Tom Winnifrith obituary

Other lives: Academic in classics and English literature who furthered scholars’ understanding of the Brontës

My father, Tom Winnifrith, who has died aged 82, was an academic who was instrumental in founding the department of classics at Warwick University and inspired generations of students in their love of classics and English literature.

Born in London to John Winnifrith, a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture who became director general of the National Trust, and his wife, Lesbia (nee Cochrane), he grew up in Edenbridge, Kent, and attended Tonbridge school. He was a classics scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, graduating in 1960.

After teaching at Emanuel School, Wandsworth (1960-1961), and Eton (1961-66), he returned to academic studies at Oxford, undertaking a BPhil in 19th century literature, and Liverpool University, where his doctoral thesis on the Brontës (later published as The Brontës and their Background) made scholars aware that some primary sources were untrustworthy because of careless editing.

In 1967 he married Joanna Booker, and three years later was appointed a lecturer in English and comparative literary studies at Warwick University. His research interests expanded to include the Vlachs, a nomadic Balkan race who spoke a Latinate language. On trips to remote villages, he befriended them, learned about their history and language and helped give them a national identity.

At Warwick he became the driving force behind the development of a new department of classics which opened in 1976, and which thrives today. He not only felt that studying classics should be possible for those without traditional classical schooling, but was also a strong promoter of the arts and humanities in an increasingly technological world. He continued to teach both classics and English until retirement.

He was popular with students thanks to his amusing lectures and unorthodox approach, exemplified by a visit to his allotment to illustrate Virgil’s Georgics. His outspoken criticism of sloppy thinking, poor grammar and philistinism did not always endear him to colleagues.

Simultaneously, he was bravely facing the challenges of bringing up three young children alone, after Joanna took her own life in 1976. Things at home were far from conventional; order was lacking, but the clues in birthday treasure hunts were written in Latin rhyming couplets, and his contributions to a game of Consequences consisted entirely of quotations from Wuthering Heights.

A reacquaintance with a cousin, Helen Norton, in 1987, resulted in marriage and a move to Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire.

He retired in 1998, and with Helen enjoyed travel, opera, church and community life and his grandchildren.

His Christian faith appeared unshaken despite the difficulties of his life, and underpinned his courage, sense of justice and abhorrence of vanity.

Helen died in 2016. He is survived by his children, Tom, Naomi and me, his stepchildren, Tallulah, Tom and Felicity, and by 18 grandchildren.

Tabitha Gilchrist

The GuardianTramp

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