Thomas Worden French (1917-2001)
Archaeologist and expert on medieval stained glass, Thomas Worden French was born in Beckenham, Kent, England on September 19, 1917. He studied Classics and prehistoric archaeology at Dulwich College and St. John’s College, Cambridge University, completing a Bachelor’s degree in 1940 and a Master’s degree in 1944.
French was commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1940 and served in North Africa and Italy. In October 1944, at the suggestion of Monuments Man Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Archaeological Advisor to the War Office, French was recruited for service with the MFAA in Greece. He arrived in Athens on November 18, 1944, where he worked in the field alongside Monuments Man Lt. Col. Thomas J. Dunbabin, Lt. Col. J.M. Cook, and S/Sgt. D.L. Donn. French assisted with inspections of Greece’s most notable ancient monuments, including the Acropolis. In June 1945 he became the first Monuments Officer to reach the Dodecanese, a group of islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea. Following his demobilization in 1946, French was awarded the Africa Star, Victory Medal, and the Italy Star. He published multiple accounts of his experience as a Monuments Man, including “Archaeology in the Dodecanese 1939-46” (1945, Journal of Hellenic Studies), “Losses and survivals in the Dodecanese” (1948, Annual of the British School at Athens), and Works of art in Greece: the Greek islands and the Dodecanese, losses and survivals in the war (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1946).
Upon his return to England in 1946, French worked briefly as Assistant Keeper in the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum in London. In 1947 he began a career with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, which spanned over thirty years. As Senior Architectural Investigator, French created extensive inventories of antiquities and architectural monuments in Dorset and York. Although he investigated countless architectural wonders, French became so captivated by one in particular that it completely altered his research focus and changed the trajectory of his career. At the York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, French spent hours viewing the twelfth-century manuscripts of the Chapter of York and a priceless collection of hundreds of thousands of treasures in the Minster’s archives, which included Roman tiles, Chinese silks, and medieval chests, to name a few. He also explored the most inaccessible parts of the cathedral, becoming an unrivalled source on the building. He published articles containing detailed studies of the cathedral’s stained glass windows, heraldry, monuments, and architectural history. French remained active at the York Minster for the rest of his life. He was Trustee of the York Glaziers Trust, a member of the Local Advisory Committee for the Dean and Chapter of York Minster, honorary member of the York Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches, and member of the York Minster Fabric Advisory Committee.
In addition to his devoted work at York Minster, French was co-founder and first Secretary of the Vernacular Architecture Group, a council member of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, and member of the U.K. Committee of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, an international research project dedicated to recording medieval stained glass. He was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1960 and received an honorary doctoral degree from York University in 1997.
T.W. French died in England on February 18, 2001. Soon after his death, his family donated his extensive collection of wartime photographs, maps, and postcards to St. John’s College at Cambridge University.
Photo courtesy of St. John's College, Cambridge University.