JOHN HILTON set up in practice as an architect in 1936 and had it not been for the Second World War would no doubt have become as distinguished in the world of architecture as he became in that of
From being a Captain in the Royal Engineers in 1941 he was transferred to the Foreign Service in 1943 and sent out to Istanbul in 1944, moving to Athens in 1945, where, as he once mentioned to me, Kim Philby ordered him in addition to his other duties to take over the visa office in two days. Apart from one other tour in Istanbul from 1956 to 1960 he spent the rest of his career with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in London (where he always wore a brown bowler). His percipience and elegance on paper earned him the admiration of Dick White, Director General successively of MI5 and MI6, and a CMG in 1965, and the respect of his colleagues (Maurice Oldfield, chief of the SIS, always referred to him as 'The Professor').
Born in 1908 and educated at Marlborough (at the same time as Anthony Blunt) and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Hilton studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture and obtained an ARIBA Diploma from London University and was appointed Director of Antiquities in Cyprus in 1934 (which he chose as an alternative to a lectureship in philosophy at Birmingham University) before returning to England in 1936.
He retired from the SIS in 1969 and became absorbed in a host of interests, including philosophy, psychical research, mental health (he was a founder member of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship and was made its President in 1985), writing (his captions to the annual Christmas photographs taken by his wife were a delight), walking (he was a member of the Ramblers' Association) and gardening. In recent years he battled gallantly and with rueful humour against his own and his family's physical frailty, writing to me in March last year that following a visit from 'the top dragon' in the Social Services department to explain why they were to receive less rather than more home help as a result of the cuts in the care in the community programme he wondered if 'their' secret agenda included killing off anyone over 80.
On Peter Wright's book Spycatcher he said, 'If Mr Gorbachev could persuade one of his lot to open up on similar lines, the continued revelation of how much the secret services are simply taking in one another's washing could benefit us all.'
He and his wife, Peggy, achieved their diamond wedding last summer. One of their three daughters predeceased him, as did his brother, Roger Hilton, the artist, but he is survived by a son and two daughters, one of whom, Jennifer, was a senior policewoman, and was made a life peer as Baroness Hilton of Eggardon in 1991.
John Hilton was a faithful correspondent and in some of the last letters I received from him he wrote: 'I sleep a lot, and am about to do so again. If you write, I might be kept awake long enough to do a bit better. I begin to doubt my own existence unless communication keeps going.'
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