Peter Laslett

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Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett, social historian and political philosopher: born Watford, Hertfordshire 18 December 1915; Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge 1948-51; University Lecturer in History, Cambridge University 1953-66, Reader in Politics and the History of Social Structure 1966-83; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge 1953-2001; Co-Founder and Director, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure 1964-2001; FBA 1979; CBE 1997; married 1947 Janet Clark (two sons); died Cambridge 8 November 2001.

Peter Laslett was a man of many parts which he continued to play with unflagging energy until the last two weeks of his life. He had careers as broadcaster and radio producer, distinguished historian of political thought and, internationally, the pioneer historical sociologist of the family. In addition, he had a noteworthy influence in Britain as an educational reformer through the roles he played in the foundation of the Open University and the University of the Third Age.

Born in 1915, the son of a Baptist minister in Watford, he attended the local grammar school before going to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1935. There he obtained Firsts in both parts of the Historical Tripos. During wartime service in the Navy, he initially served on the dangerous northern route to Murmansk, but his evident talents led to more cerebral pursuits. After learning Japanese and being commissioned he transferred to Bletchley Park, where he distinguished himself in the code-breaking of Japanese naval intelligence.

After the Second World War he returned to Cambridge as a Fellow of St John's, where his research on the history of political thought led to his work on Sir Robert Filmer. He also worked for the BBC as a talks producer in the fledgling Third Programme, acquiring a reputation for persuading leading academics to communicate their ideas in ways accessible to the widest possible audience. This phase in his career was to affect much else that he did subsequently because he saw the Third Programme as the route through which ideas, usually discussed behind the walls of the universities, could be revealed to the public at large.

It was fortuitous, perhaps, that in 1958, when the Third Programme had lost much that Laslett had wanted for it, Michael Young arrived in Cambridge as a lecturer in sociology. They campaigned initially to form another university in Cambridge that made use of the buildings of the ancient university in vacations, but this idea received little support and was jettisoned. They drew up even more ambitious plans to break the monopolies of the universities by using sound and television broadcasting for degree courses for the nation at large. In 1963 a prototype had Cambridge associates lecturing on Anglia Television in the early mornings. Laslett and Young took their idea of a University of the Air to Harold Wilson, and it eventually crystallised as the Open University with Laslett serving on the implementing committee.

Laslett's involvement in public life through the 1950s and 1960s in no way impeded his scholarly development as a highly original thinker. He had returned to Cambridge in 1953 to a Trinity College fellowship and lectureship in the History Faculty, where his interests in political thought transferred to John Locke, whose library he had discovered; the library was purchased by Paul Mellon, who became a lifelong friend. On the basis of these materials Laslett set new editorial and interpretational standards for Locke's key texts. Notwithstanding his emerging pre-eminence as a textual analyst, his interests and restless energy moved him in another, although not entirely unconnected, direction.

In April 1960 he gave three Third Programme talks about the social order before the coming of industry, based on his university lectures. One concerned the family as a social unit. He had just stumbled across The Rector's Book, Clayworth, Notts (1910) which contained two "censuses" of a Nottinghamshire village's inhabitants in the late 17th century. These showed patterns of family co-residence and population turnover that bore little relationship to the prescriptions embodied in Filmer's 1680 Patriarcha – large kin-enfolding extended families.

Laslett's most famous work, The World We Have Lost (1965), was his first sustained attack on the dominant models of social change in historical and social scientific literature. Families in pre-industrial England displayed few signs whatsoever of being extended co-resident groups, with few grandchildren; on average they contained only marginally more than four persons. Marriage for both sexes took place at a relatively late age (Shakespeare's Juliet notwithstanding). There were high rates of population mobility and he signalled the previously unnoticed significance of unmarried servants who might make up almost half the age group 15-30 within the pre-industrial social structure.

The book attracted a great deal of attention; some of the hostility of the intellectual left was directed at his denial of the significance of the English Revolution for social structural change while the more conservative of the historical profession disliked the fact that Laslett was advocating an approach which required a decidedly statistical methodology as well as engagement with sociological and social anthropological theory and the use of demographic methodology.

In 1964 Laslett teamed up with E.A. Wrigley to form the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, to mobilise evidence bearing upon demographic processes and social structure before and during the Industrial Revolution. That they succeeded in raising money owed a great deal to Laslett's capacity to persuade the newly formed Social Science Research Council of the value of the planned research and to his appeals through radio broadcasts for local volunteers to collect the mass of information required. Amateur enthusiasts were to be not just gatherers of evidence but also integral in its interpretation. This "secret weapon anglais", according to the eminent French demographer Louis Henry, was envied by Parisian intellectual élites, who were pioneering similar work, but without an unpaid provincial workforce to help.

Laslett's work became theoretically more sophisticated and began to make larger claims, giving rise to new ideas about the uniqueness of household formation processes in pre-industrial north-west Europe; in this he collaborated with the distinguished demographer John Hajnal of the London School of Economics, a frequent Cambridge Group visitor. He also worked extensively on illegitimacy, on the age of sexual maturity and on a comparative analysis of household and family in Europe, particularly with his colleague Richard Wall. He pioneered the application of microsimulation to the study of past family systems, obliging historians to take stochastic processes influencing household structure and kin-sets seriously. This aspect of his work was never popular, being hard going for those who were not of a mathematical and theoretical disposition.

He remained better known for his empirical approach to the analysis of household structure and classification, which he believed linked him with one of his great heroes in early methods of social analysis – Gregory King. Many outside Britain replicated Laslett's methods for the classificatory analysis of households in census records and the spread of this approach helped to develop his international reputation, but he was not always happy with the crudely imitative ways that some of this work exhibited and its failure frequently to be set within a rounded study of the social structure.

As he approached his retirement his interests moved towards the study of the history of old age and especially the changes that were occurring to the society in which he lived. He was preoccupied with defining the salient characteristics of societies that were coming to contain so many in the "third" and "fourth" ages. A Fresh Map of Life (1989; substantially revised in 1996) argued forcefully against the marginalisation of the elderly and the retired. Together with Eric Midwinter and Michael Young, he created a context for continued learning and intellectual stimulation for the elderly and the newly retired by founding the University of the Third Age in 1982.

Laslett acquired an enormous international reputation when his numerous works were translated. His research, along with that of his colleagues Tony Wrigley and Roger Schofield, led the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure to the position of a leading international research centre. It remains a mystery to those who know his work that he never held a professorship in his own university. He was Reader in Politics and the History of Social Structure from 1966 to his retirement in 1983 and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1979.

He never openly complained of the restrained recognition that he received in Cambridge, and he acknowledged that he had never been a good citizen in his own faculty as far as commitment to undergraduate teaching, examining and administration were concerned. However, it did give him personal pleasure to reflect on the fact that at one time in the late 1990s four of his pupils simultaneously held chairs associated with the History Faculty – one being the Regius Professor, another about to become President of the British Academy.

Laslett was a man of great warmth and personal charm and a generous host with his wife, Janet. He delighted in talking and was frequently the centre of attention at morning coffee at the Cambridge Group. He was forever interested in the work of others, whether nervous postgraduate or lofty international scholar. He travelled extensively, but was in many respects quintessentially English. A passionate grower of traditional English flowers, he took great delight in the fact that his garden contained a remnant of the "ridge and furrow" system of Cambridge's pre-enclosure West Field. Furthermore, for the son of nonconformists who remembered vividly how his mother's Oxford family (the Aldens) looked northwards in horror from their farm towards the spires of Christ Church, he particularly enjoyed spending his brief vacations visiting English parish churches, which he regarded as European architectural splendours.

Above all he was a communicator and he believed in the unity of the world of learning, keen always to bring disciplines together and even keener to see that what the practitioners of those disciplines had to say was openly available to the general public.

Richard Smith


Together with Duncan Forbes, Peter Laslett did more than anyone to turn Cambridge in the course of a decade into the most exciting place in the world to study the history of political ideas, writes Professor John Dunn. He did so, not by establishing a method or seeking to found a school, but by showing how much that history could be transformed by pursuing it with the care and attention which historians had long brought to bear on other subjects, and inspiring a succession of pupils and younger friends (categories he distinguished vaguely, if at all) to set off in their own very different directions.

His own principal contribution to this field lay in editing two key texts: the all but forgotten political writings of Sir Robert Filmer (Patriarcha and Other Political Works, 1949), and John Locke's acknowledged masterpiece, Two Treatises of Government (1960). Each contained a careful reconstruction of the text itself, and a flamboyantly personal introduction, which sought, with remarkable success, to compel a whole generation of scholars to see each figure in a quite new light.

The two works reflected both the scope of his historical imagination and the breadth and vitality of his understanding of politics. Filmer he saw as the uniquely frank and radical expression of a vision and practice of authority and power which has since shrouded itself all too effectively in the wider spheres of politics and economics, and Locke as the bold but precarious answer to that challenge, which laid out how humans could reconstruct their lives together comprehensively through due exercise of the reason with which God had endowed them: a mythical past, confronting a perhaps equally mythical future. His Locke edition set new scholarly standards and has certainly proved the single most influential edition of a classic political text ever since. It gave him an international reputation, especially in the United States, France and Japan, which effortlessly eclipsed that of many Cambridge colleagues who ended their careers with loftier local titles.

Within Cambridge, the main impact of his teaching was probably to sharpen the boundaries between history and philosophy. But Laslett himself, despite the keenness of his interest in each, never really acknowledged the legitimacy of the disciplinary chasm between them. The first volume of his series Philosophy, Politics and Society (1956) proclaimed brusquely that political philosophy was dead. A second, six years later, carried to a wider British intellectual audience John Rawls's classic article on "Justice as Fairness"; and succeeding volumes focused especially on the issue of justice across generations.

What made Laslett so exhilarating as a teacher was the remarkable range of his knowledge, the flair and energy with which he conveyed this, the passion with which he struggled to do justice to the human subjects of this vast field, and the warmth and generosity with which he urged others to do the same justice in their turn. With Filmer's Patriarcha, the most important connection with Laslett's later work lay in historical demography. But he continued for decades to play a leading role in recovering Locke's manuscripts and the books of his library and in making his texts as a whole available to the highest scholarly standards through the Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke, on whose editorial board he had served since the first volume appeared in the early 1970s.

Peter Laslett's greatest gift, as his best-known book, The World We Have Lost, suggests, was more for evocation than analysis: to bring back to life, in all their confusion, ingenuity and suffering, the human beings who have long gone. It was very much a historian's gift; but it carries as trenchant a political message for the Britain of 2001 as it held for the Cambridge in which he began to teach over half a century ago.