John Lowerson: Pioneering and radical historian of leisure and sport in Britain

John Lowerson, who died unexpectedly on 22 June from a coronary thrombosis, had long been associated with Sussex University, with the town of Lewes, and the surrounding Sussex countryside. He based his career on a 33-year lectureship in the Centre for Continuing Education of the University of Sussex, and was widely known in historical, musical and local history circles. He also worked as a priest in the Church of England, at his death being assistant to Phillipp Hamilton-Manon, Rector of St Anne's Parish Church, Lewes, where his full Funeral Requiem ("he wanted 'the works'," said the Rector introducing the service on 2 July), attracted a packed congregation, many travelling from long distances to attend.

John Ridley Lowerson was born in 1941 in the mining village of Rossington, near Doncaster, the only child of Joseph and Marian Lowerson. His mother, he said, came "with her parents from the depressed valleys of South Wales" and his father "had come down from the Durham coalfield to find work as a miner", eventually becoming a colliery official. His mother, who had studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, was a piano teacher. He was educated at Maltby Grammar School and went to Leeds University to read history (1959-63). His MA thesis The Political Career of Sir Edward Baines, 1800-1890 (Leeds, 1965) was a study of the political career of the editor and proprietor of the Leeds Mercury, advocate of adult education and Liberal MP for Leeds.

Lowerson was concerned with adult education from the first, teaching at Lincoln Technical College before becoming tutor-organiser for the WEA in Northampton. He was appointed lecturer at Sussex University in 1970 in the Department of Continuing Education and as a historian spanned departments; he thrived on an interdisciplinary approach and was part of the history subject group at Sussex. His colleague Norman Vance, Professor of English, remarked, "we both liked the interdisciplinary ethos of the University of Sussex and (to my great benefit) we co-taught various interdisciplinary courses such as 'The Late Victorian Revolt in Politics', 'Literature and Society' and 'The English Romantics and Their Society.'" In 1994 Sussex published Out of Sight out of Mind, in which with Mike Boice and Alistair Thomson Lowerson explored barriers to rural adult education.

His reputation developed in local history with the book for a BBC Radio Brighton study of Victorian Sussex (1972, 1975), followed by studies of Seaford (1975), Cliftonville, Hove (1977), Crawley (1980) and Mediaeval Wadhurst (1983), and in 1980 he produced A Short History of Sussex and Battles for the Countryside. He also edited Southern History. However, he is best known as a pioneering and radical historian of leisure and sport, starting with Time to Spare in Victorian England, written with his colleague John Myerscough (1977), and developed two years later with Trends in Leisure 1919-1939 with Alun Howkins. But it was with his major study Sport and the English Middle Classes (1993, 1995) with its wide-ranging account encompassing sports not previously studied that his unique mix of social history, literary sources and dry humour found their most vivid canvas.

A lifelong love of music, engendered by his parents' participation in amateur operatics, led him to switch his research interest to music; informed by his knowledge of the sources for the history of leisure he brought a unique perspective. He formally retired from the university in 2003 but, as Emeritus Reader in History he maintained his connection and published his remarkable Amateur Operatics: a social and cultural history in 2005.

Although from a Methodist family, he was ordained as a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England in 1988 and was an assistant for 12 years at Ringmer Parish Church. In 2000 he transferred to St Anne's, Lewes, as assistant to Phillipp Hamilton-Manon, who officiated at his funeral. "He was," recalled the Rector, "an amazing helper, had a good ear and a great sense of humour, and didn't mind finding himself the butt of the joke."

He loved the Classical Anglicanism of the late 16th century, the world of George Herbert, and once a year used to have a full choral evensong of Wesley's time with a West Gallery Choir. When the Rector was ill in 2006 he smoothly covered the absence.

He wrote a variety of articles for the new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography the most extended of which was on the subject of his MA thesis in 1965, Sir Edward Baines. The others were all spin-offs from his wide-ranging studies of the history of sport and included Thomas Barker (17th century writer on angling), John Astley Cooper (late Victorian Imperial propagandist for athleticism), Harry Everard (Victorian writer on golf), Samuel Gardiner (16th century Norfolk clergyman and writer on angling), John James Hardy (Victorian/Edwardian manufacturer of fishing tackle), John Jaques (Victorian sports and games manufacturer) and his son of the same name, Old Tom Morris (Victorian golfer), Robert Nobbes (17th century clergyman and writer on angling), and Ralph Slazenger (Victorian manufacturer of sports goods).

Since his nominal retirement in 2003 he had been working on a large-scale biography of the Communist composer Alan Bush and had become an habitué of the music desks in the British Library, working through the Library's enormous holdings of Alan Bush papers. From there he attended "Music in Britain – a social history seminar" the group that had been established by the late Cyril Ehrlich meeting at the Institute of Historical Research. It was there that he gave his last paper on 11 May, speaking on his latest research: "The Wrong Sort of History? The problems and productions of Alan Bush's Wat Tyler."

Lowerson's themes were not solely to do with Bush's considerable achievement as a composer but encompassed a wide tranche of political and social history in the 20th century, as only he knew how. In reply to questions as to whether he planned to research in Stasi and KGB files he would reply enigmatically with a conspiratorial smile and characteristic one-liner. He had almost finished the research but it seems likely that he never reached a significant draft.

Lewis Foreman

John Ridley Lowerson, historian, lecturer, priest and author: born Rossington, South Yorkshire 22 July 1941; married 1964 Mary Sutton (three sons, one daughter); died 22 June 2009.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England