Professor Pat Thompson: Historian whose influence came through teaching rather than his writing

For four decades tutor at Wadham College, alternately acerbic and avuncular, iconoclastic and inspiring, and always generous with his time, A.F. '("Pat"') Thompson was a major force in modern British history teaching and research at Oxford. His influence did not stem from publications, although his evaluation of trade unions' political role in A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, volume 1 (1964; co-authored with Hugh Clegg and Alan Fox), and a 1948 article on "'Gladstone's Whips at the General Election of 1868"', initiated significant reconsiderations.

Otherwise, too few miniatures survive as samples of an elegant and sinuous mind. He regretted this paucity – the failure to write not 10 books, rather 20 articles that "'really made people sit up and think about a particular topic"'. It was a characteristic discrimination. He pursued the objective instead through tutoring undergraduates and supervising graduates, for whom he introduced research seminars. He was on the steering committees of the Oxford Historical Monographs and the Gladstone Diaries. Achievement thus came vicariously. His pupils, who are legion, include Melvyn Bragg and Julian Mitchell. Colin Matthew and Ross McKibbin lead those who built substantial academic reputations. A festschrift, which I edited, Politics and Social Change in Modern Britain, appeared in 1987.

The Thompson style of teaching, at its best delivered from a Windsor armchair and wreathed in Player's Navy Cut, was angled at the individual. He affirmed "the old methods, but endlessly adapted". This meant "seeing people in their own terms", before shaking them up. Further, "if at the same time you can tell them something they may not have noticed, then you ought to do so". Here was a reductionist formula for a sophisticated exercise, designed to unfold an understanding of why people acted as they did. It was penetrating and witty, his sympathy laced with scepticism; indeed, always seasoned with salt, pepper and not a little vinegar.

He also proved an accomplished performer before bigger audiences, lecturing without notes like A.J.P. Taylor. He knew this was showmanship more than scholarship: he laughingly recalled Taylor taking a handful of postcards from his pocket and reading off them, as if verifying sources, when almost all were blank. Thompson did not so dissemble.

The philosophy of history interested him but he resisted ideologically driven writing and novelty methodologies. Idealism he did not discourage, but proportionate, tempered by realism. In adolescence he looked to Cripps and a Popular Front, then moved centre-left behind Gaitskell who "captured my imagination in a way that none of the others had ever done". His pleasure in Michael Foot, a Wadham alumnus, was purely personal. Later, disenchantment was manifest. To undergraduates panting for a Labour win in 1964, after 13 years of Conservatism, he drily remarked that since his father had voted for Ramsay MacDonald, he didn't see why they shouldn't vote for Harold Wilson.

Arthur Frederick Thompson was born in 1920 in Preston, eldest child of a Londonderry-born Inland Revenue official who became senior finance officer at Stormont. While boarding at Campbell College, Thompson. was confirmed into the Church of Ireland. The move to south London, upon his father's transfer to Somerset House in 1936, was intellectually liberating as he became a day boy at Dulwich College. Here originated the nickname "'Pat'" – a tribute to the limited imagination of English schoolboys, for whom a brogue signalled a Paddy. Initially a classicist, Thompson embraced history after encountering the same master who taught K.B. MacFarlane, the pre-eminent medievalist at Magdalen College, Oxford, where Thompson became an exhibitioner in 1939.

During the admissions interview, he took against "'a funny little man who sat with his back to me, reading The Times ... he kept rattling the newspaper as MacFarlane very politely led me about the Holy Roman Empire"'. This was A.J.P. Taylor, into whose orbit Thompson eventually gravitated, drawn by "his wonderful articulate originality" and brisk manner; yet MacFarlane's subversion of panoptic historical theories and insistence on the human agency that shaped institutions remained with him, together with an inhibiting perfectionism.

Following his First in 1941, he joined the Worcestershire Yeomanry, a territorial Artillery unit, undertaking parachute and glider training before being dropped into Normandy on D-Day, his 24th birthday. Three weeks later, with shrapnel wounds in both legs, he was out and spent the rest of the war with GCHQ at Bletchley. On demobilisation, he returned to Oxford to pursue research aiming to marry Namierite analysis with the new political science of psephology and apply it to the late 19th century. He was elected a senior demy at Magdalen; then, in a heady coincidence, offered a tutorial fellowship at both Queen's and Wadham.

Academic life was not the only option. In 1946 he passed near the top of the civil service exam, just behind Edward Heath; he chose Wadham, bewitched by its Warden, Maurice Bowra. There he remained, apart from visiting professorships at Stanford (three times) and McMaster. He served as Domestic Bursar, Senior Tutor, Tutor for Graduates and Sub-Warden. He observed Wadham's transformations with irreverent affection, approved its admission of women, and in retirement fund-raised for another history post.

Pat Thompson revelled in the dons' social life, his quick wits excelling in banter. At home he had the perfect foil, his wife Mary, who read botany at Somerville. They married in 1942, at a registry office with Alan and Margaret Taylor as witnesses, afterwards submitting to a church service to appease parents. The marriage, immensely strong, was tested by misfortune: Johnny, their second son, born in 1947, was brain-damaged and required professional care, and Alan, born in 1943, died of cancer in 1989.

Philip Waller

Wadham was never a smart college, writes Julian Mitchell, but in the 1950s, under the booming wardenship of Maurice Bowra, it was academically one of the most successful in Oxford, thanks largely to an influx of new and often battle-hardened dons who arrived after the war. Among these were Lawrence Stone and Pat Thompson, who shared the history teaching.

Stone was tall, rangy, energetic, frequently alarming, inspiring but, to his enemies, rash. Thompson, with barely disguised amusement, played the part of his solidly built, pipe-smoking, worldly but reliable straight man. Under the apparently comfortable appearance, though, there was a frequently insecure man, who could be extremely sharp – with himself, probably, even more than with others.

C.P. Snow's The Masters (1951), about Cambridge college politics, was sneered at in Oxford, but Pat, with his family sorrows and his cynical approach to life could have come straight from its pages. Knowing so much, from his work on the rise of political-party organisation in the late 19th century, about the deviousness of national politicians, he relished the often even more devious politics of the university, where his smiling approach could suddenly include a brief but devastating destruction of character – though the smile remained.

But when it came to teaching us modern British history (which meant in those days stopping at the House of Lords crisis of 1909-11), he was quite straightforward. The object was not merely to make us learn something about the not-so-distant past, but, with his famous last tutorials before Finals, master classes in exam technique, to get us rather better degrees than we deserved. Equally Snovian was the delight he took in "placing" his pupils through his connections in the outer world, another form of political activity in which he shone.

Arthur Frederick Thompson, historian: born Preston 6 June 1920; Fellow in Modern History, Wadham College, Oxford, 1947-87 (subsequently Emeritus); married 1942 Mary Barritt (died 2003; one daughter, one son and one son deceased); died Oxford 9 October 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick