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Obituary: Barbara Whitley

31 December 2020

Dr Andrew Chandler writes:

BARBARA WHITLEY was born on 5 February 1924 in Witnesham Rectory, in east Suffolk. Her father, Cecil Wood, had been Bishop of Melanesia; her mother was Margorie Allen Bell (1886-1972), also a vicarage daughter, whose brother, George, in that year became Dean of Canterbury. Cecil Wood was 50 when Barbara was born, and she remembered him to be very much a Victorian. The family travelled with his ministry: assistant bishop in Newcastle diocese and Rector of West Grinstead in West Sussex.

Barbara worked for the Horsham local paper and became a secretary for the Home Guard, before joining the WRNS at the age of 17. Her conspicuous qualities were clearly identified as an asset by someone: by 1942, she was employed at Bletchley Park, work about which she remained, to the end, silent.

The war defined much for her: she lost her fiancé, Oliver Kirby Johnson, who was killed by a mine in Italy in May 1944. Afterwards, she was posted to Chatham and then to a succession of government departments. In these post-war years, she met Ted Whitley, a rising star in the world of advertising. Her father officiated at their wedding in September 1951.

Living first in north London, and later in Bromley, in Kent, she enjoyed a busy life, hosting parties, starting a catering business, and bringing up her two children, Nicholas and Georgina, with the help of a succession of Austrian au pairs. Conventionally devout, she attended St Luke’s, Bromley Common, and later St Mary’s, Shortlands. Her daughter had come to know her as a “strong, hard-working and sociable woman who got the most out of life on her own terms”.

The Whitleys celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary with a dinner for more than 65 friends at the Savile Club, in London. After her husband died, Barbara’s church-going ceased, but, far from turning inwards, she adapted to a new age of technology with determination, maintaining a vast screen in her bedroom at her care home and dispatching vigorous emails. She also kept an eye on the world.

It was an astonishing turn of events which, in her nineties, suddenly brought her into public life. In October 2015, the authorities of the Church of England announced that they had settled a claim with a woman who had accused George Bell of sexual abuse.

Barbara was determined to see her uncle’s name cleared of an accusation that she regarded as preposterous. It was to prove a very long haul indeed: this discreditable affair would dominate her four final years, and she played her part in a long campaign with great courage and tenacity.

She once remarked to me that those who now led the Church of England simply had no understanding at all of the kind of man her uncle was, the standards by which he had lived, or the world that had formed him. “George Bell would never ever contemplate such sexual behaviour,” she wrote. “He was far too high-minded.”

She died on 9 October, aged 96.

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