Asa Briggs (1921-2016)

Asa Briggs was an extraordinary force of nature. The range and the significance of his contributions to twentieth century British history and to British historiography defy summary. He played a part in Bletchley Park code-breaking unit during the Second World War, before an academic career which saw him serve as Professor of History at Leeds, Vice-Chancellor of the new University of Sussex, and Provost of Worcester College Oxford, as well as Chancellor of the Open University. Along the way he was a member of the University Grants Committee, President of the Workers’ Educational Association, chaired a parliamentary inquiry into the training of nurses, and was influential in formulating the educational policy of the then European Economic Community. Briggs was an irrepressible builder and champion. His capacity for living a life stuffed to the seams was legendary; reviews rattled off in theatre intervals, tutorials in taxis, insatiable globetrotting, all became part of the myth.

As a historian Briggs had little time for narrow academic argument. He wanted to be read, and read he was. He made the past live through the testimony of its inhabitants, and the textures of its material cultures. He gave weight to the importance of the common experience and its organizing structures, not least class, but did so without dogmatism, exposing the connectedness of society as well as its conflicts. His The Age of Improvement sold over 100,000 copies; later works were reissued and reprinted as Pelican and Penguin paperbacks, with each iteration garnering fresh readers seeking both education and entertainment. In the 1950s he was a regular on BBC radio, although despite more than thirty years as the official historian of the BBC he never quite established himself on television. But his published output was enormous: innumerable reviews, countless chapters, lectures and essays, and more than fifty books, covering people and places, organisational histories, picture books and photography, biography and autobiography, hospitals and Haut Brion; and his global readership was immense.

Of this extraordinary output it was his nineteenth century social history that most endured. In fact, although it is easy to think of Briggs as the founder of Victorian Studies that honour rests elsewhere; but he was in effect the UK editorial office of Victorian Studies in its early years, and in this role, as much as through his writing, he helped to shape interdisciplinary nineteenth century studies in its early manifestations. Fifty years after its initial publication, Victorian Cities is still a formative point of reference for urban historians, and some of his conceptualisations of the century’s history, such as the gravitational shift from Manchester to Birmingham and its effects, have become simple orthodoxies. His works were treated by many literary historians with an almost religious reverence, although his own interdisciplinarity inclined more to economics and sociology. He was deeply suspicious of generalisation and periodization, and yet the cumulative effect of his writings on the nineteenth century was to establish the coherence of the Victorian period as a period.

Briggs was, as he once confessed, ‘a bit of a Victorian’, shaped by a smoke-shrouded childhood in an inter-war Keighley still essentially a Victorian community. His house in Leeds in the 1950s was described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘like Asa himself, small, squat and full of Victorian bric a brac’. He permeated the landscape of Victorian Studies, helping to launch the Society for the Study of Labour History, and the Social History Society, serving as President of the Victorian Society, the William Morris Society and the Bronte Society. Without ever constructing a ‘school’, or fitting the model of a modern supervisor, he supervised many subsequently influential Victorian scholars. He was a generous, perceptive, and above all an enabling critic. And that ultimately was the Briggs essence – belief that success in historical writing was to be measured more by the questions raised and the approaches encouraged than by the answers provided.

Asa supervised my doctoral work in the 1980s on Victorian Manchester; I was one of his last group of graduate students. Looking back I regret that my awe at the range of his achievements and his extraordinary ability to grasp the heart of a historical question prevented me from making the most of the experience. I vividly remember the not infrequent telephone interruptions to our supervisions, and his extraordinary efficiency in transacting the necessary business, questions posed, considered and decided in the space of a few seconds. I remember his graceful and generous concession to my insistence that I would concentrate my researches on Manchester alone, and not try to do a comparative study with Birmingham. I remember the infectious enthusiasm with which he shared my research findings. And almost inevitably, I also remember the brief panic when it became apparent that I was unlikely to get any final pre-thesis submission comments or reassurances from him, not least because no-one, not even Lady Briggs, seemed to know exactly where he was, Oslo perhaps, or was it Ottawa? I was once advised not to use Asa as a referee because his praise of me had seemed damningly faint beside the gushing endorsements of more savvy referees. But to me, his recommendation, and the personal influence that it attested, always seemed worth more than mere words. At pivotal points in my career he offered his full support, not least during the establishment of the Journal of Victorian Culture when he was one of the first to agree to serve as an Editorial Consultant. Of course he recognised that the development of Victorian Studies into the twenty-first century would need to be shaped by younger and more actively engaged scholars than he, and his assistance was essentially symbolic, though none the less important; indeed, as the essays published in Miles Taylor’s The Age of Asa demonstrate, we are still a long way from exhausting the lines of investigation Briggs opened up in Victorian Studies and beyond.

Martin Hewitt

I offer a more extensive assessment of Briggs’ role in the evolution of  Victorian Studies in my ‘A Little Bit of a Victorian? Asa Briggs and Victorian Studies’, in Miles Taylor, ed., The Age of Asa. Lord Briggs, Public Life and History in Britain since 1945 (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015), 46-78.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s