Tom Winnifrith obituary
I write to tell you of the death of Tom Winnifrith, and to remember with profound gratitude the immense contribution Tom made to our department for thirty years – and to the university in its infancy – as a teacher, scholar, adminstrator, and fearless advocate for the humanities, serving both as Chair of the Faculty of Arts and as Head of Department.
A great mountain of a man with erudition to match and known to generations of students as ‘Homer’, Tom was a driving force in delivering the aspirations of the Warwick English degree in the early 1970s. He read Greats at Christ Church, taught at Eton, and held the E.K. Chambers studentship at Corpus, Oxford, awarded to students with a classics background who elected to move into English literature. He was thus an ideal recruit to Warwick’s newly established Department of English and Comparative Literature where comparativism was at the heart of the degree. Students came to Warwick to read English and American Literature or English and European Literature, the latter requiring them to achieve some proficiency in Italian, German, Spanish or Latin. Central to this syllabus was the module devised by G.K. Hunter, the visionary founding Professor of English Literature, and convened and nurtured by Tom for many years, on the Epic Tradition, which in those days included Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton, and in our own days survives as EN2J4, connecting Homer to Derek Walcott. The classical component to the syllabus was developed by students over their second and third years with modules on satire and pastoral literature, which some of them read in original languages.
Tom’s double expertise in Classics and English also placed him at the forefront of what was then a radical and experimental project to set up a Joint School of Classics, which (after years of Working Parties and delays: some things never change at Warwick) opened in 1976. Penny Murray, who joined the School that year, writes of Tom: ‘The aim of the School was partly to build on the already strong European basis of the English degree, but also to bring some civilisation to the “white heat of technology” ethos which characterised Warwick as a new university wanting to turn its back on history and tradition. Tom was a great champion of humanities and the arts.’
As a scholar, he specialised in Brontë studies where his expertise, as Peter Mack remembers, ‘derived from the fact that he realised that most of the Brontë manuscripts had passed through the hands of a notorious forger and therefore had to be treated with strong scepticism.’ He had a further specialism in Balkan studies. Peter Mack writes: ‘His books on the Vlachs (speakers of a variant of Latin in the high Balkan mountains between Albania and the old Yugoslavia)’ emerged from embedded research. ‘In essence, he met the Vlachs in their mountain villages, collected information about them, wrote their history and, if you like, provided them with a national identity. But he also successfully advised them not to seek to establish a national territory.’
As a teacher, he was renowned (and cherished) for his single-word feedback comments: ‘promising’; ‘thoughtful’; ‘stultifying’. (Students were built of stern stuff in years gone by.) He never gave a boring lecture. Claude Rawson, an early Head of Department, celebrated Tom as the man ‘who put voice into Stentor’. His Brontë seminars were always over-subscribed, and first year students, encountering Tom across the Iliad, really did think they were meeting the poet in the flesh.
If wit and benevolent eccentricity characterised his relations with colleagues and students, pugnacity marked his dealings with central administration and bureaucrats of all stripes. Never afraid, or reluctant, to speak truth to power Tom regularly framed his encounters with ‘them’ around a scenario of ‘a drunken punch-up in a bar in Valparaiso’ – and those you’d want on your side when the fists started flying. If you asked the HoD what he’d been so assiduously jotting down during protracted discussions in department meeting he’d tell you he was casting a play from among us present. Favourite titles for this exercise: Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
Tom refused to be honoured with a leaver’s party. He retired to a town cottage in Shipston on Stour where children who visited him in his book-filled rooms might be surprised with a gift of a quarto-sized Aeschylus pulled from the shelf with the admonition, ‘You might find this useful.’ Tom is survived by his children, Tom, Tabitha and Naomi, and stepchildren, Felicity, Lulah and Tom.
I was one of the fortunates who knew him, who benefitted from his leadership and stewardship – and from his massive bursts of laughter in great ‘harumphs’. He was a giant. The English Department as we know it rests in part on his shoulders.
Carol Chillington Rutter
22 October 2020