Asa Briggs was Provost of Worcester from 1976 until 1991. A keen social historian, university administrator, and one time crytographer, he was made a life peer as Baron Briggs of Lewes.
The historian Asa Briggs, Lord Briggs FBA, Provost of Worcester College from 1976 to 1991, died at his home in Lewes, East Sussex, on 15 March 2016, aged 94. Among other distinctions he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex from 1967 to 1976, and Chancellor of the Open University from 1978 to 1994. He wrote prolifically, but was especially known for his work on the Victorians, English social history, and mass communications.
Briggs was born in Keighley, Yorkshire, on 7 May 1921, the son of William Walker Briggs, a skilled engineering worker, and his wife Jane, née Spencer, whose family had farmed land in nearby Oxenhope before starting a greengrocers’ business in Keighley. He was educated at Keighley Grammar School, where he excelled academically, though with characteristic self-deprecation he always asserted that the cleverest boy in the school was a butcher’s son who left to join the family business.
At the age of sixteen Briggs won a scholarship to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to read history; it was said he was the youngest undergraduate since Oliver Cromwell. He took firsts in both parts of the tripos, graduating in 1941, and simultaneously took a first class degree in economics at the London School of Economics (which had been evacuated to Cambridge during the war). After a brief spell as Gerstenberg student in economics at the LSE, in 1942 he joined the Royal Corps of Signals but was recruited the following year to work at Bletchley Park (below) as a cryptographer under Frank Adcock, in Hut 6, mainly deciphering signals traffic from the Mediterranean. He later described Bletchley as his ‘second university’.
On demobilisation Briggs briefly returned to Keighley, where he taught history at his old school. He was offered a safe Labour seat in the 1945 election and posts at both Cambridge and Oxford; he chose Oxford, and was a fellow of Worcester College from 1945 to 1955, initially teaching philosophy, politics and economics rather than modern history, and a reader in recent social and economic history from 1950. Among his students was a young Rupert Murdoch, with whom he travelled round the Middle East in Sir Keith Murdoch’s Ford Zephyr in 1952; it was Briggs who was asked to break the news to Murdoch of his father’s death. His first book was (with David Thomson and E. Meyer) the timely Patterns of Peace-making (1945), but thereafter he concentrated on British history, albeit with occasional excursions further afield (and some time spent proof-reading and correcting Winston Churchill’sHistory of the English-Speaking Peoples). In 1952 he published a ground-breaking History of Birmingham (1865-1938), followed in 1954 by Victorian People, the first of what would over time become a trilogy (the other volumes were Victorian Cities, 1963, and Victorian Things, 1988).
In 1955 Briggs moved to the University of Leeds as professor of history, and the same year he married Susan Banwell, daughter of Donald Banwell, of Keevil, Wiltshire. They had two daughters, Katharine and Judith, and two sons, Daniel and Matthew, and lived in Leeds in a house described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘like Asa himself – small, squat and full of Victorian bric-a-brac’. It was at Leeds that he wrote his textbook on Victorian history, The Age of Improvement (1959), which became required reading for generations of A-level students and undergraduates. It was also while at Leeds that he published the first of three volumes of Essays in Labour History (1960-77), co-edited with his friend John Saville, and that, at the request of the BBC’s Director-General, Sir Ian Jacob, he began work on A History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The first volume appeared in 1961 and the fifth (and last) in 1995. When he began, colleagues were baffled by his interest in what they saw as a relatively trivial subject; by the time he had finished media history was itself a large and growing industry, and few historians would dispute his assertion that broadcasting was ‘in the forefront of social and cultural changes which it both registers and influences’.
In 1961 Briggs was one of the first staff recruited by John Fulton to the new University of Sussex, where he was professor of history (1961-76), dean of the School of Social Studies (1961-5), and pro vice-chancellor (1961-7), before succeeding Fulton (by now Lord Fulton) as Vice-Chancellor in 1967. He enthusiastically embraced the interdisciplinary ethos of the new university, and was notably successful in dealing with the wave of student unrest which affected Sussex and other universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was at the same time closely involved with the Open University, serving on its planning committee from 1967, and playing a major role in its establishment as the major institution for adult learning in the UK; he was also its very active Chancellor from 1978 to 1994. From 1988 to 1993 he was the first chairman of the Commonwealth of Learning, the body set up to promote adult learning across the Commonwealth.
Lord Briggs served as Provost of Worcester from 1976 to 1991
As Provost of Worcester College, Briggs was remembered for his efficiency in conducting college business, his interest in undergraduates and graduates, and his lively parties. When he demitted office the Worcester College Record noted that ‘One always sensed that there were never less than three balls in the air though usually only one of them was visible – the one which concerned the college. But Asa could get it into clear focus in a moment, cope with it with swift dexterity, and send it on its continuing journey before the next ball had landed in his palm’.
Despite such commitments there was no let-up in Briggs’s writing (he once said that he was unhappy if he ever wrote less than a thousand words a day). Among his later books were Marx in London (1982), a much-reprinted Social History of England (1983), three volumes of Collected Essays (1985 and 1991), a history of Château Haut-Brion (1994), a study of the Channel islands under German occupation (1995), a chapter on ‘Oxford and its Critics, 1800-1835’ in the official history of the university (1997), a biography of the social entrepreneur Michael Young (2001), and A History of Longman and their Books, 1724-1990 (2008). The Bibliography of British and Irish History lists 115 works by Briggs, 73 of them written after he assumed the Vice-Chancellorship of Sussex in 1967, and 33 after he retired as Provost of Worcester in 1991.
Briggs' writings were remarkable not only for their range and quantity, but also for opening up previously neglected areas of study, and their readability. He was a master of the apposite quotation and the illustrative detail, which he allowed to tell his story. ‘As an historian’, one reviewer wrote, ‘Briggs reminds one of one of those tramps who can often be seen rummaging in municipal dustbins, carefully smoothing, folding and packing away things that they find. His books are always overweight, stuffed with minutiae which any self-respecting graduate student would throw away. And that is their glory’. Although a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party he was no Marxist, and believed that the duty of the historian was to understand and to convey the way that previous generations perceived the world.
Briggs was made a life peer in 1976 on retiring from the vice-chancellorship of Sussex, and elected an FBA in 1980. He was an honorary fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, and Sidney Sussex and St Catharine's colleges, Cambridge, and received around twenty honorary doctorates, in addition to lifetime achievement awards from the Historical Association and the Archives and Records Association. Unusually for an historian he was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, in 2005, having completed the fourth volume of the College's authorised history. He was active in a very large number of societies and was president of the Workers’ Educational Association, the Social History Society, the William Morris Society, the Victorian Society, the Ephemera Society, the Brontë Society, the British Association for Local History, and the Association of Research Associations. He was also, at various points, a member of the University Grants Committee, a governor of the British Film Institute, a trustee of the Glyndebourne Arts Trust, the International Broadcasting Institute, the Heritage Education Group, and the Civic Trust, and chairman of the Standing Conference for the Study of Local History, the European Institute of Education, the governors and trustees of the Brighton Pavilion, and the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches. He undertook several public appointments, most notably chairing a committee on the future of nursing, which in 1972 recommended improvements in nurses’ pay and conditions and an overhaul of nurses’ training; although appointed by a Labour government, his recommendations were accepted by the Conservative government of Edward Heath.
Briggs was completely unstuffy, hugely interested in and encouraging towards other people, a lover of good food, fine wine and stimulating company, and a tremendous party-giver; he counted among his friends leading politicians, civil servants, authors, musicians and actors, as well as fellow academics. Towards the end of his life he published three books of conversational memoirs, Secret Days: Codebreaking in Bletchley Park (2011), Special Relationships: People and Places (2012), and Loose Ends and Extras (2014), and listed his recreations in Who’s Who as ‘memories of travel and of great lunches and dinners’. He was survived by his wife Susan, their four children, and fourteen grandchildren.
Dr Alex May (St John’s, 1982), is a research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). He is also obituarist for Oxford Today.