Obituary: Professor Sir Harry Hinsley

IN 1943 Harry Hinsley was sent to Washington to negotiate the "Brusa" codebreaking agreement with the United States government, the agreement which committed both parties to exchange all intelligence information in their possession relating to the Axis powers. As well as preparing the emissary for the complexities and double dealing of the academic world in which he was to spend the rest of his life, the entrusting of such a mission to a 24-year-old undergraduate serves as a striking reminder of the opportunities that the Second World War provided for highly intelligent individuals from very humble backgrounds.

The son of an employee of the coal department at the Walsall Co-op and a school caretaker, Hinsley had come up to St John's College, Cambridge, as an Entrance Exhibitioner in 1937, and two years later was awarded a First in Part I of the Historical Tripos. Then, with Part II in view and no doubt another First on the cards, one day in the winter of 1939-40 he was asked to call on Martin Charlesworth, the Fellow of St John's to whom, together with F. E. Adcock at King's, the Cambridge end of the recruitment process for the Government Code and Cipher School had been entrusted. So Hinsley went to Bletchley, and for the time being History went to pot.

The experience of those heady days Hinsley later recorded in Codebreakers: the inside story of Bletchley Park, the volume he edited with Alan Stripp in 1993, whilst the achievements of "BP", since they were chronicled by him as editor-in-chief of the monumental British Intelligence in the Second World War (1979-90), and the contribution to the Allies' military operations provided by the breaking of the Enigma cipher, are now common knowledge.

Hinsley's particular activity at Bletchley was the study of German naval wireless traffic. This brought him into contact with Admiralty Intelligence, a liaison so intimate that a signal from Home Fleet querying some item "What is your source?" received the one-word reply "Hinsley". Years later Hinsley's "How I Sank the Bismarck" (which was the undergraduates' title for it, not his, or not entirely his) was a regular show-stopper at Cambridge college history societies.

In 1946 he married Hilary Brett-Smith, whom he had met at Bletchley and in whose serene company he returned to Cambridge to St John's where he had been elected to the Fellowship two years before.

The first time I met him, when I presented myself as a scholarship candidate in 1960, he seemed very old. I clearly remember wrongly spotting a resemblance to Franz Liszt in extremis. Indeed so old did he seem that on not seeing him about the place in 1961 I drew that wrong conclusion often drawn by those ignorant of the existence of academic leave. In fact, Harry Hinsley was very much alive in 1961, as in 1962 those of my contemporaries who were his pupils very soon discovered.

He was a wonderful teacher. Associating himself with an earlier age, he took the view that any intelligent historian could teach anyone, even a Johnian, any intelligible period of history. This conviction may have derived from his own experience at Bletchley. But what with Caius on the up, as it was then, in 1962 such studied amateurishness struck even us as high-wirism. Even so, with Hinsley it worked. "If you want to do modern this term, you'll go to Mr Miller, because he's a medievalist," he informed us. "But if you want to do medieval, then you'll come to me, because I'm a modernist." And we all assented to this and nodded gravely. And we weren't all fools, or just rugby players (which Hinsley himself had been, which was extraordinary, though, given that, the rest was altogether credible. He had especially enjoyed playing in the rain).

So I was supervised by him on "The Coronation of Charlemagne", which was only one of his set-pieces, and in accordance with some Hinslaic variation of the immutable Hinslaic precepts also went to him for modern things and benefited from his deconstruction of his own Power and the Pursuit of Peace (1963).

As a lecturer, he was spell-binding then, and 30 years on was spell-binding still. Less than a year ago I listened to him as he kept an enormous postprandial Cambridge audience on the edges of its collective seat while he reminisced on Bletchley days, without a note and for exactly the hour prescribed. Many of the audience on this occasion were candidates for the MPhil degree in International Relations, the degree course which Hinsley invented in the aftermath of Power and the Pursuit of Peace, and which has brought no end of interesting students to Cambridge in recent years, as well as spawning so many more more questionable courses in its wake.

Small of stature and dapper in appearance, Hinsley was notable for the distinctiveness of his pronunciation, the idiosyncrasy of which was more often feebly mimicked than artfully reproduced. "That was a caricature, wasn't it?" he asked after one more than usually accurate representation.

His contribution to St John's College, to which he was permanently attached for the last 52 years of his life, is incalculable. As Fellow, Tutor, President and Master, he was forever about the place. It was during his Mastership that at long last the college decided to "go mixed". Hinsley was not by nature a mixer, but once the change had been made he proved wholly supportive of it.

Because he was Reader in the History of International Relations, when in 1967 he said that there would be no war in the Middle East people took notice. And when, later that year, he said at lunch that Wilson wouldn't dare devalue and as he said it the Fellowship rose as one from its anxious eggs on toast and made its way down to Lloyds to see what could be salvaged, Hinsley's view was that the Fellowship was rushing it.

Shortly after being elected Master of St John's, in 1981 he was catapulted into the Vice-Chancellorship of the university. By 1981 Cambridge's spate of occupations and sit-ins was happily over. He wouldn't have been comfortable with those. The fashion now was for economy. Economy was a regime not altogether uncongenial to Hinsley. ("Just half a scuttle," he indicated from the chair at a meeting of his college council at about this time, as the fire was about to go out in the course of a discussion on the subject of how the college might cut corners.) In the history of the university he will be especially remembered for his promotion of the cause of early retirement.

Harry Hinsley was a man for all seasons, applauded and honoured both at home and abroad. Winter or summer, he would emerge in three-piece suit, plastic mac and invariable black beret. In mid-August, with the temperature in the nineties, the plastic mac and beret cut a particular swathe through the queues in the Cambridge Sainsburys. He was a rare man.

Francis Harry Hinsley, historian: born Walsall, Staffordshire 26 November 1918; War service, HM Foreign Office, 1939-46; Fellow, St John's College Cambridge 1944-79, 1989-98, Tutor 1956-63, President 1975-79, Master 1979- 89; OBE 1946; Lecturer in History, Cambridge University 1949-65, Reader in the History of International Relations 1965-69, Professor of the History of International Relations 1969-83, Vice- Chancellor 1981-83; Editor, Historical Journal 1960-71; FBA 1981; Kt 1985; married 1946 Hilary Brett-Smith (two sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 16 February 1998.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - Cyber Security

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager for Cyber Secur...

Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst - Application Support - Central London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst (App...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engineer (Windows Server, Exchange Server)

£35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engine...

Investigo: Finance Analyst

£240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum