Obituary: Professor Keith Kelsall

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Keith Kelsall achieved academic distinction in sociology and social history with a minimum of self-display. His style of scholarship was to build knowledge meticulously while leaving interpretation unobtrusive.

Perhaps this is why, for example, his outstanding study of the recruitment of Higher Civil Servants in Britain (1955) is less well remembered than its pioneering quality warrants. When he masterminded the formation of a new department of sociology and social administration at Sheffield University from the late 1950s, he led by scholarly example rather than by managerial direction. But his quiet persistence and tactful influence offstage secured a solid base for growth.

He helped to found the British Sociological Association in 1951, as well as its journal in 1967, and crowned his service as general secretary, treasurer and chair (1957-66) by becoming president (1977-79): all this with dedication, shrewd sense and liberal purpose, yet with a characteristic abstention from fanfare. The peak of his career coincided with turbulence around sociology as an ostensible flagship of radical expectations in the late Sixties and early Seventies. But it was in keeping with both his intellectual priorities and his reserved temperament that he maintained his commitment to the discipline while never acceding to pressures from either hectic iconoclasm or hardset counter-reaction.

Keith Kelsall was the son of a Glaswegian civil engineer and an English- born mother. After a prize-winning school career at Kelvinside Academy he gained Firsts in both History and Political Economy from Glasgow University. He then worked briefly for G.K. Chesterton's Distribution Society (which looked towards a fairer distribution of wealth), and, by rather curious contrast, as a tutor for the Bonar Law College at Ashridge; and was then appointed an assistant lecturer at Hull University College, where he began a formidable record of publication with books on industrial relations and their history.

He moved during the Second World War to employment for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in Birmingham, but resumed an academic career thereafter with sociological research at the London School of Economics. This included, in association with a major programme of enquiry led by David Glass into social mobility and professional group composition, both the civil service book and a first-ever survey of Applications for Admission to Universities (1957), commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, which paved the way for the extensive socio-statistical investigations that Claus Moser directed for the Robbins Committee a few years later.

Kelsall himself built on the interest he thus acquired in the social role of education, and in pathways to and beyond its higher levels, to produce over the 1960s and 1970s a series of informative reports and studies on such issues and their links with social stratification - this on several occasions in fruitful partnership with his wife Helen, an experienced practitioner in education; and on some others with younger colleagues.

Sheffield University's School of Social Studies, which Kelsall came to head in 1955, was then a small unit offering non- graduate introductory courses to a range of employments in social welfare. Within just a few years, he had extended its activities, transformed it into a Department of Sociological Studies, located it firmly within the faculty structure, and introduced an honours school of sociology.

Tensions were inevitable, both intellectual and personal. Kelsall presided over these with customary equability; but also with an unassertive persuasive- ness which, along with diversity of academic background, was to lay the foundation for a thriving multidisciplinary department of sociology, social policy and social work.

Kelsall's first and abiding interest was in history: a subject, he said, which did not change, by contrast with sociology. And for all the high respect he justly earned within the latter field, he regarded himself as "a caretaker for sociology" on behalf of younger rising professionals, for whom his support and advice were always unstinting. Naturally enough then, it was to historical research that he returned on his retirement in 1975; and as Scots alike, he and his wife demonstrated their enduring energy and flair in evocative joint studies into their native country's social history, including Scottish Lifestyle 300 Years Ago (1986). Kelsall now also found time to turn a long-standing love of antique glass into full connoisseurship, and with two fine books about 18th-century glass (the most recent was The Open-Flame Lamp, 1995) established himself as an authority on the subject.

A man of wide interests and empathy, as well as of gentle temper and subtle humour, Keith Kelsall will be sorely missed.

Roger Keith Kelsall, sociologist and historian: born Milngavie, Scotland 23 January 1910; Assistant Lecturer, Hull University College c1935-42; Head, School of Social Studies, then Professor of Sociological Studies, Sheffield University 1955-75 (Emeritus); married Helen Lightbody 1934 (one son); died Sheffield 1 May 1996.