Obituary: Professor Kenneth Haley

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The Independent Online
Kenneth Haley's was a decided, if understated, academic success story which deserves celebration.

At the most obvious level it was an apparently effortless progress: a scholarship from Huddersfield College to Balliol, crowned by a first in History, followed by Sheffield University where he was successively assistant lecturer, lecturer, senior lecturer and Professor of Modern History. This brought in its inevitable train the headship of department and the deanship of the Faculty of Arts, but its academic ballast was a sustained succession of books on 17th-century English, Dutch, and Anglo-Dutch history, which have survived changes of fashion. The accolade came in retirement with a Fellowship of the British Academy.

Yet no progress is effortless, and Haley's was accompanied by relentless ill-health: psoriatic arthritis, latterly complicated by diabetes and increasing blindness. It was also accompanied by relentless change in British universities. Haley taught at Sheffield from 1947 to 1982. When he arrived Sheffield, like most such places, was more red-brick than civic and it was certainly not "old", whatever that means. Its History Department was as small and as idiosyncratic as any. It was the stuff of which novels are made. This was the climate which formed him.

In those last days lecturers still wore gowns and addressed female undergraduates as "Miss Smith" rather than Tracey, and male ones as "Smith" rather than Darren. Professors were weighty people, usually men, with a clear place in the hierarchy - a role which in some ways they have regained on the eve of Dearing. Kenneth Haley was in his early forties when he was appointed to his chair, on the eve of Robbins.

The qualities which contributed to his scholarly standing and his determined battle for health also contributed to the quiet transformation of the Sheffield History Department. There was steady but not precipitate enlargement, and Haley could be justifiably proud of the appointments made between 1964 and 1982.

Inevitably many of those appointed in his time were Young Turks, sceptical of hierarchy and impatient of steadiness. Consequently there were tensions, but they were healthy and educative ones, again because of Haley's formative qualities. For this professor of an older school (however young at the time of his appointment) was also a liberal and a Methodist with a genuine concern for consensus (however much it seemed to some junior colleagues that it was often a consensus of one), and an equal concern for his students (he was an early believer in compulsory field courses at stately if faded homes), and a palpable integrity (which did not prevent him from being a shrewd operator).

To have been a junior colleague of his was an experience for which many now approaching retirement can feel grateful: the insistence that third- year special subjects should be soundly based on primary sources; the rigorous training in how to construct examination questions, each one scrutinised by unblinking colleagues in plenary session; the constant awareness of the student barrack-room lawyer, a character then quite unknown but now increasingly common; the refusal to cut corners. Kenneth Haley in fact maintained a quality control which was quite as effective as any now fashionable and far harder to circumvent.

Undergirding this were unexpected but crucial things. It is impossible to think of him without thinking also of his wife, Iris, to whom his debt was immeasurable; or of their strenuous family holidays; or of the Methodist Church, where he took a young people's class which encouraged at least three future Methodist ministers; or of his undeviating commitment to Yorkshire county cricket, with which no academic business ever interfered; or of the Braille which he learnt in good time to combat the onset of blindness; or, for inevitably we return to his scholarly discipline, of the Dutch which he taught himself, and of the nature of his historical interests.

How many of his southern students were initially misled by their expectations of this Yorkshire Methodist's special subject on Charles II? But his books, which include William of Orange and the English Opposition 1672-1674 (1953), The First Earl of Shaftesbury (1968; his magnum opus), The Dutch in the Seventeenth Century (1972), An English Diplomat in the Low Countries: Sir William Temple and John De Witt 1655-1672 (1986), show a concentrated, cumulative, sure-footed understanding of a deceptively wide swathe of political, diplomatic, religious, and cultural history in an extraordinarily complex field.

At its heart was a relish for the Netherlands, that most civilised of countries, and it was at Anglo-Dutch colloquia that Kenneth Haley could be seen at his best and most relaxed. His priorities were, after all, the right ones.

Kenneth Harold Dobson Haley, historian: born Southport, Lancashire 19 April 1920, Professor of Modern History 1962-82, Sheffield University (Emeritus), Dean of Faculty of Arts 1979- 81; FBA 1987; married 1948 Iris Houghton (one son, two daughters); died 2 July 1997.