Wilfrid Spender

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Sir Wilfrid Bliss Spender, KCB, DSO, MC (6 October 1876 — 21 December 1960) was an army officer, colonial administrator and civil servant - being responsible for laying the foundations for the civil service of Northern Ireland. He served as Secretary to the Northern Ireland Cabinet, 1921-1925, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, 1925-1944.[1] He was knighted in 1929. His wife, Lady Spender (née Alice Lilian Dean; 1880-1966), was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force Nursing Corps and worked in the Ulster Division Comforts Fund during World War I. Later in life he became a noted diarist.

Family life[edit]

Wilfrid Bliss Spender [2] was born in Plymouth, the son of Edward and Ellen (née Rendle) Spender. His father was co-founder of the Western Morning News in Plymouth; his father and two elder brothers were later drowned whilst boating at Whitsand Bay outside Plymouth when he was one year old.[citation needed]


He was educated at Winchester College and the Staff College, Camberley. He obtained a commission first in the Devon artillery. In 1897 he joined the Royal Artillery, seeing service in Bermuda, Canada, Malta, England, Ireland, and India. He was promoted to lieutenant 18 June 1900, and to captain 19 February 1902.[3] After Camberley he was nominated to attend a naval war course, one of the first two army staff officers to be so chosen. In 1909 became a member of the home defence section of the Imperial Defence Committee, which was then involved with the general defence of the United Kingdom.

He was at one point the youngest staff officer in the British army.[4]

He organized, and partly financed, a national petition against Home Rule, and helped establish the Junior Imperial League. He accepted an invitation to stand for Parliament, but withdrew when the rules were changed to place officers on half pay if they entered parliament. He signed the Ulster Covenant when it was opened for signature in England.[citation needed]

In 1913 he was allowed to retire from his army commission, refusing to resign with the rank of Captain and £120 per year. A confidential inspection report of 1913 commented that Captain Spender had been led away by a ‘too active conscience’ and had been very injudicious, risking his prospects in life. While disputing his leaving the army, feeling his services were required in Ulster, he sought legal advice from Sir Edward Carson; Carson invited Spender to Belfast to help organise the Ulster Volunteer Force. During a period of leave from service in India he met once again an old friend, Alice Lilian Dean, they were married within a few weeks. After a ten-day honeymoon he and his wife travelled to Belfast where Spender became Quartermaster General of the UVF, based at the Old Town Hall in Belfast, while remaining a director of his newspaper in Plymouth.

In December 1913, amidst widespread suspicions that sympathy for the Ulster cause might make army officers reluctant to move against the Ulster Volunteers, the CIGS Sir John French recommended that Spender be cashiered (stripped of his commission - a social disgrace which disqualified the victim from any further Crown employment) “pour decourager le autres”, but this did not happen.[5]

In April 1914 he was involved in co-ordinating the distribution of the UVF's rifles imported in the "Larne gun-running" incident.[citation needed]

The Great War[edit]

In July 1914 Spender, as a retired officer, was told to hold himself ready to take up an appointment with the eastern command in Chatham. He returned to England and, after the outbreak of war, was transferred as general staff officer to the new 36th (Ulster) Division. He served with the Ulster division until 1916, and was present at the Battle of the Somme, when he won the Military Cross for his part in the assault on Thiepval. He also won the DSO and was mentioned in despatches four times. In 1916 he was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel, and served with General Lord Cavan's corps, and then at advanced general headquarters working under Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (later created Lord Haig).

He was strongly opposed to accepting a six-county option for the partition of Ireland, and on these grounds he declined an invitation from Carson to contest an Ulster constituency at Westminster. About the same time he gave some support to moves to launch a national party in England — "to promote Reform, the Union and Defence" — and considered seeking nomination for parliament in a constituency in Devon or Cornwall. Following the war he joined the Ministry of Pensions in London, but in 1920 he was approached by Carson and Craig and asked to return to Belfast to help reorganize the UVF. The result was the formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary. In 1921 he became Cabinet Secretary in Northern Ireland and, in 1925, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Finance. He opposed any discrimination on religious grounds in the civil service, but was unable to prevent Unionist members of the Northern Ireland parliament dominating the selection boards for other ranks. He was never a member of the Orange Order, despite claims to the contrary from certain quarters.[citation needed]

Later life[edit]

Sir Wilfrid retired in 1944 and returned to England in 1955, he died of heart failure on 21 December 1960 at the East Hill Hotel, his home at Liss in Hampshire. He was survived by Lady Spender (died 1966), whom he married in 1913, and their only child, Patricia Daffodil (born Belfast, 17 March 1923; married Richard G. Dingwall on 2 November 1946; killed in a climbing accident in Switzerland).


  • "I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st. July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world." (Cpt Wilfred Spender, 2 July 1916)


  2. ^ Some sources cite Wilfrid Hurbert (Bliss) Spender
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27417. p. 1883. 18 March 1902.
  4. ^ Holmes 2004, p166
  5. ^ Holmes 2004, p169