Kenneth Spencer Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/08/27/db2702.xml
Last Updated: 12:56am BST 27/08/2005 Proposed John Cook
Wednesday 12 December 2007
Kenneth Spencer, who has died aged 78, was an Eton housemaster and a formidable mathematician. He ran the mathematical department at Eton for many years, and was to the fore in steering the school to New Maths in the 1960s. Teaching moved towards vectors, matrices, probability and statistics - facets of Maths enjoyably sent-up by Tom Lehrer in one of his more complicated renditions. A fervent supporter of the mathematical tutorial system, Spencer taught several generations of top maths specialists, helping to secure many scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge. Notable amongst his pupils was SP Norton, a King's Scholar whom other masters found almost impossible to teach in class since he was so far ahead of everyone else.
Spencer gave up considerable spare time to teach Norton privately, as a result of which Norton (now an independent researcher at Jesus College, Cambridge) obtained a First Class external degree from London University while still at Eton. He used to play three-dimensional chess with Norton and another mathematical scholar, Campbell. The two boys were better at this complicated game than their beak, but often devoted so much energy to beating each other that Ken Spencer would win.
By nature a shy and reserved man, from an early age Spencer set about developing a range of diverse talents, including rowing and playing the bassoon. Later in life he supervised the construction of a house in Italy.
He was never one of Eton's fashionable housemasters, nor was he impressed by the more conservative elements of the school, but he ran a friendly house and allowed his boys as free a rein as possible. These were changing times at Eton, the fluid mores of the Sixties coinciding with the difficult years of Anthony Chenevix-Trench's headmastership.
If, previously, Eton boys had felt that the world owed them a living, this was an era in which they were obliged to compete academically, places at Oxbridge being by no means assured for them. Spencer himself brought a refreshing realism to a sometimes closed world.
Kenneth Richard Spencer was born on May 27 1927, the son of CS Spencer, a Customs and Excise Officer at Wellingborough and later a schools inspector. He went to Wellingborough Grammar School, in due course irritating his parents by preferring to read at meals rather than talk.
He went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1944, and took a First in Maths. He was senior mathematical scholar, and also held a junior lectureship at Merton. While at Oxford, he rowed for both colleges, and was in the crew that took Merton to Head of the River. He progressed to a DPhil and taught Mathematics at university, but in 1952 he was lured to Eton by the housemaster HK ("Bloody Bill") Marsden.
He became a housemaster in 1963, and subsequently moved houses twice. Having started at Hawtrey, he enjoyed a long phase at Manor House (later Prince William's house) and then a spell at Hodgson House.
Although outwardly easy-going, Spencer inspired considerable success amongst his boys. The 1967 house photograph displays most of the seated members in white trousers, indicating their presence in the rowing VIII or cricket XI.
Between 1963 and 1967 no fewer than eight members of Spencer's house rowed in the Eton VIII, and in 1968 he was asked to coach the VIII himself. Four members of his house were in the VIII when it won the Princess Elizabeth cup at Henley, the National Championships at Hereford and the first Junior FISA world championships in West Germany.
His coaching methods were subtle. He started the boys young, and was a firm believer that the foot must remain fixed to the stretcher at all times. He sat opposite two in a tub pair; they rowed and he steered. He placed a pound note under each boy's foot, and told them they could keep it so long as he was unable to prise it from them. Not even his finest rowers ever succeeded in winning the pound.
Spencer persuaded the Eton VIII to row faster than any post-war VIII bar one. He took it to Amsterdam for the Junior World Championships, where they won a Silver medal.
It was typical of Spencer that he should express his love of music through the bassoon, far from the easiest of the instruments. Strains of the bassoon were a familiar sound from the windows of Manor House, particularly on a summer's evening. He had learned it at Oxford, and at Eton he played not only in the school orchestra but also in the Beaks' Wind Octet, which flourished for some years.
His approach to languages was equally determined. Early in life he became convinced that Serbo-Croat was the language of the future. Finding this was not so, he turned to Italian instead. He then joined two Merton friends - Ian Scott and a sculling colleague (later also an Eton master), Bob Arundel - to purchase some land overlooking Lake Maggiore, where they designed and built a house.
Spencer would set off with his Mini so weighed down with building materials that he could steer it with his little finger. With customary attention to mathematical detail, he worked out that it took exactly 24 hours to drive there from Eton. For many years, this proved a happy holiday home, and only when Scott moved to Kuala Lumpur did the arrangement cease.
In the summer of 1968, one of their guests in Italy was Anne Winarick, the Dame at MD Neal's house. She was a widow, and the daughter of the Rt Rev Herbert Turner, Bishop of Penrith, also a Merton man. There came a memorable Boys' Dinner when Spencer's house learned that he was to announce his engagement to her.
Shyly he made the announcement, which was greeted with the kind of roar heard in the House of Commons on the receipt of good news, as the housemaster ducked out of the room to the sanctuary of his private quarters.
His old boys relish many happy memories of him, not least his much-imitated shrug of the shoulders and clearing of the throat. He displayed prowess at croquet, at which he invariably won by calculations of velocity and angles.
Ken Spencer retired from his house in 1978, but continued to teach at Eton until 1988, eventually retiring contentedly to Faringdon, in Oxfordshire.
He died on July 7, and is survived by his wife.