Miss Spurling

IMG_20190825_163621 (3)
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”.[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.


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? puzzle-piece2-50


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”. Claribel attended Oxford High School for Girls, and Oxford University.

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]

She also worked with the WRNS as a superstar codebreaker.[1]  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).[3]

Her younger brother Francis died in Flanders in 1917.

IMG_20190825_162754 (3).jpg
Claribel, Scandinavian Languages Team[2]

Her playwriting was generally with a former fellow school pupil Beatrice Clay, the writer of her obituary in The Queen’s School magazine.[4] She also wrote children’s stories.[5] [6] [7] [8]

holiday engagement
The Guardian 20.11.1913 page 4[16]

She attended the International Federation of University Women in Paris 1921 alongside, inter alia, Theodora Bosanquet and Winifred Cullis.[9]

In 1924 as Warden of Ellis Lloyd Jones Hall of Residence, Manchester University, she was exhibiting “talented leadership” in getting its drama going.[10] 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)[11] Crosby Hall was formally opened on November 17th by the Duchess of York and thus Claribel was its first Warden.[12] [13] [14] Lady Rhondda was Hon. Treasurer of the Crosby Hall Endowment Fund.[15] 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.[17] 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 1 Sollershott, Linkside Avenue, Oxford on 8th December 1940 at the age of 65.


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

[2] Bletchley Park Temporary Exhibition, accessed June 2018

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

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

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

[6] 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/

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

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

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

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

[11] The Guardian, 15.7.1926

[12] The Guardian, 12.8.1926 page 8

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

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

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

[16] The Guardian 20.11.1913 page 4

[17] The Guardian, 1.4.1933 page 12

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