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​The Rhodes Trust Pays Tribute to Lady Williams

Rhodes Scholars and Rhodes staff were saddened to learn of the passing of the wonderful Lady Williams yesterday (14 March). She was wife of Warden Sir Edgar (Bill) Williams and contributed in countless ways to the flourishing of the Rhodes community. The flag at Rhodes House is currently being flown at half mast and there will be a memorial event at Rhodes House on Sunday 17 September 2017. Please email if you would like to attend.

A full obituary written by her son, Nick Williams, will be posted here in due course and will also be featured in this year's Rhodes Scholar magazine, together with recollections from Rhodes Scholars. If you would like to write a recollection to appear in this piece, please email the editor.

Four generations of Wardens reflect on her remarkable life:

Sir Anthony Kenny: "Nancy and I knew Lady Williams for nearly fifty years - first at Balliol, where Bill was a fellow when I arrived, and then of course at Rhodes House and in retirement. Even in the last few years of her life her spirit was, as ever, indomitable. We will not see her like again."

Sir Colin Lucas: "Lady Williams was a brave and graceful woman. This is very much the end of an era."

Professor Don Markwell: "Lady Williams was friend to countless Rhodes Scholars. It was a delight to welcome her back to Rhodes House many times when I was Warden. Intelligent, elegant, engaged, and strong, she was always a stimulating companion. Who could forget her talking about entering Hitler's bunker in 1945 when British forces entered Berlin? Or her lively accounts of Rhodes Scholars from her and Bill's time at Rhodes House, not least their good friend Bill Clinton? So many of us will treasure warm memories of Gill."

Mr Charles Conn: "I had the wonderful fortune of getting to know Lady Williams in the early days of my tenure and she attended several events at Rhodes House. She will be much missed by all who knew her, and I am sure many Scholars will return to Rhodes House in September to celebrate her life and to look back on all that she achieved, as well as on her great kindnesses."

Below is the text of the tribute delivered by her son, Nicholas, at her private funeral on 5 April 2017.


Drawing of Lady Williams

A few words about Gill

Gillian, Lady Williams (“Gill”) was born on 21 June 1922 in Camberley, Surrey.

Her father, Michael Gambier-Parry, was a career Army Officer, who had won the Military Cross at Gallipoli in World War I and was to be a General in Greece and North Africa in World War II. But Michael was not only a brave and distinguished soldier. He had inherited strong artistic and musical genes. His grandfather, Thomas Gambier-Parry, was an artist and collected Italian Pre-Raphaelite art, now the Gambier-Parry collection in the Courtauld Institue in London. And Michael’s uncle was the composer, Charles Hubert Parry, Sir Hubert Parry, whose music features in this funeral service. Michael himself, unusually for a soldier, became a Governor of the Royal College of Music, and he was in every sense a gentle man. 

In addition to this military, aesthetic and musical inheritance, Gill inherited from her mother, Barbara (Bay), a handsome appearance and considerable strength of character.

Happy times during Gill’s childhood were when her father commanded the Tank Gunnery School in Dorset and the family enjoyed privileged access over the ranges to the coast near Lulworth. Several life-long loves were formed here: for dogs, donkeys and the sea coast, particularly the West Country coast. Gill and her elder sister, Ann, attended a school at Swanage, in Dorset, which, according to Gill’s recollection, had the remarkably enlightened rule that, when the alarm sounded for the Swanage lifeboat, pupils were permitted, without further ado, to run out of class to the clifftop and watch the lifeboat being launched. Gill, by dint of her subscriptions over many years, became a Life Governor of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and the collection at the end of this service is for the RNLI.

Less happy times in Gill’s childhood were when her father was posted to India and her mother went with him, leaving Ann, Gill and their younger brother, Richard, in boarding establishments in England not only in term time but also in the school holidays, where they were neglected.

Gill was 17 years old when World War II broke out. Her first job was working as a volunteer with her sister, Ann, in a canteen for officers on night duty in Admiralty Arch in London. She remembered in one of the early air raids being lent a steel helmet to walk home in and hearing the falling shrapnel pinging on her helmet as she did so. Her next job was working in a mobile canteen for emergency workers and bombed out survivors in the Blitz. She was then aged 18. Gill and her mother chose to stay in London, moving to better and better flats, whose absent owners were glad to have tenants who could be trusted, if necessary, to put fire bombs out. Meanwhile, General Michael Gambier-Parry had gone missing in action. Gill’s sister, Ann, by then working in Intelligence in Cairo, knew from secret sources that he was alive and a prisoner of war, but she could not pass this secret information on to other members of the family.

Lady Williams in WW2

In 1943, Gill herself joined the Army, and, in 1944, she was posted to work in Intelligence at General Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (“SHAEF”), then engaged in the planning for D Day. Gill became one of the select few inducted into the Ultra secret, that the Allies were reading the enemy signal traffic supposedly impenetrably encrypted on the Enigma machines. On her way to that induction, Gill passed through the office and under the watchful gaze of an ex Oxford don and front line soldier who had become General Montgomery’s Intelligence Chief, Brigadier E.T. (“Bill”) Williams. It was the first time my parents saw eachother.

Gill worked in Intelligence at SHAEF from before D Day right through to Berlin, rising in the course of just a year from the rank of junior NCO to Commissioned Officer, ADC to a General, and with a mention in despatches for meritorious conduct, entitling her to wear on her row of medals the coveted oak leaf. She was still only 22 when the war in Europe ended.

Bill and gill get married

In Berlin, she was courted by and became engaged to Bill Williams. They married in 1946 in London, on their way to the USA, where Bill was to take up post as Secretary Enforcement Measures at the fledling United Nations. They loved their time living in New York City and New York State, although it was sometimes lonely, particularly for Gill, since they knew few people to start with and, imbued with idealism about the UN, they did not think it right to consort with the British diplomatic community.

However, in 1947, they returned to the UK. Bill had realised that the job would always be frustrating – with little agreement between nations about measures, let alone any enforcement. He was homesick for his beloved Oxford and and had been told that he must now return or lose his Balliol fellowship. So Bill returned, and Gill came for the first time, to Oxford.

In 1951, Bill was appointed Warden designate of Rhodes House, and Bill and Gill (still only 29) embarked on a trip round the world to meet the Rhodes Scholar communities in the various constituencies. In 1952, Bill and Gill began their tenure at Rhodes House, which was to last for the next 28 years. Nominally, it was Bill’s job but it was in fact – or they made it – a distinguished double act. They brought up their children, Janet (born in 1953) and Nicholas (born in 1954) there, and Gill was involved in everything from the endless task of maintaining the fabric of Rhodes House to the equally endless task of maintaining the welfare of the Rhodes Scholars, comforting and bracing over the years, amongst others, the bereaved, sick, sports injured, homesick, love-lorn, draft-threatened, and otherwise troubled, and welcoming many Scholars into the life of her family. Some came on family holidays to the West Country seaside. Many became life-long friends.

Bill and Gill’s time at Rhodes House saw the extension of the South African Scholarships to the wider community there, the revival of the German Scholarships – for Bill and Gill an act of personal reconciliation which led to friendships for them in the German Rhodes Scholar community as deep as any in the other constituencies around the globe – and the introduction of women as Rhodes Scholars.

Gill did much other unpaid work for charity and in the public service, in particular, in the medical field, serving for many years as a Governor of the Oxford Hospitals, as a Governor of the Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, and as the Chair of the Oxfordshire General Practitioner Committee.

When Bill and Gill retired from Rhodes House in 1980, the American Association of Rhodes Scholars published a tribute to them entitled “Fanfare for an Uncommon Couple” – a title aptly chosen. They were of the generation of Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and the “Family of Man” exhibition. They were morally and physically brave, witnessed at first hand and fought successfully against man’s inhumanity to man, lost many friends at a young age in doing so, were imbued with a very strong sense of public duty, were dedicated to international understanding and the cause of liberal democratic humanism, and did not give up.

Gill was tall, slim and always immaculately dressed. She had a commanding presence and a confident knowledge of how to behave in almost any circumstance.

She loved art: she had an “eye” for pictures, furniture and gardens. She loved music, relishing the Balliol concerts and, in later years, with like-minded friends, organising art sales and raising funds for the Welsh National Opera - a double homage to her Parry ancestry. She enjoyed literature (including the Four Quartets from which a reading at this service is taken) and word games, and was an exponent of the art of conversation and an excellent letter-writer in a firm, flowing hand. 

Lady Gill Williams

She loved to walk with her dog and family and friends in the country, stopping suddenly when a particularly important thought occurred to her and standing stock still to deliver it, in clear, concise language, to her companions.

She was a much loved wife and sister and a much loved, if occasionally terrifying, mother, aunt, grandmother and friend.

She was a formidable force, with great practical organisational ability, who, when seized of a cause, brooked no opposition. But her causes were mostly just and her care for others unfailing. And, even at her most forthright, she left surprisingly few bruises. Instead, she inspired affection, loyalty and respect. Part of her secret was no doubt that she had an acute sense of humour and knew how to laugh at herself.

Her long journey is now over.

[Gill is survived by her sister, Ann, by her daughter, Janet (a cell biologist who works on the commercialisation of intellectual property for The University of Western Ontario), and her three Canadian grandchildren, Nichola (a Canadian diplomat in Washington DC), Pippa (a research chemist working for a pharmaceutical company in Edmonton, Alberta) and Alex (a lawyer in Toronto), and by her son, Nicholas (a judge in London, England), and her three English grandchildren, Ben (a physicist at Oxford), Josh (who works for an NGO in Uganda) and Rebecca (a trainee social worker in London).]

Lady Williams was featured in the Rhodes Scholar magazine in 2014. The piece is reprinted below as it powerfully captures her zest for life and enthusiasm.

Lady Williams

An hour with… Lady Williams

Lady Williams was the wife of Sir Edgar (Bill) Williams who was Warden of Rhodes House between 1952 and 1980, having previously been Fellow & Tutor in History at Balliol College and served in the Army as Montgomery's Chief Intelligence Officer during World War II. Today, Lady Williams lives in North Oxford and at the age of 91 still fondly remembers their time at Rhodes House and the many Scholars that she got to know so well.

Visiting her recently for the purpose of this article, we spoke over a cup of tea, something which will have been familiar to many Rhodes Scholars who sought comfort or conversation from Lady Williams during their time here. She has also met Rhodes Scholars from more recent classes as she has attended a number of recent Going Down and Coming Up dinners in Milner Hall, as well as Rhodes events during the annual September Alumni Weekend.

Warden and Lady Williams started a tradition of Sunday morning gatherings which allowed Scholars from all countries and colleges to get to know each other, in a similar fashion to the 'Meet and Mingle' events of today. Lady Williams found her time at Rhodes House to be ‘totally absorbing’ and very enjoyable. This was despite the many challenges of coping with post-war food and petrol rationing, bringing up a young family and dealing with a global context which was still recovering after the Second World War. Rhodes Scholars visited the Williams family at their cottage in north Devon and recuperated at Rhodes House after any period of illness or injury.