Miss Spurling

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Claribel Spurling the codebreaking Lady Translator[2]

Claribel Spurling, 57, (1875-1940) was a teacher, headmistress, college warden, playwright, writer of children’s stories and super-codebreaker  in the Great War – “said to be the only person who scored 100% in a supposedly impossible test set for potential new recruits” for the London based codebreaking team, the precursor of the Bletchley operation of WW2.[1] A leader with brains to match. Perhaps most importantly an important driver of facilities for women at Manchester University and then as Warden of Crosby Hall, the Hall of Residence for University Women, in Chelsea. She is the most likely person to have organised this table of high fliers,  Lady Rhondda also being Hon. Treasurer of Crosby Hall. Claribel has been a favourite find of mine in all this exploration – perhaps we have a mutual penchant for puzzling.


The table boasts two high flying medics, two college Wardens, a social worker and a nurse.  Assuming they were mixed up, one interesting seating plan might be for Claribel, who we are assuming was probably the host, to be between Alys Russell (who we know is involved with Crosby Hall too) and nurse Kathleen Lanktree, the least well known of the guests but doubtless there for a reason.  Next to Kathleen might be Dr Alice Benham, with their common medical interests and then Warden Hélène Reynard, herself followed by dental surgeon Eva Handley-Read, then bringing the circle of six back to Alys Russell. More conventionally the combination might put the two college wardens together, and the two senior medics, but that might have been less novel. Of course there are many permutations here and if Claribel were here today I’m sure she could work out all our puzzles.  This is an interesting group to play with. How would you seat this powerful mix?


She probably was looking forward to some elegant sparring with like minds as they all sought to train the next generation of women to succeed. And hopefully this high-octane table was also ready to relax and enjoy a good evening.


Claribel Spurling, the eldest of the seven children of Clara Eyton and the Rev, Frederick William Spurling, was born on 21st August 1875 in Oxford, where her father was a tutor at Keble College, later Canon Spurling of Chester Cathedral (which took Claribel to Chester). Her mother Clara Eyton and her father were both born in Islington, children of “gentlemen”.

The range of careers of her siblings reflects three of the options of the day: the church, military service (albeit when war came) and emigration. Her two eldest brothers, Henry Walter (1874-1955) and Basil Eyton (1879-1943) both followed their father into holy orders, Henry as a missionary in East Africa (where he also served during WW1) – he died at his final mission in the Seychelles – and Basil in Western Canada, where he married and had three children. Claribel visited Rev. Basil there more than once, between 1913 and 1924 – of which more later in our puzzle at the end of her story. Brother Alfred Eyton died in South Africa on 18th November 1901, during the time of the Second Boer War, having been a Sergeant in the South African Colonial Corps, receiving a posthumous medal for his participation at the Defence of Mafeking (Oct 1899-May 1900). It is not clear whether he died in Service or not.

The youngest brother, Frank Eyton (1885-1917) did die in service, in Flanders, of his wounds, on 6th December 1917 in the wake of the Battle of Passchendaele. He also had emigrated to South Africa, to farm, and served in SW Africa in 1914. In Flanders he was dangerously wounded while rescuing one of his men in April, 1916, and again wounded in April, 1917 in between facing tragedy when his South African born wife died in June 1916 at her stepmother’s home in Devon.

Claribel’s sister Mary, two years her junior, died at 19 in 1896.  The youngest of the three girls, Dorothy (1883-1953), profession unidentified, outlived all her siblings save Henry, and died in the New Sussex Hospital for Women, which Louisa Martindale had helped to establish and was senior surgeon until 1937.

Claribel attended Oxford High School for Girls, (as did her younger sister Dorothy), and Oxford University, where she was a Home Student, being a member of the Society of Oxford Home Students, who were fully recognised as being able to study at the University – it later became St. Anne’s College. Whilst at Oxford she took a term out to be Assistant Mistress at the Church of England High School for Girls – already learning her future trade.[1]

In 1901 she was an assistant mistress living in Wandsworth, in 1907 appointed to the staff at The Queen’s School in Chester, deputising as 2nd Mistress in 1914 and in 1915 appointed Headmistress of Birkenhead High School.

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Claribel with fellow codebreakers[2]

In her obituary of Claribel, Beatrice Clay wrote “The war induced a desire for other work and she threw up her post with the intention of going to relatives in Canada, to find, however, that she could not obtain the necessary permit to travel. She then turned her thoughts to definite war work and this she found with the “Wrens.”[5] She  worked with the WRNS as a superstar codebreaker.[2]  As a “Lady Translator”, in the 3rd class pay range of £150-300 per annum,  Claribel focused on Scandinavian languages, in a team which started as only ten men and women in 1916 but rose to 100 (based at the Admiralty in London, the predecessors of the Bletchley Park WW2 codebreakers.  The 2nd class pay range was £400-650, the typists £150-200).[4]

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Claribel, Scandinavian Languages Team[3]

Claribel enjoyed playwriting, which was generally with a former fellow school pupil Beatrice Clay, the writer of her obituary in The Queen’s School magazine.[5] She also wrote children’s stories.[6] [7] [8] [9]

holiday engagement
The Guardian 20.11.1913 page 4[17]

In 1921 she attended the International Federation of University Women in Paris alongside, inter alia, Theodora Bosanquet and Winifred Cullis.[10]

In 1924 as Warden of Ellis Lloyd Jones Hall of Residence, Manchester University, she was exhibiting “talented leadership” in getting its drama going.[11] She resigned that position and from the University Council as of December 25th 1926 to move to Crosby Hall which was to house the new International Hall of Residence opened for University Women opened by the British Federation of University Women (BFUW – now British Federation of Women Graduates, BFWG)[12] Crosby Hall was formally opened on November 17th by the Duchess of York and thus Claribel was its first Warden.[13] [14] [15] Lady Rhondda was Hon. Treasurer of the Crosby Hall Endowment Fund.[16] In 1931 Betty Archdale, daughter of Helen Archdale, was also resident at Crosby Hall.


On 1st April 1933 Crosby Hall welcomed gymnasts from Finland and Sweden, with both Claribel Spurling and Mrs Alice Russell being on hand to greet them.[18] Assuming this is the one and the same Mrs. Alys Russell (and there was a room named after Alys, usually reflecting those who sponsored the Hall) perhaps they discussed this upcoming event over the dinner table, and perhaps our Swedish gymnastic friends on Table 1 were on hand on the day?

Claribel died at Flat 1 Sollershott, Linkside Avenue, Oxford on 8th December 1940 at the age of 65. I wonder if she got to meet the resident of Flat 6, Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini motor car, built in Cowley, Oxford?

puzzle-piece2-50Dinner Puzzle Contributor Alex Rettie has written in that in 1918 Claribel was listed on the electoral roll in Saanich, a town on Vancouver Island, British Colombia, whilst giving her address as Oxton, Chester (which is in Birkenhead) ….. all of which poses a very good puzzle!  Claribel travelled to Canada, first (as far as records show) in 1913, when her brother Rev Basil, was bringing up his family in the remote Saskatchewan hamlet of Gledhow, far from Vancouver. In 1921 Rev. Basil and his three children (all born in Saskatchewan) were listed at Baring Village, Saskatchewan, another remote location.  However when Claribel visited in 1924, on arrival she gave the address Chemainus Vicarage, Vancouver Island, as her intended address, naming her brother. Basil’s fourth child was born in 1925 in Chemainus, and Basil himself was buried in the Chemainus District in 1943. But Chemainus was a logging town some way away from Saanich. But why should Claribel be on the electoral roll at all in Canada?   Was this when she was attempting to move to Canada, which her friend Beatrice Clay had said was scuppered for the lack of permission to travel?  Her only recorded trips to Canada were before and after the war. Curious. We shall keep researching. Ideas welcome!


[1] The Fritillary, No. 19. March 1900 p320. This was the magazine for the women’s colleges in Oxford. 

[2] The Guardian 29th July 2015 Bletchley Park celebrates codebreakers who changed course of first world war accessed 5.2.2018

[3] Bletchley Park Temporary Exhibition, accessed June 2018

[4] Data from Bletchley Park Temporary Exhibition, accessed June 2018

[5] Beatrice Clay, Claribel Spurling (Obituary), Have Mynde,The Queen’s School Magazine, July 1941, accessed online 5.2.2018

[6] Allardyce Nicol, English Drama, 1900-1930:The Beginnings of the Modern Period, Volume 2, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 1973, page 808 

[7] Chester Pageant: In 1910, the episode depicting Richard’s humiliation at the hands of Bolingbroke was written by two local women, Miss Beatrice Clay and Miss Claribel Spurling http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1029/

[8] Beatrice Elizabeth Clay and Claribel Spurling, The Magic Mirror

[9] Patricia Fara, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War, OUP, 2018, accessed online 5th February 2018 

[10] International Federation of Women Paris 1921 archive photograph at Greater Manchester County Record Office 

[11] Mabel Phythian Tylecote, The Education of Women at Manchester University, 1883-1933, Manchester University Press, 1941, page 133 

[12] The Guardian, 15.7.1926

[13] The Guardian, 12.8.1926 page 8

[14] References to Claribel Spurling at the opening, cited in the Centenary Edition of BFWG News April 2007

[15] Reference to Claribel Spurling becoming Warden of Crosby Hall Have Mynde,The Queen’s School Magazine, 1927, accessed online 5th February 2018 

[16] Angela V. John (2013), Turning the Tide, Cardigan, Parthian, page 531  

[17] The Guardian 20.11.1913 page 4

[18] The Guardian, 1.4.1933 page 12

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