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date: 29 September 2023

Deneke, Helena Clarafree


Deneke, Helena Clarafree

  • D. Phillips

Helena Clara Deneke (1878–1973)

by Hubert Andrew Freeth [left, with her sister, Margaret Deneke]

private collection

Deneke, Helena Clara (1878–1973), German scholar, was born on 19 May 1878 at 89 Denmark Hill, London, the oldest child and elder of the two surviving daughters of Philip Maurice Deneke (1842–1925), a wealthy London merchant banker born in Germany, and his wife, Clara Sophia Overweg (1847–1933), who came from a landed Westphalian family. She was educated at home and at St Hugh's Hall, Oxford, then still a very small society. In 1903 she was placed in the first class of the new honour school of English language and literature, and in October 1904 she became librarian of St Hugh's, where she first taught English, changing to German at the suggestion of Ernest de Selincourt and becoming tutor in German in 1909. What were later described as her 'precise linguistic standards … and her extraordinary familiarity with a wide range of literature' (The Times, 4 Oct 1973) had their origin in this early experience of moving with ease from philology to English literature to German, possible in the days before more restricted academic specialism became the norm. Her broad interests had been fostered too during her stimulating younger years in the family's London homes, where music predominated and a succession of distinguished musicians visited and played, the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim among them.

Helena Deneke was an enthusiastic supporter of the first principal of St Hugh's, Annie Moberly, but soon developed an uneasy relationship with her vice-principal, Eleanor Jourdain, whose inevitable election to the principalship she saw as being potentially disastrous. She was also unhappy with the events surrounding the publication, in 1911, of An Adventure, an account by Moberly and Jourdain of their supposedly supernatural experiences in the grounds of Versailles during a trip they made there in 1901, and was unconvinced by Jourdain's evidence of the experience. This doubt lent further weight to her decision to resign 'with a heartache' from the society she had so loved, lest she become 'unwillingly a sort of centre of disaffection' (H. Deneke to Kathleen Kenyon, 16 Aug 1966, Deneke MSS). During the ‘row’ at St Hugh's in 1923/4 Deneke, accused of 'German rancour' by Miss Jourdain, rallied support for Cecilia Ady, the dismissed tutor, with whom she had a close and affectionate relationship.

In 1913 Helena Deneke became bursar and tutor in German at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and was a fellow from 1926 until her retirement in 1938. She was a popular and energetic Oxford tutor ('exacting but genial and constructive') who inspired an enduring affection in her pupils. The famous music room at Gunfield, the Gothic villa in Norham Gardens where she lived for five decades with her sister, the musicologist Margaret Deneke (1882–1969), witnessed 'much music making, not a little of it memorable' (M. Deneke, Ernest Walker). Generations of Oxford undergraduates, colleagues, and friends enjoyed the Denekes' hospitality at the many Gunfield concerts. For some twenty-seven years the Oxford Chamber Music Society met there free of charge, with Margaret Deneke making up any deficits; the society owed its survival, particularly during the Second World War, to the generosity of the Deneke sisters. Marga Deneke, herself a talented pianist, was choirmaster at Lady Margaret Hall and, raising considerable sums of money through concerts and lecture recitals, became one of the college's benefactors. Among Helena Deneke's enduring achievements at Lady Margaret Hall was the design of the college gardens; she became garden steward in 1924 and held the post for over forty years.

Helena Deneke's scholarly efforts went into teaching rather than research, and she wrote little: a piece on Jean Paul in the Festschrift to H. G. Fiedler (1938) and a popular biography (1946) of her contemporary Grace Hadow, principal of the Society of Oxford Home-Students, together with various articles on her post-war work in Germany, including an important report, Women in Germany (1947), written with Betty Norris.

Helena Deneke had become involved with the work of Women's Institutes following her resignation as treasurer of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies after the First World War, and she was to serve at various times as secretary, chair, and president of the Oxfordshire Federation of Women's Institutes. It was this involvement with women's groups that led to her being invited to play a part in the democratic development of women's organizations in Germany. In the considerable task of educational ‘reconstruction’ in Germany after the Second World War the help of public-spirited figures with a deep knowledge of Germany and its institutions was actively sought, and from 1946 to 1951 Helena Deneke made many official visits to the country, addressing women's groups, attending meetings under the aegis of the Allied Control Commission, and broadcasting in German. Hers was a robust, common-sense approach to the encouragement of democracy among the women of Germany, fully cognizant as she was of the dilemma faced by an occupying power in having the right to impose procedures which by their nature challenge the notion of imposition. In promoting the development of non-party-political, non-sectarian groups she did much to shape the future development of women's organizations in Germany. Following the closure of the department for women's affairs in 1951, she served on the academic council of Wilton Park, and so was able to continue an involvement with Anglo-German exchanges. Helena Deneke died, following a stroke, on 26 September 1973, at Freeland House, Freeland, Oxfordshire.


  • H. C. Deneke, memoirs, 5 vols., Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Deneke
  • C. Anson, ‘Helena Clara Deneke’, Brown Book (1974), 26–30
  • The Times (1 Oct 1973)
  • A. E. Armstrong, The Times (4 Oct 1973)
  • M. Deneke, memoirs, 2 vols., Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
  • M. Deneke, Ernest Walker (1951)
  • P. Griffin, ed., St Hugh's: one hundred years of women's education in Oxford (1986)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • register, St Hugh's Hall, Oxford, 1886–1918, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • Deneke MSS, St Hugh's College, Oxford


  • Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
  • St Hugh's College, Oxford


  • H. A. Freeth, double portrait, watercolour drawing (with her sister), Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford [see illus.]
  • photographs, Bodl. Oxf., MS Eng. misc. c. 701

Wealth at Death

£77,473: probate, 21 Feb 1974, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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