Professor Harold Perkin

Historian instrumental in establishing Social History as a discipline
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The Independent Online

Harold James Perkin, social historian: born Hanley, Staffordshire 11 November 1926; Lecturer in Social History, Manchester University 1951-65; Senior Lecturer in Social History, Lancaster University 1965-67, Professor 1967-84, Director, Centre for Social History 1974-84; Professor of History, Northwestern University, Illinois 1985-97 (Emeritus); married 1948 Joan Griffiths (one son, one daughter); died London 16 October 2004.

Harold Perkin was one of the most visionary, gifted and dynamic historians of his generation. The first lecturer, and later the first professor of Social History in a British university, he was instrumental in establishing, defining and promoting the discipline of Social History, which was a largely uncharted area when he began his career in the early 1950s but by the end of it was a flourishing, respected and influential branch of history.

Fully aware of the need for an institutional academic infrastructure, Perkin launched the Studies in Social History series at Routledge, for 30 years the premier series of monographs on the subject. He initiated the foundation of the Social History Society in 1976, chairing it for 10 years. With its annual conferences and regular newsletters, it provided a vital forum for the interchange of ideas. At Lancaster University he set up the Centre for Social History and the Centre for North-West Regional Studies and inaugurated the first MA in Social History.

His own enduring scholarly legacy is the monumental trilogy of works The Origins of Modern English Society (1969), The Rise of Professional Society (1989) and The Third Revolution (1996) in which he charted the emergence and eventual triumph in Britain, and later globally, of the professional classes and the idea of professionalisation.

Harold Perkin was born into a solidly working-class family in the Potteries area of Staffordshire in 1926 and he attributed his interest in social history to this background and a burning desire to understand how industrial Britain and its class system came into being.

He grew up a classic working-class scholarship boy, bright, confident, aspiring, and backed and encouraged by his parents. He won prizes every year at school and became head boy at Shelton Junior Church of England School. He won his scholarship to Hanley High School in 1938 and gained distinctions in all nine subjects of the School Certificate at 15. Like many successful scholars he attributed much of his success to an inspiring teacher, in his case Carl Ludlow, who taught him history in the sixth form.

An enthusiastic and idealistic member of the Co-op Youth Movement, he met his future wife Joan Griffiths when they competed for the position of Chairman of the Stoke-on-Trent Youth Congress on Post-War Reconstruction in 1944. They were married in 1948.

In the meantime, Perkin had won a major scholarship in History to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1945, graduating three years later with the rare distinction of a starred First. After two years' National Service in the RAF, he applied to Cambridge to do a PhD and was rejected with the comment: "Your ability . . . does not seem to us to be in the direction of academic research." He attributed the rejection to the fact that he had not presented a conventional academic profile while he was an undergraduate. He had been news editor of Varsity, had danced with the Ballet Joos, performed with the Footlights and rowed as well as studying what he chose rather than what he was directed towards. But there looks to be more than a touch of class snobbery in the decision.

So, while his contemporaries who had gained unstarred Firsts or even 2:1s were receiving the coveted Cambridge studentships, Perkin took a post as assistant lecturer in the extra-mural department of Manchester University. But in 1951 he was appointed to the first ever lectureship in Social History at Manchester University and found the broad-based teaching of the subject, mainly from primary source, an invaluable background to his own research, which was initially into the social history of the landed aristocracy.

Impatient of the tyranny of the authoritarian senior professors at Manchester - "the old lags" he called them - he became in 1958 secretary of the local branch of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), campaigning for non-professorial representation on Senate. During 16 years of work for the AUT, he rose to be national president, fighting for better pay, conditions and pensions for academics.

He was an early "telly don", writing and presenting two successful series for Granada which he later expanded into books, The Age of the Railway (1970) and The Age of the Automobile (1976). Falling out with his head of department at Manchester, who he thought was sabotaging his attempts to develop his subject, he applied for a post at the new university of Lancaster. He was appointed from 1965 as Senior Lecturer and in 1967 became Professor of Social History. Perkin's death comes only a month after that of Austin Woolrych, the founding Professor of History with whom he worked closely and harmoniously in developing the department.

While at Lancaster, Perkin developed another area of expertise. Commissioned to write a book-length report on the new universities for the OECD (New Universities in the United Kingdom, 1969), he became a member of what he called "the higher education mafia", writing and lecturing on higher education all round the world and eventually producing 25 publications on the subject.

Disenchanted by the rise of Thatcherism and its deleterious effects on the universities, he accepted in 1985 the offer of a chair at Northwestern University in Chicago, remaining there until he retired in 1997. Back in England, he continued writing and lecturing until the onset of his final illness.

Harold Perkin was a man of forthright views, often trenchantly expressed, about people, issues and events. You can hear his authentic tones in his vivid and marvellously readable autobiography, The Making of a Social Historian (2002). When he writes of his feisty mother, "If her critics ever came out into the open, she would give them a piece of her mind which they were never likely to forget", he might have been writing of himself. But he could be generous and supportive to colleagues whose work he respected.

He was also enormously proud of the achievements of his two children and his wife Joan, who as a mature student took a degree at Lancaster and later became a published social historian in her own right. Perkin's was a rich, varied and fulfilled life and his legacy in all the fields in which he worked will long survive.

Jeffrey Richards