Claud Wright: Senior civil servant who was also a leading expert in geology, palaeontology and archaeology
Monday 08 March 2010
In the War Office there were a lot of old fossils. But the one who was the real fossil was Claud William Wright. He was not only a senior administrative civil servant, and when transferred to the Ministry of Education the first Permanent Secretary, in effect, to Lord Eccles' Ministry of the Arts under Margaret Thatcher, but also from an early age, a leading geologist, palaeontologist and archaeologist.
Willy Wright, as he was affectionately called, was born on 9 January 1917. His father was Chairman of British Oil and Cake Mills and the family lived comfortably in a large house at North Ferriby, near Hull, overlooking the Humber River. With his brother Ted, only a year younger, they would, as small boys, explore the Humber shores and surrounding countryside making a great collection of ammonites. He was sent to a remarkably advanced prep school, Bramcote, near Scarborough, where the Headmaster gladdened the boys' hearts with, "You're no good at cricket – you'd better go digging up your fossils". So a fresh collection emerged from the Scarborough area. The same thing happened when the boys went on to Charterhouse, and were allowed to spend their summer afternoons consorting with the navvies building the Godalming bypass. They found a rich bed of chalk ammonites in the excavations and published their findings.
Wright was not just a fossil hunter. He was a classical scholar and an effective Head of House, becoming also Head of the School. He was an enlightened schoolboy, boasting that he had never beaten another boy. Writing home, however, in 1932, he gleefully reported "Ted's been beaten AT LAST."
Wright obtained a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford and read Classical Mods and Greats (ancient history and philosophy in the original Greek and Latin). Graduating in 1939 he took the exam for the Administrative Class of the Civil Service and was one of the successful 50 out of 1,000 applicants. He was posted to the War Office but on the outbreak of war immediately joined up, proceeding from Private in the Essex Regiment, to the OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit), to being commissioned in the KRRC – the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, the famous 60th. However, his staff abilities were soon recognised and he was back in the War Office, rising by 1945 to GSO2 (Major). On demobilisation he resumed civilian rank in the War Office as Assistant Principal – a drop in pay of over £600 a year.
But he soon made it up on promotion, married Alison Readman, a fellow Private Secretary in the War Office and a leading psephologist, and bought a house in Holland Park where they produced four daughters, all christened with Greek names, and eventually a son. He also spent many years building a fine collection of Chinese porcelain, only to have it stolen while uninsured.
Having slowly climbed the Ministry of Defence ladder to the rank of Under Secretary (and for two years of that time, 1956-58, President of the Geologists Association), Wright was transferred as Deputy Secretary in 1971 to the Ministry of Education to set up the first Ministry of Arts. It was a happy move. He loved the job, he loved his Secretary of State, Margaret Thatcher, and he got on well with his immediate boss, Lord Eccles. They were much of a kind – avid collectors, each in their different ways.
Wright was often asked how on earth he found time for his "hobbies" when working full-time as a senior civil servant. He replied, "My fossils, ferns and porcelain are an island of sanity in a mad world, an island found by others of my profession who devote a quiet hour to their postmarks, butterflies, stamps or poetry. My palaeontology was a sure restoration of equanimity after the frustrations of working for and with some politicians."
Wright retired in 1976, to a full life. For the next six years he worked as a Research Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, adding to his geological, palaeontological and archeological collections. He was widely honoured. For his civil service work he was awarded the CB in 1969. For his "hobby" work he won numerous prizes, medals and Fellowships, including Hon. Associate of the British Museum. He published extensively – articles on ammonites, starfish, invertebrates, cretaceous crabs and other fossilised creatures. One such was the Bridlington Giant Flying Lizard. Half Wright's collection of fossils was donated several years ago to the Natural History Museum (25,500 pieces in all). The rest is in the care of his great friend, Professor James Kennedy, in the Wright Library in Oxford University Museum.
I have not so far mentioned what was probably the Wright brothers' greatest find. It was on vacation from Oxford in 1937 that walking along their beloved Humber they noticed an unusual plank sticking up out of the wet sand. They explored a bit and came to the conclusion that this was the planking of an old boat. Eventually, after much work and expenditure, before and after the Second World War, three bronze age boats were excavated, of which the oldest dated back to 2030 BC. It was a remarkable find by two young men. One of these boats is set up in the National Maritime Museum – one of the Museum's most treasured artefacts.
Wright moved to the Cotswolds and was still writing articles last year. His wife Alison died in 2003, but he had the support of his children and his old friend, Katherine Whitehorn. In death, his daughter Dione said, he looked like a Roman Emperor. That figures. In 1936 as he strode down the Charterhouse Chapel to read the Lesson, he looked like the young Augustus.
Claud William Wright, civil servant, archaeologist, paleontologist, geologist: born 9 January 1917; War Office, 1939-40, 1942–45; Ministry of Defence: Principal, 1947; Assistant Secretary, 1951; Assistant Under-Secretary of State, 1961–68; Deputy Under-Secretary of State, 1968–71; Deputy Secretary, Department of Education and Science, 1971–76; Research Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford, 1977–83; CB, 1969; married 1947 Alison Readman (died 2003; one son, four daughters); died Gloucestershire 15 February 2010.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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