Ernest William Denham (Class of 1941)

Ernest William Denham died on 27 August 2019. Denny (as he preferred to be known) was born on 16 September 1922 and grew up in Dalston, east London.  He attended Wilton Street Primary School, where he already showed his academic qualities, winning a scholarship to the City of London School for Boys. He was a contemporary of the writer, Kingsley Amis,,and as prefects together they were responsible for organising the pupils’ social concern projects. His sixth form years at City of London were spent in Marlborough following the school’s evacuation there at the outbreak of war in September 1939.

Denny went on to win a Classics Postmastership  to Merton, where he took an outstanding first in shortened Honour Moderations in 1942 and was then recruited to naval intelligence.  After a course in basic Japanese at Bletchley Park, he worked as a translator alongside the codebreakers first at Bletchley and then at HMS Anderson in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Needless to say, he kept his specific duties a close secret until the role of Bletchley Park and its codebreakers became public knowledge in the mid-1970s, and even then remained reluctant to discuss them.

On returning to Merton after the war he switched to law and after graduation he worked briefly as assistant secretary with Plant Protection Ltd (a subsidiary of ICI) before entering the civil service examination following which he was posted to the Public Record Office.  Like many of his generation he spent the rest of his working life in the same organisation, rising to be Deputy Keeper of Public Records in the years before his retirement in 1982. 

His work colleagues saw him as a realist with an ability to get to the nub of any problem and to ask awkward questions, but always with the intention of helping to find an appropriate and viable solution.  He could be extremely kind while at the same time deliberately provocative (in Who’s Who he listed his hobby as ‘armchair criticism’). Outside the day job, he returned to academia part time as lecturer in palaeography and diplomatic on the archives course at University College London from 1957 to 1973.

In 1957 Denny married Penelope Gregory, with whom he set up home in Hertfordshire, where they brought up their two children, Giles and Julia, in a very stable and secure family environment. The family moved later to Northwood, where Denny lived for the rest of his long life. Unfortunately, Penelope suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for over forty years and as the disease progressed Denny patiently took on the responsibility of being her carer until her death in 2009. 

Denny retained his enquiring mind well into his nineties and was always capable of springing surprises. Despite doubting the value of computers in his working life, in retirement he took to the internet, making use of the opportunities offered by email, online banking, and social media. After many years as a sceptic, late in life, he embraced the Christian faith.   He was fiercely independent, gradually accepting in the last five years of his life more support from family, neighbours and, eventually, daily carers. After his final admission to hospital with an infection, he remained aware and communicative until the last few hours before his peaceful death.  He is survived by his children and five grandchildren.