one of those who had received a great deal of encouragement with his writing while at school. He came out of retirement in 1930 for a brief stint as acting Headmaster and again in 1940, when he joined the staff during evacuation at the Athol Palace Hotel, Pitlochry, to teach Classics. Returning to Cambridge in 1946, he died on 15 July 1951, while visiting his sisters in Portmadoc, and is buried there.
James Hilton, who had won the Hawthornden Prize for Lost Horizon in 1933, was invited to write a short story for the Christmas Edition of the British Weekly. He completed Goodbye, Mr. Chips in four days. There was much speculation about the model for his much-loved schoolmaster; another 'candidate' being Joseph C. Izard of *Queen's College, Taunton, who taught for a time at The Leys. It was only on Balgarnie's death that Hilton confirmed that, though he had several models in mind, including his own father, who was a headmaster in Walthamstow, Balgarnie had been especially in mind: 'Balgarnie was, I suppose, the chief model for my story. When I read so many other stories about public school life, I am struck by the fact that I suffered no such purgatory as their authors apparently did, and much of this miracle was due to Balgarnie.'
'Finally, there was a master, small and birdlike, who, though he had but voluntary concern with me, since I was not in his house and never reached the dignity of his senior classical forms, stepped out from nowhere - as, for miscreants, he had an inconvenient habit of doing - and touched me on the arm as I was walking alone beside the Pitch in the fading glory of a June evening. I knew him then as Mr. Balgarnie; today, for me as for other Old Leysians, he is "Uncle Balph"; while, as part-original of a composite portrait, he enjoys universal fame as "Mr. Chips". In studiously off-hand manner, he said, after some preliminary and irrelevant remarks, that he had accidentally come across one of my unofficial literary efforts, and added:"It is nothing, you know, to be ashamed of." There followed a few words about his idol, Stevenson, with a recommendation to his books. That was all. A moment later he had vanished as mysteriously as he had come. But the magic spring had been touched, and life for me was transformed.'
Gilbert Thomas, Autobiography (1946) p.87
'For Leysian and non-Leysian alike, "Mr. Chips" is the nostalgic personification of the most agreeable aspects of public school life. The combination of an eccentric academic individuality and the warm humanity of the house-master, set in the context of spacious tradition and lifelong devotion, is inevitably appealing, but the lasting quality and attraction derives from the fidelity with which Hilton recreated and high-lighted aspects of the Cambridge scene he knew so well.'
Derek Baker, Partnership in Excellence (1975)