Obituary: Ivor Bulmer-Thomas
Friday 08 October 1993
VERY FEW could match the stamina of a man like Ivor Bulmer- Thomas who decided on losing his seat in the House of Commons, in 1950, to drive across the Sahara Desert with some friends, and who still went skiing each year till his mid-eighties. A former government minister, a distinguished journalist and layman of the Church of England, and latterly a champion of redundant church buildings, he needed a mere four or five hours' sleep a night and kept Dante in the original medieval Italian at his bedside for nocturnal reading. It was entirely to be expected of the man that he was working literally till a few minutes before his death.
Ivor Thomas (he adopted the Bulmer, his wife's maiden name, in 1952) came from a humble home in Cwmbran, Monmouthshire, where he was born in 1905. From school at Pontypool he won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. Oxford had a profound effect and he left with First Class degrees in Mathematics and Literae Humaniores (Greats). He represented his university, and his country, in cross-country running and athletics and but for an injury might have been selected for the 880 yards at the 1928 Olympics. He knew many of the dramatis personae of the film The Chariots of Fire.
After a year spent as Gladstone Research Student at St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, from 1929 till 1930 (which resulted in a book on the son of the great man, Gladstone of Hawarden, in 1936), he entered the world of journalism. He was on the editorial staff of the Times, where he also served as a sports correspondent for a time, from 1930 till 1937, was chief leader writer at the News Chronicle from 1937 to 1939 and acting deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph from 1953 till 1954. A number of important obituaries in the Times were his work, at least in substantial part, including that of Bertrand Russell.
Thomas's war was spent in the Royal Fusiliers and the Royal Norfolk Regiment, in which he was promoted Captain in 1941. For 12 months in the same year he played a leading role, as a fluent Italian speaker, in feeding black propaganda into Mussolini's fortress.
He formally entered party politics in 1942, when he was elected Labour MP for Keighley, in Yorkshire. Among his constituents was a young man called Denis Healey, who records in this autobiography that he wrote to Thomas for advice about entering politics and was firmly advised to stand for the House of Commons.
Thomas served under Clement Attlee as Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Civil Aviation in 1945-46. It was typical of the man that he obtained a pilot's licence in order to master the job. Thence he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Colonies, Delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations and the first UK member of the Trusteeship Council in 1947. He was mentioned behind some closed doors as possible party leadership material, but in 1948 he resigned the Labour whip over the nationalisation of steel. He failed to win Newport for the Conservatives in the general election of 1950.
Thomas was a deeply pious man. Although born a Baptist, he was among the leading apologists of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England. He sat on the General Synod for nearly 20 years, having previously served for 20 in the House of Laity of the Church Assembly. For many years he helped to run an Advanced Sunday School in the west gallery of the City church of St Andrew-by-the- Wardrobe, which he fought to have rebuilt after the Second World War and for which he felt a special devotion.
It was Thomas's Christianity which gave particular strength to his adoption of the Conservation Movement when he founded the Friends of Friendless Churches in 1957. The Friends aim to save all churches of interest, if necessary through direct ownership, and are now the guardians of some 21 in England and Wales. Just before launching the organisation, Thomas had persuaded the Church of England to introduce the Quinquennial Inspection Measure, which stipulated that each church should be be examined every five years. More than any other single Act, this modest Measure has prevented many of those sudden 'repairs crises' which carry off too many fine churches. In 1969 he became the first chairman of the Redundant Churches Fund, a post he retained until 1976, and it was he who gave the fund its identity in those critical pioneering days; it is now in its third decade with nearly 300 churches in care. Thomas's presence within the Ancient Monuments Society was almost as comprehensive and dominant as in the Friends. He was made Secretary as early as 1958, served on the Council for over 30 years and was chairman for 20.
If ancient churches and Christianity proved guiding principles in his life, so did his strong, abiding love of family, his wife Joan, to whom he was married for 53 years, and his four children, Michael, Jennifer, Miranda and Victor.
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