Obituaries: Helen Morris

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The Independent Online
To several generations of postgraduates and undergraduates of King's College, Cambridge, the English literature scholar and champion of education Helen Morris was an institution - and a hugely benevolent institution at that. For nearly four decades, the welcoming home of Christopher and Helen Morris at No 5 Merton Street, in the Newnham district of Cambridge, was the scene of innumerable parties, including regular gatherings at 11.30am on Sunday mornings.

For the benefit of the young, who they felt should meet the distinguished figures of Cambridge, the Morrises would invite E.M. Forster, a regular visitor, and Noel Annan, the philosopher Richard Braithwaite, the anthropologist Meyer Fortes, the economists Nicholas Kaldor, Richard Kahn, Dick Stone, Harry Johnson and Robin Marris, the classicists Sir Frank Adcock and Patrick Wilkinson; the scientists Kenneth Harrison, T.R.C. Fox and E.S. Shire, and many others.

Her husband Christopher Morris, Senior Fellow in History, author of Tyndale to Hooker and many other books, one of the great Cambridge teachers of his generation, doted on Helen - and justifiably set considerable store on her opinion of people and students.

On one occasion, as a first-year undergraduate, I went to Morris with my contemporary student Julian Jebb, Hilaire Belloc's witty and clever, albeit academically idle, grandson with an essay on the German emperor Otto the First. He was annoyed with both of us, with me for having relied totally on the work and opinions of Professor Geoffrey Barraclough, of Liverpool, of whom he disapproved - and with Jebb for not having produced any work at all, with the excuse that the Battle of the Lech was not important and the Ottos did not interest him in the least anyway. Dismissing us from his room, he softened his attitude by saying "However, Helen approves of you both". We sensed that we were forgiven. The imprimatur of Helen was a considerable asset.

Helen Morris's greatest contribution in that part of her life which related to King's College was the generous hospitality she bestowed on all students, especially those from overseas. She made a point of finding out who was lonely in their first few weeks in Cambridge and made sure, whatever they were reading, that they got invitations. Not only historians were brought in to the Morris fold. Economists who were to forge international reputations, Mahbub-ul-Haq, of the World Bank, then a shy undergraduate, Lal Jayawardena from Sri Lanka, Michael Bruno, the future Governor of the Bank of Israel, have all told me in the past of their gratitude to Helen Morris at a time in their lives when they needed such welcoming friendship. Professor Ron Bryden, from Canada, and Professors Ken Cable and Anthony Melville, later vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Arthur Jenkins, from South Africa, Dr Alex Kwapong were just a few of the overseas students who were the Morrises' lifelong friends.

Helen Soutar was born in Dundee. Her mother's family, the Stewarts, were jute merchants trading with Calcutta. Often ridden with guilt, dreading to think what her Scots ancestors might have got up to in exploiting people in Bengal, she would make students from the subcontinent especially welcome in her home.

Her father, Charles Geddes Soutar, was a working-class Dundee boy, a real Scots "lad o' pairts" who became a distinguished architect, President of the Royal Incorporation of Architects of Scotland and Vice-President in 1939 of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in London. He designed the distinguished war memorial at Monifieth, Strathcaro Hospital and many other functional buildings. Keen that his daughter should exploit her talents in mathematics, he moved her from Dundee High School to St Christopher's School, Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, in order to gain entrance to Girton College, Cambridge. However after a year at Cambridge, Helen changed from the maths tripos - she said that she realised she was no budding Einstein and it was the most arcane mathematics course known to humankind - to English.

Her first book, Portrait of a Chef (1938) was about Alexander Soyer, pioneer of the use of field stoves in the Crimean War and one of the originators of soup kitchens for poor people in the 19th century. Spending the Second World War as a temporary civil servant, partly in the Admiralty where her husband - whom she had married in 1933 - also served, she returned to Cambridge to bring up her family and involve herself in tuition. In 1958 she was given a full-time post at Homerton Teachers Training College, being promoted to Head of the English Department in 1960. Her colleague John Ball, lecturer in psychology and education at Homerton told me of her assiduous concern for her students - especially those who came without the Cambridge "ease of manner". Ball told me that he and his colleagues were amazed by the perception, detail and kindliness of the reports which she gave on students at Homerton. Helen Morris's attitude was "I must begin by saying something positive, whatever I say later in the report."

Her own contribution to literature re-started with her Elizabethan Literature (1958), which attracted the Home University Library. Critics regarded her interpretation of Marlowe as both accurate and in many ways original. In the early 1960s she published pamphlets on Shakespeare which were invaluable for sixth-formers - Lear in 1965, Richard II in 1966, Antony and Cleopatra in 1968 and Romeo and Juliet in 1970.

Her most remarkable book was an anthology called Where's That Poem? (1967). It was really a reference book for teachers as to where they could find in British poetry references to a particular subject. For example, if a teacher wanted to do a lesson concerned with "sheep" in poetry, the anthology would reveal where such references could be found. Over a quarter of a century this book was revised in several editions, the last of which was in 1992 when Helen Morris was struggling with enormous courage against a myriad of illnesses and the tragedy of the premature death of their talented son, Charles. Her husband predeceased her by two years.

Until the very end Helen Morris displayed an excitement about education which benefited all around her.

Tam Dalyell

Helen Soutar, writer, educationalist: born Dundee 3 September 1909; lecturer, Homerton College of Education 1958-75, Head of English Department 1960-75; married 1933 Christopher Morris (died 1993; one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cambridge 13 August 1995.