OBITUARY: Professor Albert Goodwin

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The Independent Online
Albert Goodwin was one of a group of historians who in the middle years of the century reconsidered the traditional views of the 18th century and the French Revolution. It was fitting that when he became Professor of Modern History at Manchester University in 1953 he succeeded Lewis Namier, the great advocate for the local foundations of national history, whose approach had overturned many received opinions about the course of national politics.

Scholars like Norman Gash and Jonathan Clark have made us familiar with the view that the 19th century was more like the 18th than the 20th (students of current affairs will ask whether much in politics has really changed since the days of Walpole), and Goodwin had in 1953 edited and contributed to a volume, The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century, as an extension of his work on France.

Since his earliest days Goodwin had spent much time in France, acquiring a fluent control of its language, and research into its history at grass- roots local level. This bore fruit in his well-known textbook The French Revolution (1953), which distilled not only his own work, while a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a university lecturer, but also that of the school of Georges Lefebvre. Through this book, generations of students have become familiar with the concept that the Revolution happened more because of failures in French society to manage change than because of an Armageddon between tyranny and democracy.

Similarly in his wartime work for Air Ministry intelligence Goodwin was led to an interpretation of the Battle of Britain, published as Air Ministry Pamphlet No 156 in 1943, which emphasised that it was not only the justly famous Few but a whole battery of people in the Services and elsewhere who produced victory.

Albert Goodwin had become a Fellow of Jesus College in 1931: amongst his first Scholars was the future prime minister Harold Wilson; and I was amongst his last. Goodwin shared with Wilson and myself the fact that an Oxford scholarship was the way in which grammar school boys broke into what had been the charmed circle of the aristocracy and the upper professional classes. It was, with the old Direct Grant Schools, the English equivalent of the career open to talent. Those fortunate and well- advised enough to get selected had the chance to move out of a provincial into a national society, in which ability was allowed to override the normal limits of the class system.

Goodwin was born in Sheffield in 1906 and educated at King Edward VII School, in that city before winning his scholarship to Jesus in 1924. By 1951, when I went up to Jesus, he was in his mid-forties, a respected scholar who had made a reputation for his researches into the history of pre-Revolutionary France. He was a tall, slim man, with a lean and well-marked face, in which the square jaw, the tall brow and the prominent horn-rimmed spectacles concealing humorous eyes were the main features. He had a down-to-earth manner which proclaimed the Yorkshireman, and a deadpan humour which left many unsure how seriously he meant to be taken.

These characteristics were enormous assets in his dealings with green students. He commanded respect through his seniority and reputation, but he did not threaten. With his wife Ethelwyn, herself a woman of formidable intellect and character, he civilised us on Sunday afternoons at his home on the Iffley Road: his evident appreciation of eccentricity, his awareness of diffidence, and Ethelwyn's readiness to respond to good-natured teasing, rapidly put us all at ease. He would then cycle into College Chapel and Sunday dinner in his dinner-jacket, and reappear the next morning in his duffel coat and cloth cap to undertake his more academic role.

As a tutor, Goodwin was superb. He had been fostered by the redoubtable Goronwy Edwards, who eventually became Director of the Institute of Historical Research. A Goodwin tutorial was no easy ride. The reading of one's essay was undertaken in a fog of cigarette smoke: the more interesting it was found, the thicker the smoke; unless some gaffe required interruption, the dissection of the argument and the presentation waited until the end.

Without disrespect to Manchester, I never felt that Bert Goodwin was entirely at ease in the new situation. He was not at his best in the lecture- room, and found the mass lecture system unrewarding. He was much more at home in the tutorial system, and his lectures were more like papers for the specialist than a means of mass education. Nevertheless he crowned a distinguished tenure of his chair by serving as Dean of the Faculty of Arts. On his retirement he returned to Oxford for a year as a Visiting Fellow of All Souls.

His final important book, The Friends of Liberty, was published in 1979, the fruits of his connection with the John Rylands Library: this proved to be an unexpectedly warm appraisal of the English radicals during the French Revolutionary period. Yet, although the political stance may seem to have shifted, the stress on the importance of individuals, the particular as well as the general, was not different from his earlier work. In some ways it shows his close and detailed scholarship at its best, but perhaps because of the changing social climate of the Thatcher years it has never yet enjoyed the success of the book on the French Revolution itself. His final years in which he settled in Sherborne were happy and fully engaged with the local community.

The life of a scholar in the middle years of this century was a combination of gracious living and steady hard work which many can look back at with envy and regret. Its achievement is measured less by the volume of published work than by the educational influence it had on young and able minds which have since made their own contribution to the life of society. It was worlds removed from the enforced self-advertisement of modern "academe", where research is the only recognised path to advancement and in which humility and integrity can be handicaps to promotion. The tradition has not died out, but it is under threat, and at Goodwin's passing one of its great exponents should be hailed with affection and respect.

Albert Goodwin, historian: born Sheffield 2 August 1906; Laming Travelling Fellow, Queen's College, Oxford 1928-29; Assistant Lecturer in European History, Liverpool University 1929-31; Junior Dean, Librarian and Dean of Degrees, Jesus College, Oxford 1931-39, Senior Tutor 1947-48, Vice- Principal 1949-51; Lecturer in Modern History and Economics, Oxford University 1931, University Lecturer in Modern French History 1938, Senior University Lecturer in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period 1948-53; Staff Officer, Air Ministry War Room 1940-43; Historical Branch, Air Ministry 1944-45; Professor of Modern History, Manchester University 1953-69 (Emeritus), Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1966-68; Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1969-70; married 1935 Ethelwyn Millner (died 1981; two sons, one daughter); 1985 Mrs Barbara Mallows (died 1990); died Yeovil 22 September 1995.