Professor Maurice Beresford

Economic historian and author of 'The Lost Villages of England' who pioneered 'landscape history'


Maurice Warwick Beresford, economic historian: born Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire 6 February 1920; Lecturer, Leeds University 1948-55, Reader 1955-59, Professor of Economic History 1959-85 (Emeritus), Dean 1958-60, Chairman, School of Economics Studies 1965-68, 1971-72, 1981-83, Chairman of Faculty Board 1968-70; FBA 1985; died Leeds 15 December 2005.

Maurice Beresford was one of the foremost medieval economic historians of the second half of the 20th century and a pioneer of what is now called Landscape History.

An only child, Beresford was born in Sutton Coldfield in 1920. After Bishop Vesey's Grammar School, where his interests in history, geography and literature were developed, he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1939 to read History. Already left-wing and from 1939 a conscientious objector, he often said that he never felt at home among what he called the "hearties and the rowing brigade" of the college. Only in recent years did his views about his college mellow; surprisingly, a year or two ago he even attended a reunion dinner.

His unease did not stop him, however, from getting a First in Prelims, as a result of which he was invited to participate in an economic history seminar run by John Saltmarsh, Fellow of King's. This was to have a lasting influence upon his academic life, for Saltmarsh was one of the few historians at the time interested not only in documentary sources but in visible remains in the landscape. Beresford recalled that Saltmarsh took the group on a walk to Grantchester, where they could see in the irregular surface of a field above the water meadows the supposed remains of medieval cultivation. The survival of sinuous ridge-and-furrow (as it became known), proof of its medieval origins and its role in reconstructing medieval field arrangements were to become central to Beresford's early research.

After Cambridge, and with a strong social conscience and sympathy for the underdog, Beresford did social work in London and Birmingham before being appointed to an adult education centre, the Guildhouse, in Rugby. It was here that in his spare time he developed his lifelong interests in local and Midland history. It was not long before, weekend-walking, Ordnance maps in hand, he recognised the field remains of Warwickshire villages long since deserted.

This was just at the time when W.G. Hoskins, working mainly in Leicestershire, had realised that deserted village sites were in fact more numerous than had hitherto been thought. With Hoskins's encouragement, Beresford explored his side of Watling Street; as a result both men published original and influential papers on the evidence for medieval village desertion, Hoskins for Leicestershire in 1946 ("The Deserted Villages of Leicestershire", published in Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, revised and expanded in Essays in Leicestershire History, 1950) and Beresford for Warwickshire in 1950 ("The Deserted Villages of Warwickshire" in Transactions and Proceedings of the Birmingham Archaeological Society).

Beresford's general article of 1948 for Country Life on "Tracing Lost Villages" was picked up by J.T. Oliver at Lutterworth Press, who, in a letter of 30 June 1949, invited him to "consider doing a whole book on the subject". This resulted five years later in The Lost Villages of England (1954), Beresford's first major book and the one with which he has since been most directly identified.

To satisfy his curiosity and to prove a point, Beresford decided to verify by excavation that particular bumps on the ground surface were in fact the foundations of medieval buildings. He did this on sites at Stretton Baskerville, Warwickshire, Bittesby, Leicestershire and, soon after his appointment in 1948 to a Lectureship in Economic History at Leeds University, at the earthworks of Wharram Percy on the Yorkshire Wolds which, with two friends, he had, "discovered" on a weekend walk from the youth hostel at Malton.

Adept by then at the documentary research but conscious of his lack of proper archaeological training, Beresford admitted that he had "trespassed from history into archaeology". This was at a time when established British archaeologists were preoccupied with the prehistoric and Roman periods and had not become seriously interested in the potential of medieval sites. It was only with the arrival at Wharram in June 1952 of John Hurst, recently graduated in archaeology from Cambridge, that the research potential of deserted villages and of this site in particular was realised. The excavation of Wharram Percy (still only partial) was to occupy both men for the next 40 years.

For Beresford, it was at the centre of both his academic and social life. Not only was he the historian at Wharram but, in his own words, he was "the excavation's recruiting sergeant, its catering manager, its public relations man and its sanitary engineer". Over the years, hundreds of volunteers, young and old, gathered from universities, adult education centres, schools and, at Beresford's instigation, Borstal institutions, helped on the summer excavations. Beresford became the central figure of a "Wharram network"; many men and women who worked there became his lifelong friends.

Traces of the medieval rural landscape seen on the ground and from the air preoccupied Beresford in the 1950s. Maps and field walking resulted in many papers in journals, national and local, and in 1957 a book, History on the Ground: six studies in maps and landscapes. A year later, as a result of collaboration with Kenneth St Joseph of the Cambridge University Committee for Aerial Photography, Medieval England: an aerial survey (1958) was published. This splendidly illustrated (but far from coffee-table) book explored the surviving evidence for medieval settlements, rural and urban, which, with expert interpretation, may be used to supplement evidence from maps and documents.

Beresford, along with Hoskins, was by then being recognised as a pioneer of a new branch of history now popularly known as Landscape History. Almost 20 years of collaborative work with Hurst also led to an updated survey of the historical and archaeological work in their jointly edited Deserted Medieval Villages: studies (1971).

Beresford's interests in urban history continued to develop. Soon after his appointment at Leeds he was "kidnapped" (his word) to write Leeds Chamber of Commerce (1951), a centenary history. Thereafter and at intervals, with the help of several willing car-drivers (he never himself drove a car) he visited numerous planned medieval towns which became the corpus of his large, seminal book New Towns of the Middle Ages: town plantation in England, Wales and Gascony (1967) in which he revealed an important aspect of medieval urban history hitherto neglected. The book became the basis for all subsequent work on this topic and it continues to be much quoted by medieval urban historians.

Although medieval urbanisation continued to occupy much of his research time (another product was English Medieval Boroughs : a handlist, 1973, with H.P.R. Finberg), Leeds, which we are now apt to think of as his home town, increasingly occupied the local history niche of his enquiring mind. Increasing demolition of 18th- and 19th-century properties, not least by the university, prompted him to research in fine detail the building history of the university precinct and other parts of Leeds. Again, it was the combination of documents, early maps and direct observation which led to Walks Round Redbrick (1980) and his massive book East End, West End: the face of Leeds during urbanisation, 1684-1842 (1988).

Between times, many of his papers were published by the Hambledon Press in a collected volume with the fitting title Time and Place: collected essays (1985). In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. He went on writing and involving himself with local societies until his health recently began to fail.

Maurice Beresford was a big man with a strong, penetrating voice. He enjoyed teaching and was a very good, witty and entertaining lecturer (almost always using slides) but, on account of many digressions, usually found it difficult to keep to time. As he reflected later, one was lucky to get away with under two hours. Aside from university offices, national committees, social-work commitments and political interests (he was essentially "old Labour"), he was a devotee of classical music, film, theatre and ballet. Research visits to London archives were almost always followed by theatre visits.

A bachelor, without any social pretensions, he owned two adjacent terraced houses in the centre of Leeds. Not for him good restaurants and fine wines; baked beans, sausages, fish and chips were his staples. He was lively company. Dog at his side, he would reminisce at length, eyes shut, fingers waving, seemingly in a world of his own until he looked to you to supply a name that he had forgotten. He could, however, be very demanding without realising it and he was not the easiest person to have as a house guest, not least because he was no respecter of furniture. Many chairs failed to survive his abrupt and weighty arrival.

Fortunately, the Chair of Economic History at Leeds which he occupied for 25 years from 1959 was not one of them and it gave him the greatest pleasure when the university recently recognised his distinguished contribution by the award of an honorary degree to add to those of Loughborough, Leicester and Hull.

Robin Glasscock

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?