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

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