Arthur Brown

Foremost authority on the working-class history of Essex
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The Independent Online

Arthur Frederick James Brown, historian and teacher: born Cardiff 30 November 1914; married first Molly Provis (died 1976; one son), second 1979 Patricia Dixon; died Colchester, Essex 7 March 2003.

Arthur Brown was an outstanding school, university and Workers' Educational Association teacher and the foremost authority of his generation on the social, economic and working-class history of Essex.

Born in Cardiff in 1914, the son of Arthur Brown, a Customs and Excise officer, he was educated at Llandovery College, in central Wales, and St John's College, Oxford. After beginning a degree course in Latin and Greek, he moved over to Modern Greats, to study philosophy, politics and economics, and graduated in 1937.

His change of course arose from his socialist convictions. He joined the Communist Party and considered volunteering to fight with the International Brigade in Spain. However, he took a teacher training course and went to work for the WEA in the Rhondda before accepting a post to teach Classics at Colchester Royal Grammar School.

In 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the RAF and spent several years in Africa. In 1945, he returned to teach Classics and sixth-form history at Colchester Royal Grammar School. His interest in WEA work, however, was undiminished and he became a full-time tutor in 1948. In this capacity, he organised groups in a number of Essex towns and villages to research and write up the history of their own localities.

The Story of Coggeshall 1706-1900, published in 1951, illustrates the role that he played. "Without the help of Mr A.J. Brown, the tutor of our class, we could not have undertaken the venture," the group recorded in its foreword. Others produced similar publications under his leadership, including groups at Lawford, Witham and the Maplesteads.

Brown was in an ideal position to offer guidance on sources because he was already at work at archival collections, particularly that being built up at the Essex Record Office under F.G. Emmison, a pioneer in this field. Brown ploughed his way through mountains of documents and ancient local newspapers which enabled him, in due course, to produce a series of fascinating books and articles. These threw light on the poor and humble, absent from most previous studies of Essex history. English History from Essex Sources (1952) was only the first of these but, 40 years later, it still retains its value.

In 1952 Brown returned to teach Classics at Colchester Royal Grammar School, where he inspired generations of pupils with a love for the heritage and languages of ancient Greece and Rome. He never ceased to visit Greece, Italy and Spain and he was continually adding to the knowledge he transmitted to pupils.

This did not, however, prevent his continuing with his work on Essex history. When he retired from Colchester Royal Grammar School, in 1976, he began teaching at Essex University in the Sociology and, later, the History departments. He received an honorary doctorate and a research fellowship and only gave up in 2000.

Over the period, he produced a steady stream of publications, including Essex at Work, 1700-1815 (1969) and Colchester in the Eighteenth Century (1969); Essex People, 1750-1900 (1972); The Chartist Movement in Essex and Suffolk (1979); Colchester, 1815-1914 (1980); Meagre Harvest: the Essex farm workers' struggle against poverty, 1750-1914 (1990); and Prosperity and Poverty: rural Essex, 1700-1815 (1996).

Although he was never dogmatic, his work reflected an approach to history that had much in common with that of E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Royden Harrison and others influenced by Marxist ideas. His detailed studies reveal the lives and aspirations of a section of society over the last three centuries which were previously unknown. For this reason alone, his work on Essex and Suffolk has an interest and importance which transcends this area and contributes to our understanding of the past of Britain as a whole.

Brown left the Communist Party in the early 1950s, but he retained his left-wing views till the end of his life. Although he never joined another political party, he became a member of CND and participated in its activities.

He married Molly Provis, who taught art at Colchester County High School and assisted him in his work. She died in 1976 and in 1979 he married Patricia Dixon, a teacher and archaeologist, who gave him loyal support until the end of his life.

Arthur Brown was interested in many aspects of Britain's cultural heritage and particularly enjoyed classical music. A memorial meeting at Colchester, held also to launch a book in his memory, Essex Harvest: a collection of essays in memory of Arthur Brown, attracted some 200 people, including former teaching colleagues, pupils and students, fellow historians, townspeople and many others.

Stan Newens

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