David Reeder

Leicester University historian of cities and education
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The Independent Online

David Reeder was a gifted teacher and one of the most influential historians of his generation. He was a key figure in the study of Urban History, during a period of intense inner-city redevelopment, and of Education History, at a time when ideas about schooling were undergoing re-examination. In both of these fields Leicester University led the way, and Reeder's contribution to the university's reputation was sustained over a long and varied career.

Reeder was born in Hull in 1931. His father, Alec, worked for the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) and his mother, Elizabeth, at Reckitt's starch works. In 1940 the family moved to York, where Alec Reeder was to drive The Flying Scotsman.

David Reeder was educated at Nunthorpe Grammar, followed by a degree in Social Studies at Durham University and a postgraduate certificate in education at University College, Leicester. At Leicester, he met Barbara Hunt, a student of mathematics, standing at a bus stop on University Road. They were going different ways at the time, but married in 1955.

While in the RAF, and after teaching in Leicester, Reeder took a London external degree in Economic History. This was followed by an MA and a PhD at Leicester on 19th-century suburbanisation, supervised by Jim Dyos. In the early 1960s the Reeders moved to London - David in teacher training - before being tempted back to Leicester in 1966 by a Research Fellowship in Economic History.

He resumed his intellectual friendship with Dyos, and together they set about winning recognition for the flourishing sub-discipline of Urban History. The body of their argument was set out in March 1967 at a conference in Bloomington, Indiana. There they made the simple but startling point that, beyond a certain critical mass, cities ceased to be aggregates of other "social forces" and became forces in their own right; and, moreover, that all cities - all suburbs indeed - were different. Reeder and the Leicester School would spend their lives exploring the implications of this insight but, in essence, this was it. Fernand Braudel had likened cities to electrical transformers; Karl Marx had said they were the first divisions of labour; Reeder said they were independent variables of infinite variety.

After another spell in London, David Reeder returned to Leicester in 1973 where he took up residence in the School of Education and the side bar of the Craddock Arms. Once a Leicester man, he never stinted, whether in the Department of Education, or Adult Education, or Urban History, or Economic and Social History, or Victorian Studies.

He moved into the history of schooling, and bound it to the ecology of towns. He flourished with Brian Simon, just as he had flourished with Jim Dyos. He started to become influential in books (in contributions to The Victorian City, 1973, and Urban Education in the 19th Century, which he edited, 1978, and his own Educating Our Masters, 1980), in societies and on editorial boards.

An extravagantly generous colleague, he had just about every title the university could bestow except the one he deserved. Leicester's greatest historians have often come from the margins, and Reeder was no exception. In 2004 he was finally recognised when a star-studded Festschrift was published in his honour: Cities of Ideas: civil society and urban governance in Britain 1800-2000.

David Reeder was a man of great good-humour. A hitch of the trousers and he could make your sides split and your eyes squeeze with laughter. Every year we would take Leicester BA Humanities students to Ruskin College, Oxford. Halfway through one particularly barmy evening in the King's Head, we were approached by a woolly group of undergrads who asked our great leader whether we were "the Oxford branch of the Communist Party?" When I looked at Comrade Reeder, he had taken on the gleaming appearance of the Cheshire Cat.

Later in his career, he found his métier at Vaughan College, the Adult Education Department of Leicester University. Students loved his bite. He was what a particularly astute plumber called "a proper professor", by which he meant - contrary to a certain discursive mode to be found in adult teaching - someone with something to profess. Reeder was utterly committed to getting his meaning across. He would stagger into the classroom carrying great slabs of notes, and once he slipped into his stride - hands going, glasses slipping, the slightest of stammers and a rasp of Yorkshire - there was no other show in town.

Robert Colls