Owen Spencer-Thomas

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Canon Dr Owen Spencer-Thomas, MBE
Born Owen Robert Spencer-Thomas
(1940-03-03) 3 March 1940 (age 75)
Braughing, Hertfordshire, England
Ethnicity English
Education University of London, University of Westminster, University of Cambridge
Occupation Journalist, clergyman, fundraiser
Notable credit(s) MBE, D.Litt
Spouse(s) Margaret (Maggie) Ely (1976-present)
Parent(s) Ivor and Rosabel

Owen Robert Spencer-Thomas MBE (born 3 March 1940) is a television and radio news journalist, philanthropist and campaigner for autism and other disabilities. Spencer-Thomas is also an ordained Anglican clergyman. In 2008 Spencer-Thomas was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire.


Early life[edit]

Spencer-Thomas was born into a farming family on 3 March 1940 in Braughing, Hertfordshire, England.

After attending Christ Church Cathedral Choir School, Oxford,[1] from the age of eight, he continued his education as a teenager at Ardingly College, Sussex.[2] He studied at the Royal Agricultural College, 1958–1960, in Cirencester and spent several years working on his father's farm in Hertfordshire.

His father, Ivor Spencer-Thomas, farmer and famous inventor, held the feudal barony of Buquhollie and Freswick in Caithness, Scotland.[3] His mother was Alice Rosabel. He married Margaret Ely in 1976. Both are members of the high IQ society, British Mensa.[4][5]

Higher Education[edit]

Students' Union[edit]

He graduated in sociology at the Polytechnic, Regent Street, where he campaigned to establish its students' union and became its first elected president, a sabbatical post, in 1966.[6] The fledgling union caught the public eye in 1967 when Spencer-Thomas invited the notorious British criminal and escapee, Alfie Hinds, to take part in a college debate to give his controversial views on the flaws in the English legal system and speak about his daring jail breaks from three high security prisons. After the debate Hinds was confronted by another attempt to deprive him of his liberty. During a drink in a nearby pub, he was kidnapped by six students as part of a rag week stunt and frogmarched along a couple of streets to a basement room in the college. Hinds yet again foiled his captors after securing a bunch of keys and turning the lock on them. The ensuing publicity generated considerable interest, trebling the charitable revenue from the rag week activities.[7]

Overseas students fees increase[edit]

During his Presidency of the Students’ Union,[8] Spencer-Thomas led a national campaign opposing the British Government's university fees increase for overseas students. In December 1966 the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Anthony Crosland announced the decision to discontinue subsidising British Commonwealth students. These students, many of whom were studying at The Polytechnic, had been entitled to the same state-funded grants for higher education as UK citizens were.[9] In many cases they faced a quadrupling of their fees and would have been forced to abandon their university course and return home.[10]

As one of the leading campaigners, Spencer-Thomas led a day of protest in London and presented a 20,000 strong nationwide petition to The Department of Education and Science (DES) calling on the Government to reverse its controversial decision.[11] The hard-fought student campaign won the support of many university vice-chancellors and college principals.[12][13] As a consequence of the protest the Government gave funding to the British Council to enable the overseas students who were affected to complete their courses and graduate in the UK.[14][15][16]

Spencer-Thomas continued his studies at Westcott House, Cambridge and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.[17]


Spencer-Thomas has worked extensively in television and radio broadcasting as a news journalist. Joining Anglia Television in 1978 as senior reporter on the regional magazine programme About Anglia, he later became news bulletin editor of Anglia News in 1992. He also presented Anglia Television’s late night religious programme Reflections. He has been a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's You and Yours and Sunday programmes and has presented religious and ethics programmes on Thames Television[18] and Southern Television. He has reported for Independent Television News(ITN).

He devised and presented the popular Sounding Brass radio phone-in programme[19] which was later fronted by Gloria Hunniford on BBC Radio 2.[20] His radio biographies included, his acclaimed portrayal in 1978, of the outspoken television personality, panellist and quizmaster, Gilbert Harding.[21][22] He was one of the early pioneers of the local radio phone-in on BBC Radio London during the 1970s with his own programme Your Call.[23]

An innovative programme producer, Spencer-Thomas recorded two half-hour interview programmes with Kenneth Williams in which the comic actor, who rarely revealed his private life, spoke frankly about his early days and his feelings of loneliness, despondency and underachievement. Carry On Kenneth also featured skilfully chosen clips from the famous Carry On films, in which Williams starred, adding a gentle humour to the probing interview questions.[24] Other famous celebrities he interviewed included comedian Eric Morecambe, pop singer Helen Shapiro, children’s presenter and campaigner Floella Benjamin, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Arthur Scargill, Methodist minister and open air preacher at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park Lord Soper and former Prime Minister John Major.

Spencer-Thomas scripted and presented BBC Radio 4's Sunday Morning Worship live from Christ's College Chapel in Cambridge on 21 November 1999. The College Chapel Choir accompanied by the organ and harpist, Laurette Pope, performed music by Benjamin Britten to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King to an audience of over a million listeners.[25][26] He was one of the contributors to BBC's Pause for Thought and presented a series of weekend broadcasts on social issues on BBC Radio 2.[27] He has been reviewing the daily national newspapers on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire since 2008.

His documentary Underneath the Arches broke tradition by enabling London’s homeless people to tell their own stories without any links from a programme presenter. Instead, he used short clips from catchy music hall songs to establish each location and, with careful editing, the interviewees related their own experiences and introduced each other. The publicity boosted funds for the Crisis at Christmas campaign and brought more volunteers to the charity which used a derelict church in Lambeth to house and feed homeless people during Christmas week each year in the 1970s.[28] The unique presentation of the programme won the UNDA award from the International Catholic Association for Radio and Television for the best UK religious radio programme in 1977.[29]

On 7 January 1993 he capsized a canoe which he had borrowed to film the flood-stricken village of Alconbury Weston, Cambridgeshire. He and his drenched film crew were featured on ITV's It'll Be Alright on the Night.

Spencer-Thomas has written extensively on news values, how social media are changing our daily news and the influence of social media on religious thought. Media Handbook for National Human Rights Institutions[30]

He chaired the official hustings at which Cambridge voters questioned their Parliamentary candidates for the 2010 General Election.[31]

Philanthropic activities[edit]


Spencer-Thomas has been a long-time volunteer and outspoken advocate for autistic people in the United Kingdom. As father of two sons with autism,[32] he continues to give pastoral care, counselling and practical support to families with autistic children.

Speaking at the University of Westminster in 2010, he said: "...the great irony for me is that although communication has been central to almost all my work, our elder son has severe autism. (He) can neither speak, nor read, nor write. His understanding of the world around him is cruelly constrained and very different from yours or mine." He added: "... despite his lack of language, he is among those who taught me and in his own way encouraged me and my family to campaign for people with autism."[33]

Spencer-Thomas provided a telephone listening service from his home and gave support to families with newly diagnosed children. He set up regular parent meetings with a children's crèche at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, and organised speakers and local conferences[32] to enable isolated parents to learn more about autism, its treatment and the care of people with autism.

Organising the first conference in Cambridgeshire on the now widely acclaimed TEACCH system, he led the way to its adoption in many local schools and centres. This system, founded in 1966 by Eric Schopler at the University of North Carolina, United States, enhances the communication ability of people with autism and similar conditions.[34]

Spencer-Thomas became an advocate acting on behalf of families and negotiating with local authorities the appropriate care and education for their autistic children. He raised £53,000 for a local parent support group, the Cambridgeshire Autistic Society.

He became Founder Chairman of the East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST) in 1991, campaigning widely and raising the public profile and understanding of autism at a time when there was still much ignorance about the condition. The trust undertook a £1.5 million pound fundraising campaign to purchase a redundant old rectory in Stretham. The specially adapted building enabled the Trust to provide the first specialised accommodation and day care provision for adults with autism in Cambridgeshire. The service, which was run and managed in partnership with the National Autistic Society, opened in 1998 and later moved to Manea. The charitable trust merged with Autism Anglia in June 2012. The Trust also pioneered the Enabling Through Information. The ETI project, which collated and distributed useful information each month to help families affected by autism to access appropriate services, was funded in partnership with [British Telecom].

On one occasion Spencer-Thomas publicly challenged a tabloid newspaper columnist who had argued that if some children diagnosed with autism were stuck “up to their necks in a vat full of warm sewage for 10 hours they would soon learn some manners”.[35]

EAST and other autism charities were besieged by phone calls from distressed parents following the article by Dr Vernon Coleman, a former general practitioner who was renowned for his outspoken views in his agony uncle column ‘’Casebook’’ in the Sunday People. Spencer-Thomas, whose elder son has severe autism, condemned Coleman’s remarks as “irresponsible, medically unsound and deeply hurtful” to families that had a child with autism. Coleman had also claimed that diagnoses of hyperactivity and autism were “misused by middle-class, aspirational parents to excuse the behaviour of their obnoxious children.” Spencer-Thomas challenged Coleman to spend 24 hours caring for his son in the presence of fully trained carers who understood the devastating and debilitating effects of autism. Coleman declined to take up the challenge and refused to withdraw his remarks.[36] But Spencer-Thomas had the last word when he referred the matter to the Press Complaints Commission and the newspaper’s editor, Bridget Rowe, printed an apology.

As well as campaigning and giving practical support to families with disabled children, Spencer-Thomas headed several successful major charity appeals. A keen cross country runner, he raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for mental health charities. During his time with EAST, he established the first specialised accommodation and daycare for adults with autism in Cambridgeshire. During the ten-year fundraising appeal, Spencer-Thomas raised 1.5 million pounds and gave nearly 1,400 talks to schools, clubs and societies on autism awareness.[37] He raised a further £400,000 to assist with the provision of a day centre for adults with autism. He served on the National Autistic Society (NAS) Council from 1996 until 2002 and was a member of their Service Accreditation Team helping to maintain a service of excellence throughout the network.[38]

Other voluntary work[edit]

Under the 1989 Children Act, Cambridgeshire Social Services appointed Spencer-Thomas as their first Independent Visitor - another voluntary appointment in which he gave support to disabled children and their families and monitored their statutary services.

He established an educational trust in 1996, which gives grants to gifted children and young people who need additional support for their studies. The Willow Trust has supported children in both state and private education and has also supported both graduate and undergraduate students.[39]

From 1994 until 1997 he has served on the Council of the Old Rectory School, Brettenham, Suffolk, which specialises in teaching children with dyslexia.[40] He continues to raise funds for a range of other charities.


Spencer-Thomas was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2008 New Year Honours.[41] He was invested by HM Queen Elizabeth II on 4 March at Buckingham Palace[42] for services to the Church of England and to the community in Cambridgeshire.[43]

The University of Westminster awarded him an honorary degree, Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) in January 2010 in recognition of his services to journalism and the voluntary sector.[44][45][46][47]

Spencer-Thomas was installed as an Honorary Canon at Ely Cathedral in 2004 by the Bishop of Ely, Dr Anthony Russell in recognition of the contribution he made to the life and work of the church.[48]

In 1994 he was awarded the Whitbread Volunteer Action Award by Princess Michael of Kent for outstanding service in the community.

He won the Ian Nicol Award for Health Promotion in Cambridgeshire after leading a team which pioneered and produced The Enabling Through Information Project, an information initiative which empowered parents to access appropriate services on behalf of their disabled children.

University and Anglican Church appointments[edit]

He served his curacy at St Luke's Church, Redcliffe Square, Kensington from 1972. During this time he was a lecturer in comparative religions at the Fulham and South Kensington Institute.[49] In 1976 he was appointed Director of the London Churches Radio Workshop and producer at BBC Radio London.[50] He was appointed as a non-stipendiary minister and later moved to Cambridge where he assists in the Parish of the Ascension. He became Director of Communications for the Diocese of Ely in 2002. In 2011 he retired from this post and now works as a freelance broadcaster, trainer and media consultant.[51] He was Editor of the monthly journal, Ely Ensign, from February 2002 until December 2006.[52]

He was Chaplain of St John's College School from 1993 - 1998.[53] and Christ's College, Cambridge from 1997 - 2001[54] and was made an Honorary Canon of Ely Cathedral in 2004.[55][56]

During the Lent Term 2005, he was Acting Dean of Clare College,[57] and in 2006 was Acting Dean of Trinity Hall.[17][58] In the summer of 2007 he undertook the chaplaincy at St Catharine's College, in the University of Cambridge for a term.[59]


  1. ^ Christ Church Cathedral School website. Retrieved 17 October 2008.
  2. ^ Ardingly Society website. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
  3. ^ Braughing website History and Tributes. Accessed 19 November 2014.
  4. ^ Who's Who at Diocese of Ely Official Website. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  5. ^ Kids IQ Test Center website. Retrieved 7 February 2010.
  6. ^ Poly Identikit No 1. West One, 13 October 1966, p. 5.
  7. ^ Alfred Hinds foils his young captors. The Times, 3 March 1967, p. 3.
  8. ^ Students oppose Government's fees hike for overseas students. West One, No 6. January 1967, p. 2.
  9. ^ The Times, 21 January 1967, Letters to the Editor.
  10. ^ Overseas Students in Britain: How Their Presence was Politicised in 1966-1967 J.M. LEE Minerva Vol. 36, No. 4 (WINTER 1998), pp. 305-321 Publisher Springer
  11. ^ Morning Star. 23 February 1967.
  12. ^ Daily Mail. 23 February 1967.
  13. ^ Daily Sketch. 23 February 1967.
  14. ^ The Guardian. 15 April 1967.
  15. ^ Daily Express. 15 April 1967.
  16. ^ Daily Telegraph. April 1967.
  17. ^ a b Diocese of Ely Official Website. Retrieved 22 January 2007.
  18. ^ BFI Film & TV database. Retrieved 27 January 2007.
  19. ^ BBC London Homepage. Retrieved 10 June 2007.
  20. ^ Blurtit website. Retrieved 2 January 2008.
  21. ^ Museum of Broadcast Communications website. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  22. ^ Horace Newcombe (2004). Encyclopedia of Television Volume 2. Fitzroy Dearborn ISBN 978-1579583941. p. 1063. 
  23. ^ Radio Times (London edition) 2–8 October 1976.
  24. ^ Kenneth Williams: 1977 Radio London Interview on YouTube. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  25. ^ The Cambridge Student December 1999. p. 2
  26. ^ Pieces In the News p. 2. Retrieved 31 October 2013
  27. ^ Chaplain's debut Cambridge Evening News, 21 February 2000, p. 7.
  28. ^ Crisis website - volunteers. Retrieved 5 September 2007.
  29. ^ Radio Times 5–11 March 1977
  30. ^ A P Forum (2014). Media Handbook for National Human Rights Institutions. Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights ISBN 978-0992276621. p. 6. 
  31. ^ Chance for voters to question candidates. Cambridge News. 27 April 2010.
  32. ^ a b Expert's Autism Speech. Cambridge News, 4 June 2009, p. 9.
  33. ^ Doctoral Acceptance Speech. 18 January 2010. Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  34. ^ University of North Carolina website. Retrieved 15 August 2007.
  35. ^ ‘’Casebook’’ column ‘’Sunday People’’ 25 June 1995.
  36. ^ Autism ‘advice’ sparks outrage. Cambridge Evening News. 5 July 1995.
  37. ^ Owen Spencer-Thomas Home Page. Retrieved 14 August 2008.
  38. ^ National Autistic Society website. Retrieved 15 August 2007.
  39. ^ Christ's College Annual Report to the Governing Body 2004, p. 20, Item 17 Restricted Funds. Retrieved 14 October 2007.
  40. ^ Old Rectory School website. Retrieved 26 August 2007.
  41. ^ COI News Distribution Service. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  42. ^ Wired-gov website reference for official government news. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  43. ^ Independent. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  44. ^ Doctorate for former TV reporter Cambridge News. p. 2. 18 January 2010.
  45. ^ Diocese of Ely website: Meet the team. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  46. ^ Diocese of Ely website. Retrieved 6 May 2011.
  47. ^ Doctoral Acceptance Speech. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
  48. ^ Magnificent seven set ecclesiastical record. Cambridge News. 10 February 2004.
  49. ^ "The Diocese of Ely - About Us - Bishops' Press Officer - Owen Spencer-Thomas". Diocese of Ely Official Website. Retrieved 12 June 2009. 
  50. ^ Crockford's Clerical Directory, (London, Church House 1995) ISBN 0-7151-8088-6
  51. ^ Home Website. Accessed 15 February 2013.
  52. ^ Editorial, Ely Ensign. February 2002.
  53. ^ Crockford's Clerical Directory, (London, Church House 2002-2003)
  54. ^ Official site of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Retrieved 22 January 2007.
  55. ^ Braughing Village website. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  56. ^ Ely Cathedral website. Retrieved 15 June 2009.
  57. ^ Official site of Clare College, Cambridge. Retrieved 27 January 2007.
  58. ^ Trinity Hall Newsletter Michaelmas 2006, p. 35. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  59. ^ Official site of St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Retrieved 22 June 2007.

External links[edit]