Professor Spencer Leonard Millham

The Times entry Millham, Spencer Leonard, Emeritus Professor (Bristol), OBE, MA (Cantab), former fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, passed away on 4th June, 2015, in Addenbrookes’ Hospital, Cambridge, leaving two sisters, Shirley Hillier and Dorothy Millham. His presence is missed. Donations appreciated to Newmarket Open Door for the homeless – care of Southgate Funeral Directors, 25 Duchess Drive, Newmarket. Suffolk. CB8 8AG. 01638 662480.

Spencer Millham at King’s College, Cambridge. Photograph: Saro Callister Photography

Spencer Millham at King’s College, Cambridge.
Photograph: Saro Callister Photography


I remember his witty and very funny lessons well, and he fired up an interest in geography which I didn’t know could be there. I shall always remember one day when we were all laughing so much at what he said and drew (his conical hills, estuaries and other geographical features always assumed brilliant innuendoes, which was marvellously entertaining for us boys) that Gillett burst through the adjoining classroom door to shut us all up, and that, when he had gone, Spen did an impression of him, with his two fingers on his face, so typical of both of them, that had us in stitches all over again. Just as noisy but no reappearance of Gillett! He did much to eradicate fagging and bullying, (and towel flicking in the washroom) which were rampant when I arrived at the school as boarder no. 58 in 1958. His was a great civilising and cultural influence, and his week end trips out into the country to see geographical places (when we always managed to end up in a pub) were legendary. What a difference with the boredom of French and History! After leaving QEH, he joined the King’s College, Cambridge, Research Unit, under Dr. Roston Lambert, who had visited Spen surreptitiously in QEH to do some pilot research, to study private and state Boarding Schools (how QEH compared awfully with the other schools!) He published books and pamphlets while at Cambridge, including ”Manual to the Sociology of the School”. We then all moved down to Dartington Hall in Devon, studied Approved Schools (as they were then), published “After Grace Teeth”, a study of those schools, and then he was awarded his Emeritus Professorship when Bristol University took over the Unit. Other books by Spen included “Locking up Children,” in 1978, “Lost in Care,” in 1986, and “Going home,” in 1990. He retired, and was awarded his OBE in 1995. He had a lovely cottage in North Devon at Langtree near Bideford, which he sold in 2000. He also supported a school in Tangier, where, amongst much else, he bought all the pupils there a computer each. After retiring completely, he lived in Newmarket, but loved visiting the galleries and exhibitions in London, and walking around Cambridge (where I last joined him) and dining at high table in Fitzwilliam College, his old college, where he was always welcome amongst the Fellows. (He attended Wadham College, Oxford, where he did his teacher training) We shall all miss Spencer. He was one of the few who stimulated and inspired all pupils (like they said in that advert some years ago.) He also challenged much that was wrong with the system, like he did when advising various Home Secretaries. Thank you Spencer, we shall miss you but never forget.

Paul Cherrett

Memories of Spencer Millham Spencer was a first class Geography Master who had a way of bringing the subject vividly to life. He had travelled extensively and had graduated from Wadham College. It was through his enthusiasm that I pursued geography into the 6th form and as a BA Hons student at Bristol University. Rather sadly, the course was never up to Millham’s standard and far too much geology and science for me. My enthusiasm for the course had become rather too obvious and I was asked to move on after 18 months which was a lucky break as I became articled to a shipbroker, giving me plenty of scope to travel widely and to pursue the interest in the world that Spencer Millham had nurtured. By strange chance I had visited Wadham College a couple of weeks ago when in Oxford for a few days and I had thought about Spencer and how he had launched me into my career. Another coincidence was that, last Wednesday, Roger Gould and I visited Jim Clarke, and Spencer Millham’s name came up a couple of times in the conversation. We all agreed that he had been an inspirational teacher and a first class boarding master alongside his colleague, “Quiffer” Deighton, also an enthusiastic teacher who began his career at QEH at the same time. They brought a lot of laughter to the school between them as they both had a very well developed sense of humour and a quick wit. I seem to remember that Spencer had an eclectic collection of LPs, some of them classic Bessie Smith double entendre blues and jazz songs which he occasionally played at the end of term for the 6th form boarding Prefects. It says a lot for my academic bent that I can remember most of the lyrics of these saucy songs but very few words of wisdom from the works of Horace or Tacitus!

Barry Coombs


From Roger Bullock - A Dartington colleague He was born in 1932 in the maternity hospital at Stratford by Bow and so qualified as a true cockney. He was brought up in Barkingside where his father was a docker. In 1940, he was evacuated with his sister to Blackwood in Monmouthshire and returned to London in 1945 to attend to Barking Abbey Grammar School after which he gained a place at Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge to read geography. After graduation, he did two years national service in the Royal Navy, and then went to Wadham College, Oxford to study for a post-graduate teaching certificate. He taught for ten years at Queen Elizabeth Hospital School in Bristol, where his lessons are still remembered with huge affection by ex-pupils. In January 1966, he moved to join the Social Research Unit when it was based at King’s College, Cambridge and oversaw its move to Dartington Hall in October 1968. He became a founder member of the Centre for Social Policy and was subsequently given a personal chair by Bristol University and retired in 1995 having been awarded an OBE. Spencer’s contribution to child care research was enormous and his books like The Hothouse Society, After Grace¬-­Teeth, Locking Up Children and Lost in Care remain seminal texts. As well as having a stunning intellect, he was extremely cultured, wrote beautiful English, was a brilliant speaker and had a superb wit with one-liners worthy of the greatest comic writers. He was also enormously kind, generous and unassuming person and a superb teacher. Many of those who had the good fortune to know him have already expressed their gratitude. We shall not look on his like again.

Roger Bullock.

The Guardian - Spencer Millham obituary

Director of the Dartington Social Research Unit whose work helped disturbed young people and children taken into foster care

The research of Spencer Millham, who has died aged 82, had a major impact on social policy for children and young people. The closure of residential schools for offenders, the introduction of a therapeutic approach for the most disturbed young people and the protection of the rights of parents whose children are taken into foster care – all came about partly thanks to his work.

As director of the Dartington Social Research Unit, an independent charity based in Devon, Spencer encouraged an intellectual environment that welcomed leading researchers of the day to sit alongside government policymakers. The research contributed to several changes in legislation and guidance, most notably the Children Act 1989, which gave parents more rights and brought into a single framework private law, for example, what happens to children when parents divorce, and public law, affecting children supported by the state.

Eccentric and funny, Spencer nonetheless obsessed over the quality of research. In his work that led to the closure of residential institutions for young people – approved schools, as they were called despite, as Spencer observed, being approved of by nobody except those who ran them – he took a mixed-method approach. He gathered strong survey data and also spent a great deal of time in the schools carefully observing what went on and talking to staff and residents. The findings, clearly demonstrating the schools’ ineffectiveness, were published as After Grace, Teeth: A Comparative Study of Residential Experience of Boys in Approved Schools (with Roger Bullock and Paul Cherrett, 1975), and led government to a new chapter in policy on youth justice.

Millham felt a strong intellectual affinity with policymakers. He greatly distrusted popular contemporary theories and pushed hard at any idea by linking it to empirical evidence, including where necessary personal experience. The approach is reflected in his book Lost in Care (with Roger Bullock, Kenneth Hoise and Martin Haak, 1986), on the problems of maintaining links between children in care and their families. It drew in ideas and advice from several research teams, civil servants and practitioners as well as his own colleagues. The study contributed to an enduring shift in the balance of power between the state and disadvantaged families with children.

Born in the East End of London, to Leonard, a dock worker, and his wife Ivy (nee Beagle), Spencer experienced both the blitz and evacuation with his sister, Shirley, to south Wales. His authority on the issue of children’s experience of separation from home came not only from his research but also from having stood on a Welsh railway station with a label around his neck, waiting to be taken in by strangers.

On returning to London in 1945 Spencer won a place at Barking Abbey grammar school, where he forged a friendship with Royston Lambert, who would go on to become head of the progressive Dartington Hall school, which was to change the course of his life. He followed Lambert to Cambridge, where Milham won a place at Fitzwilliam House (now Fitzwilliam College) to study geography. After graduation he did two years’ national service in the Royal Navy. As a graduate ordinary seaman he passed much of his time drafting letters from his shipmates to their loved ones back home.

After training as a teacher at Wadham College, Oxford, he became head of geography and housemaster at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school in Bristol. A naturally gifted teacher, Spencer might have forged an illustrious career in the public school system, but at the beginning of 1966 he accepted an invitation from Lambert, by now a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, to contribute to a series of studies of the boarding school sector culminating in the publication of The Hothouse Society (1968).

Lambert became headteacher at Dartington Hall, which was an alternative type of boarding school, in 1969. Spencer and the research unit moved in, too, squatting in the headteacher’s house and slowly adapting the methods developed to study residential institutions for the elite to those for the disadvantaged.

He built around him a strong team. The unit operated from Dartington but became a part of the University of Bristol, where Spencer developed career-long relationships with Roy Parker, Phyllida Parsloe and Peter Townsend. The university rewarded him with a personal chair in social policy.

On retirement in 1995 Spencer was appointed OBE. He worked with his Dartington and Bristol colleagues to establish the Centre for Social Policy, a space for retired academics, policymakers and practitioners to make a further contribution to children’s lives. Like the Dartington unit, the centre continues to flourish today.

Spencer split his retirement years between Tangier, in Morocco, Newmarket, Suffolk, and London. He continued to inspire and demand the best from his Dartington colleagues until the last weeks of his life.

He is survived by his sisters, Shirley and Dorothy.

• Spencer Millham, teacher and social researcher, 8 August 1932; died 4 June 2015