Ruth Spalding: Actor and director who also wrote a Whitbread Prize-winning biography

Ruth Spalding was a multi-gifted, spirited person of wide interests and highly varied accomplishments. She had a successful career in the theatre as actor and director, turned to writing programmes for television, and then worked in education, where she found time to research and write the life of the 17th-century parliamentarian and lawyer Bulstrode Whitelocke, for which she won a Whitbread prize in 1975.

Much later Spalding was persuaded by Christopher Hill to edit Whitelocke's massive diary, covering the years 1605 to 1675, which was published by the British Academy. This involved her in journeys to France and Sweden, and long spells at Longleat, where the bulky Whitelocke archive survives. One reviewer described the first volume, which contained the diary and her commentary, as "a wondrous book".

But a second volume was a still more heroic achievement, containing some thousand potted biographies of Whitelocke's relations, friends and contacts. Deputed by the British Academy to oversee and assist her work, I watched with admiration her tireless travels to London libraries in search of clues to Whitelocke's acquaintances, ranging from monarchs like Christina of Sweden to servants and washerwomen. In seeking scholarly help, Spalding built up a great circle of friends, including Vera Crossman, who boarded and breakfasted her in her farmhouse during her numerous stays at Longleat, and helped solve the code in which some of Whitelocke's letters from Sweden were written to Oliver Cromwell.

Spalding was brought up in Oxford, the daughter of Henry Norman Spalding, a philanthropist who trained as a lawyer but never practised, and Nellie (née Cayford), whose family traded in guano. She attended Headington school from 1925-32, was head girl in her last year, and studied PPE at Somerville College.

Thereafter, she rejoiced in what she called her "deliciously unstructured life", finding her niche somehow in the theatre in the 1930s; in 1937 she was working at the Maddermarket theatre in Norwich and in 1939 she produced plays in London for the Religious Drama Society.

During the war she founded the Oxford Pilgrim Players, a co-operative company of actors. They claimed to play "any time anywhere", in Welsh miners' halls, schools, universities, once in a garage, in a hospital, in converted stables, in the crypt of St Paul's cathedral, and in East End air-raid shelters.

The Pilgrim Players were then incorporated into the Rock Theatre Company, in which Spalding and her husband, Terence O'Brien, both became leading actors and directors. Their performances were acclaimed in glowing terms in the press when Ruth played Ophelia in Hamlet and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and her husband Shylock, Macbeth and Malvolio. They acted in the plays of Strindberg and George Bernard Shaw; their performances took them to the Comedy Theatre in London, and St Martin in the Fields church; Spalding directed a play in the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, and they played scenes from Shakespeare in Wakefield gaol.

After the war, and with the advent of television, life was more difficult for a touring company, and Spalding moved into education, lecturing, arranging conferences and exhibitions, advising the National Union of Townswomen's Guilds on arts, crafts and social studies. Charles Williams, the poet and playwright, had lodged in the house of Spalding's parents during the war, and became a close friend to and her sister Anne; she wrote a radio programme about him in 1961.

She wrote many BBC feature programmes, and her documentary play on the women's movement, With This Sword (written under the name of Marion Jay), was performed with choir and orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall during the Festival of Britain in 1951.

For 14 years she was general secretary of the Association of Headmistresses, finally retiring to devote herself to full-time writing, plus very active participation in the life of her family, her church and village.

At times Ruth's unstructured career posed problems of earning her daily bread, but she was always resourceful and optimistic, a most loving mother to her daughter, Jeanie, and grandmother to her two grandchildren, Ruth and Daniel. She retained remarkable energy and youthfulness into her last years, directing plays in her seventies and eighties, relishing travel in faraway places, and gardening organically at home. While she astonished me with her success in locating some of Whitelocke's obscure contemporaries, she also filled me with envy at her luxuriant bed of parsley at Welwyn. She was a sparkling, lively model of the career opportunities that have come to women in the 20th century.

Joan Thirsk



Ruth Spalding, actor, director and author: born 30 November 1913; married Terence O'Brien (one daughter); died 26 February 2009.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
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
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Sales Consultants - OTE £65,000 - £100,000

£65000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national direct sales com...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Consultant - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Can you sell? Want to earn over...

Recruitment Genius: Partitioners / Carpenter / Multi Skilled Tradesmen / Decorator

£28000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Various opportunities are avail...

Recruitment Genius: Trade Marketing Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

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