Historian of Cornwall in the Industrial Revolution
Friday 11 June 2004
In 1953 the book
Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution established John Rowe as a key member of a small group of distinguished scholars - the others being A.L. Rowse and Mary Coate - whose work in the middle decades of the 20th century led to a series of impressive publications covering Cornwall from the end of the medieval period to the Victorian era. As Rowse pointed out in a foreword, the work of these three scholars covered the "significant moments" when Cornwall had "impinged on English history".
William John Rowe, historian and writer: born Redgate, Cornwall 31 October 1915; Lecturer, then Reader in History, Liverpool University 1947-81; Lecturer in History, University of California, Berkeley 1958-59; Research Fellow, Rhodes University 1981-82; married 1958 Constance Rosevear (two sons); died Bodmin, Cornwall 22 May 2004.
In 1953 the book Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution established John Rowe as a key member of a small group of distinguished scholars - the others being A.L. Rowse and Mary Coate - whose work in the middle decades of the 20th century led to a series of impressive publications covering Cornwall from the end of the medieval period to the Victorian era. As Rowse pointed out in a foreword, the work of these three scholars covered the "significant moments" when Cornwall had "impinged on English history".
The first stage, he remarked, saw the Cornish rebellions of 1497 and 1549 against the process of Tudor centralisation and was addressed in Rowse's Tudor Cornwall in 1941. This followed on Coate's Cornwall in the Great Civil War and Interregnum, 1642-1660 (1933), considering the Duchy's significance for the Royalist cause in the 1640s, and now culminated in Rowe's wide-ranging analysis of Cornwall's particular contribution to the Industrial Revolution.
Rowe's pioneering work was influential at a variety of levels. In a British context it provided a model for regional historical studies. Back in Cornwall his work established the late modern period as the main area of historical research, a theme that is continued to this day by Exeter University's Institute of Cornish Studies.
His reputation was further enhanced in 1958 when he took up a 12-month teaching appointment at the University of California, Berkeley. This was followed by research throughout North America that led eventually to the publication in 1974 of The Hard Rock Men, a study of Cornish mining emigrants and their contribution to American history.
William John Rowe was born in 1915 and brought up on an agricultural smallholding on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Educated initially at Trekieve Steps and Liskeard County School, he won a scholarship in 1935 to read Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford. After military service with the Royal Ordnance Corps, in 1947 he became a lecturer on American and British Imperial History at Liverpool University. Retiring from Liverpool as Reader in 1981, Rowe was awarded the Hugh Le May Fellowship at Rhodes University in South Africa and spent a year researching the history of the Great Trek.
On his return he moved back to Cornwall. In 1956 Rowe had married Constance Rosevear at Bridges Methodist Chapel, Luxulyan, and they decided to establish their retirement home at Rock Mill, Constance's birthplace, in the nearby Luxulyan Valley.
Rowe had always taken a keen interest in the cultural life of Cornwall and in 1950 this was recognised by his installation as a bard of the Cornish Gorseth. Retirement enabled him to play an even greater role in Cornish affairs, as President of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, president of the Cornwall branch of the Historical Association, trustee of the Cornwall Heritage Trust and council member of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
He continued, too, to play an active role as a writer and historian. In 1996 he produced another classic publication, Changing Times and Fortunes: a Cornish farmer's life 1828-1904, tracing the life story of a Cornish farmer within the context of social and economic change. Once again this book reflected his ability to take a subject relating to Cornwall and then interpret his findings to a wider international audience. In 1998 he became a source of inspiration and encouragement to a younger generation of scholars as President of the Cornish History Network.
Central to John Rowe's reputation as an historian was the fact that he did so much to advance the cause of the indigenous researcher. As a practising Methodist, son of a farmer and a global academic traveller he was part of the culture that he wrote about. Friendly, unassuming, he was a distinguished cultural ambassador for his beloved Cornwall.
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