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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.