Barrett, William Spencer, 1914-2001

by Adrian Hollis

03 Feb 2017

Spencer Barrett. Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1965.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

After a year’s teaching at Christ Church he moved to Keble in 1939, participating for a while in the attenuated academic life of wartime Oxford. The college, which at that time was also inhabited by MI5 secretaries, became the Barretts’ first family home when Spencer married Peggy Hill; their son and daughter were born in this period. ... From 1942 (without needing to leave Oxford, since the group functioned in the School of Geography) Spencer also worked as a civilian officer for Naval Intelligence, acquiring his preferred sleeping hours, 4 a.m. to 12 noon – since his material had to be ready for collection at 8 a.m. it was more convenient to stay up for most of the night than to rise at crack of dawn. As a result, his post-war tutorials were usually given in the afternoon or evening, though he would agree to 12 noon if pressed.

Quite a number of classical scholars worked in the same Naval Intelligence division. The formidable W. S. Watt, later Professor of Latin at Aberdeen University, became a particular friend to Spencer Barrett; among others were A. N. Sherwin-White (St John’s College, Oxford) and A. F. Wells (University College, Oxford). One of their tasks was to produce handbooks on different countries, bringing together information which might be useful (in the broadest sense, including ‘to maintain the high standard of education in the Navy’) to naval commanders operating in that area. Many of these volumes came to rest in Hertford College Library, since the Professor of Geography [Kenneth Mason], who led the group was a Fellow of that College. Stephanie West (the present Librarian) has found the volume on Persia valuable for her own work on Herodotus. Spencer’s family think that they remember him speaking about Madagascar in such a context, but we have not been able to confirm this – perhaps the volume was never finished.

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

Sign up to our email newsletters