Spender, Sir Wilfrid Bliss (1876–1960), army officer and civil servant, was born 6 October 1876 in London, the fourth son and fifth child of Edward Spender (1834–78), co-founder and proprietor of the Plymouth Western Morning News, and his wife Ellen Spender (née Rendle). The liberal journalist J. A. Spender and the liberal political activist Harold Spender were cousins; Spender's branch of the family became liberal unionists in 1886. Spender's father and two elder brothers were drowned in a bathing accident in Cornwall in 1878; his surviving brother became proprietor of the Western Morning News, and Spender served on the board until the paper was sold in 1920.
Army career and the UVF Spender was educated at Winchester (1889–92) before obtaining a commission in the Devon artillery (a militia unit), and then in the royal artillery (1897) after winning first place in a competitive examination. During his army career Spender was stationed in Bermuda, Canada, India (on the north-west frontier), Malta, England, and Ireland. He spent two years at the Staff College, Camberley, Surrey, and served on the general staff between 26 October 1908 and 19 April 1910, after which he was posted to India. His staff training was influenced by growing expectations of a European war in the near future, and while serving on the home defence section of the committee of imperial defence (1909–10) he grew increasingly concerned with the possible strategic implications of Irish home rule. (In an article he wrote in 1949 Spender said that he had been influenced by the possible loss of the southern Irish ports, but this seems to have been a retrospective projection of the second world war experience; at the time he placed more emphasis on the encouragement home rule would give to nationalist movements elsewhere in the empire, and on the possibility that a significant proportion of the British army might be tied down in Ireland on the outbreak of war.) Spender's first concern was always for the empire; in 1896 he made a far-sighted investment in Malayan rubber, and this provided him with the financial independence that later allowed him to sacrifice his military career and to work unpaid for the UVF.
While on leave from India in 1912 Spender signed the British version of the Ulster covenant, spoke at unionist meetings in England, and helped to found the unionist youth organisation, the Junior Imperial League. These activities, though highly irregular, might have passed unnoticed (especially since, as an Indian army officer, Spender would not expect to serve in Ulster) if he had not informed his commanding officer of them on his return to duty, adding that he was prepared to leave the service and forfeit his pension rather than fight against Ulster. A long and confused official correspondence followed, eventually leading to a formal interview between Spender and the secretary of state for war, J. E. B. Seely; these exchanges, in which offers of conditional reinstatement were made and withdrawn, were embittered by increasing official suspicion that Spender had engineered the whole dispute to make a political point. These suspicions, though unfounded, were reinforced when Spender sought legal advice from Sir Edward Carson (qv). Spender was eventually allowed to resign his commission in June 1912 on a full pension of £120 a year. During the negotiations leading up to his resignation Spender stated that he intended to take up a position with a housing charity, and he also considered a political career; but he eventually made an offer to serve on the staff of the UVF, insisting on doing so without pay.
Spender arrived in Belfast in September 1913. Shortly before, on 9 September, he married Lilian Dale (1880–1968), who affectionately addressed him as ‘Wolf’ and fully supported his political activities; their correspondence and her diary provide invaluable information about the pre-1914 Ulster campaign and on the early years of the Northern Ireland government. They had one daughter (b. 1923).
Spender functioned as acting quartermaster general of the UVF, overseeing supplies, transport, and equipment. In this capacity he made pioneering use of motor transport and motorcycle dispatch riders. His crowning achievement was the organisation of a distribution system for the weapons imported in the Larne gun-running of April 1914. He was identified with the militant wing of the UVF and had repeatedly demanded that the leadership should take action to arm the movement before he was initiated into the secret of the gun-running plans; until the outbreak of the first world war he opposed any suggestion of compromise. He also acted as a contact between the unionist leadership and discontented army officers such as Sir John Gough. He remained convinced that the government would yield if the unionists remained steadfast; in later life he always replied to accusations that the Ulster crisis had weakened British prestige at a time of national crisis by insisting that the presence of the UVF as a home defence force had permitted British troops to be moved from Ireland in 1914. Even after the war began Spender expressed distrust of John Redmond (qv) and the liberals; he later accepted that Redmond had been sincerely loyal to the empire but argued that his subsequent fate showed he had not been representative of Irish nationalist opinion.
On the outbreak of the war Spender was recalled to the army and sent to serve on the eastern coast defences at Chatham in Kent; he was subsequently posted to the 36th Ulster division as a staff officer. He fought with the Ulster division at Thiepval on 1 July 1916 (subsequently receiving the military cross for his conduct); his statement that, as he watched the charge, he thought he would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world is often quoted as encapsulating the valour of the division. Spender subsequently served on the divisional staff of Lord Cavan and on headquarters staff under Marshal Haig, and was mentioned four times in dispatches; in 1919 he was awarded the DSO for his war service.
Civil servant Spender entertained hopes of returning to an army career, but discovered that his future advancement was likely to be blocked by memories of his pre-war political activities. At the same time, he was dismayed by government concessions to Irish nationalism in the aftermath of the Easter rising, and disliked what he saw as the parochial willingness of Ulster unionists to let the rest of Ireland go so long as their own position was preserved. Although Spender rapidly realised that southern unionism was a lost cause, he sympathised with those who believed that Ulster unionists should have insisted on nine-county exclusion rather than accepting a provisional six-county settlement as part of the abortive Lloyd George compromise negotiations in summer 1916. Spender therefore turned down the offer of an Ulster unionist seat in parliament, telling the Ulster leaders that he had no claim on Ulster as he had acted entirely for the sake of the empire. For a time in 1917–18 he thought of contesting a seat in the English west country on behalf of the National Party (a tory diehard splinter group led by Henry Page-Croft), but this came to nothing.
In 1919–20 Spender took up a post at the Ministry of Pensions in London, representing the interests of disabled officers and officers’ widows. In summer 1920 he returned to Ulster to reorganise the UVF, a task undertaken by the Ulster unionist leaders both to provide a safeguard against the growing level of IRA activity and to exercise some control over the proliferation of local vigilante groups. On 27 July 1920 Spender was formally appointed head of the reconstituted UVF at a meeting at Belfast, and he subsequently played an important role in the recruitment of UVF members into the new Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). Spender saw his role in the UVF as a temporary position and expected that he would soon return to a civil service career in London at the Ministry of Pensions; he again refused an offer of a unionist candidacy, this time for a seat in the new Northern Ireland parliament.
In February 1921, however, James Craig (qv), prime minister designate, appointed Spender cabinet secretary, a role modelled on the concept of the ‘brains trust’ of advisers surrounding Lloyd George. In the following years Spender acted virtually as minister without portfolio, taking care of administrative business during Craig's frequent absences at Westminster, informing him of grass-roots criticisms of his leadership, and drafting some of his responses in negotiations with Lloyd George. His role as Craig's confidant gave him more influence than some of the Northern Ireland ministers; he used this power to argue that negotiations should take place only when Sinn Féin and the IRA had been soundly defeated, to criticise the Dublin castle administration (particularly Alfred Cope (qv)) as ineffective and untrustworthy, and to advise Craig against giving credence to Lloyd George (who angrily compared Spender's role to that of Erskine Childers (qv) on the dáil side during the treaty negotiations). In 1925 Spender was appointed permanent secretary to the Ministry of Finance and head of the Northern Ireland civil service. He was initially reluctant to accept this position because of his lack of financial expertise and because he realised that in this new role he would wield less influence than he had done as cabinet secretary. In 1929 he was made KCB .
From 1931 until his retirement in 1944 Spender kept an irregular journal of his activities at the Ministry of Finance; it was undertaken with the apologetic purpose of justifying his own positions and distancing himself from the antics of some of his ministerial masters. Its most famous utterance is the comment that while Northern Ireland boasted of its many great industries, there was none more productive than the ‘factory of grievances’ at Stormont. Spender was a strong upholder of professional standards, who oversaw the creation of a professional civil service recruited by competitive examination, and favoured the creation of a ‘general staff’ of administrators; this policy led to a noticeable presence of British recruits in the upper reaches of the Northern Ireland civil service, but did not keep unionist politicians from exercising undue political influence through the selection boards, which interviewed aspiring civil servants. His lamentations on this subject were met with occasional reminders that he himself could be described as a political appointee. Spender tried to compensate for his administrative deficiencies by presenting himself as a father figure whom junior civil servants could approach with their concerns.
Despite a certain instinctive distrust for catholics, and the fact that he had opposed recruiting catholics to the USC on the grounds that this would antagonise loyalists, Spender believed that the state should cultivate the allegiance of loyalist catholics. He described periodic populist witch hunts against catholic civil servants as the sort of Tammany Hall activity he had feared when opposing all-Ireland home rule, and made attempts – albeit in a rather perfunctory fashion – to recruit more catholics to administrative posts. Spender himself was a high-church anglican, a brand of churchmanship uncongenial to many Ulster ultra-protestants. Dawson Bates (qv), who combined visceral sectarianism with manipulation of the USC as a means of political patronage, was a particular bête noire.
This was not the only area in which Spender felt estranged from the prevailing Ulster unionist ethos. His advocacy of Westminster-style treasury control over expenditure could not contain Craig's desire to propitiate politically powerful local authorities with ‘bones’, often involving expenditure commitments made without reference to the cabinet. (Spender expressed envious admiration for the restriction of local government powers introduced by W. T. Cosgrave (qv) in the Irish Free State.) Spender's belief that Northern Ireland should reduce expenditure in order to live within its means fell foul of the local business elite (who dominated Craig's cabinet, demanded state aid for their firms, and resisted rationalisation) and the sheer political impossibility of allowing Northern Irish living standards to fall too far behind those in Britain as recession hit Ulster's traditional industries. Bew, Patterson, and Gibbon, in an influential analysis, speak of the Northern government as divided between sectarian, free-spending ‘populists’ (headed by Craig and Bates) and relatively austere ‘anti-populists’ (notably Spender and successive ministers of finance, H. M. Pollock (qv) and J. M. Barbour (qv)). Although this is a useful conceptual framework it should be borne in mind that these figures represented tendencies rather than clearly defined groups, and that Spender, as a civil servant, was less vulnerable to electoral pressure than were elected officials. He privately complained that both northern and southern Irish regarded themselves as badly treated, when they had, in fact, been Britain's ‘spoiled children’ for at least two generations, and ironically suggested that mutual understanding might be improved if Irish history were replaced in the schools by the study of the ancient Greeks.
Spender remained fiercely committed to the empire; he sympathised with the conservative diehard faction who opposed the granting of limited autonomy to India, and when it was rumoured that Kenya might be handed over to Germany he considered resigning his position in order to assist a UVF-style resistance among Kenyan white settlers. He saw the handover of the treaty ports to the southern state in 1938 and the subsequent neutrality policy of the de Valera (qv) government as vindicating the Ulster unionist position. He opposed suggestions that concessions might be made on Irish unity, because he thought de Valera's government fundamentally untrustworthy; he even voiced hysterical suspicions that Irish cabinet ministers were receiving bribes from the axis powers.
Retirement and final years In 1937 Spender developed heart trouble; this, coupled with his dislike of Craig's increasing passivity and incompetence, made him seek retirement; however, his withdrawal was delayed by the outbreak of the second world war and he remained at his post. Spender characteristically advocated the extension of wartime conscription to Northern Ireland and criticised J. M. Andrews (qv) for promising better post-war social services. He finally retired in May 1944.
In retirement Spender spoke of his unionism as resembling that of Carson rather than Craig, and occasionally expressed the hope that Northern Ireland might one day voluntarily abandon its local parliament and ‘return to Westminster’. He remained a member of the joint exchequer board (which adjudicated fiscal relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK), which he had joined in 1933, until 1954. Spender was a member of the United Services Club, and listed mountaineering and yachting as his hobbies in Who's who. In 1955 the Spenders sold their house in the east Belfast suburb of Belmont and moved to Hampshire to be near their daughter; at this time Spender donated his finance diaries to the PRONI (D/715). Lady Spender's diaries and the rest of Spender's papers followed in 1966 (D/1295).
Spender died of heart failure on 21 December 1960 at East Hill Hotel, his home at Liss in Hampshire. His career encapsulates the relationship and tensions between early twentieth-century Ulster unionism and its British conservative-imperialist allies; his self-identification as a unionist in the tradition of Carson rather than Craig and his unhappiness with the fiercer forms of populist sectarianism render him a representative of the quasi-integrationist strand in twentieth-century unionism, and serve as a reminder of the difficulties faced by this version of unionist politics. The Northern Ireland administrative system was to a considerable extent his creation.