OBITUARY: Professor D. C. Coleman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.