OBITUARY: Professor D. C. Coleman

D.C. Coleman was a formidably commanding figure in economic history as an academic discipline in its heyday.

He taught the subject at the London School of Economics from 1951 to 1971, becoming Professor of Economic History there. He moved then to Cambridge University for 10 years as the Professor of Economic History, chosen in succession to the extraordinarily varied characters of Sir John Clapham, Sir Michael Postan and David Joslin, each brilliant and difficult in their different ways. Coleman was recognised as a star and an irritant at both LSE and Cambridge, but his intellectual power was felt more widely than in those two self- regarding worlds.

The interface between economics and history was Coleman's milieu. Born in 1920, he left Haberdashers' Aske's school at the age of 17 to work in the City and in 1939 was to have enrolled as a student at the London School of Economics. In the event, he did not begin there until 1946, service in the Second World War having intervened, with the Royal Artillery in Africa, Italy and Greece. He did not now need to learn economics, he informed his tutor, Nicky Kaldor, having done so while running a chain of requisitioned hotels in Italy.

He turned instead to economic history, falling under the pervasive influence of R.H. Tawney (for his prose style, not his ideas) and F.J. Fisher (for his irreverence and devastating sharpness of wit). In quick succession he took a brilliant first degree, then his PhD (in two years) and in 1951 was appointed to the staff of the school as Lecturer in Industrial History.

The adjective "industrial" infused his approach to history, but did not restrict it. There began a steady stream of scholarly articles and books which flowed from his pen for the rest of his life, bringing him recognition as a historian of great originality and expertise in two different fields: the economic history of early modern England, and the business history of recent times. Books on The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 (1958), and the restoration financier Sir John Banks: Baronet and Businessman (1963), and seminal articles on the pre- industrial and industrialising economy of England, on "mercantilism", on the role of technological change - several of his articles were later gathered in his Myth, History and Industrial Revolution (1992), a book that deserves wider recognition - were followed by his magisterial history of the textile enterprise Courtaulds.

The three volumes of this work, Courtaulds: an economic and social history (1969, 1980) were far from being a mere PR exercise, and far from being mere business history in any narrow sense. Narrative skills are combined with analytical powers, statistical manipulation is interwoven with insight to pro- duce what is unquestionably a great work. Coleman's survey of The Economy of England 1450-1750 (1977) followed, and a short but highly perceptive account of History and the Economic Past (1987), which he called "the rise and fall of economic history in Britain".

He was sceptical about politics, and thought religion was largely nonsense. He realised that people were subject to motivation of a variety of sorts, and that economic rationality could provide only a partial explanation. He made use, therefore, of economic theory, but did not regard it as the be-all and end-all in the attempt to explain human social behaviour over time, the essence of what he thought economic history should be about.

His influence as a scholar was transmitted through his research students at LSE and at Cambridge and more widely through his editorship of the Economic History Review in 1967-72, characterised by a rigorous attention to both the words and the numbers.

Donald Coleman was a gregarious man, a generous host and an acerbic conversationalist. He much enjoyed the Fellowship of Pembroke College that his translation to Cambridge brought after 1971. But he was also a very private man, intensely disliking institutional pomposities and bureaucracies. He rejected opportunities of becoming Master of a Cambridge college and of being President of the Economic History Society, positions for which many of his friends considered he was intended by nature. He took early retirement from his chair in 1981, before such activity became enforcedly fashionable, largely to escape the administration he conspicuously found irksome, and to concentrate on a life of productive scholarship.

In the London years, he preferred to entertain privately, though by no means quietly, at his flat on the fringes of Sohoand especially at his expansive house in Cavendish, Suffolk. His life was shared with his wife Ann, to whom he was devoted, and who for many years acted as his very efficient secretary. More than anything, he loved being at home in Cavendish, chopping down trees, bossing their cat, opening favoured bottles, and all the time writing.

Some of his last year was spent carefully reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volumes presented to him by the Pasold Research Fund to mark his years as a Governor of the Fund (1977-93, the last eight as Chairman). "I can enjoy to the full", he wrote, "its remarkable mixture of wit, irony, clarity and a percipience which regularly brings pretentious humbug tumbling to the ground. It is not too difficult to think of some suitable cases for the Gibbonian treatment today".

Negley Harte

Donald Cuthbert Coleman, economic historian: born 21 January 1920; Lecturer in Industrial History, London School of Economics 1951-58, Reader in Economic History 1958-69, Professor of Economic History 1969-71, Honorary Fellow 1984-95; Editor, Economic History Review 1967-72; Professor of Economic History, Cambridge University 1971-81 (Emeritus), Fellow of Pembroke College 1971-95; FBA 1972; married 1954 Ann Child (nee Stevens); died Cambridge 3 September 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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 People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
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'