Obituary: Professor Geoffrey Holmes

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The Independent Online
Geoffrey Shorter Holmes, historian; born Sheffield 17 July 1928; assistant lecturer, lecturer and senior lecturer, Glasgow University 1952-69; Reader in History, Lancaster University 1969-72, Professor of History, 1973-83; (Emeritus); FBA 1983; Vice-President, Royal Historical Society 1985-89; married 1955 Ella Scott (one son, one daughter); died Settle, North Yorkshire 25 November 1993.

ONLY RARELY does a historian publish a book which so transforms a particular period or subject that it can never be the same again. Geoffrey Holmes was such a historian. His seminal work, British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967), was recognised from the moment it was published to be of great importance, not merely for our understanding of the years 1702-14, but more generally of the structure of politics after the Glorious Revolution.

British Politics destroyed the efforts of Professor Robert Walcott and others to take the parties out of politics in Queen Anne's reign. It did so because Holmes's mastery of the sources was such, that historians of the period immediately recognised his arguments to be conclusive. Although it was a scholarly tome, British Politics was also a work of art. Holmes made even the most complex ideological arguments intelligible without being patronising, while the thumbnail portraits of leading politicians were biographical sketches of the highest order. It was a book which ranked alongside Sir Lewis Namier's Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and 26 years later it continues to dominate the literature of the period.

Geoffrey Holmes was educated at Woodhouse Grammar School, Sheffield, and Pembroke College, Oxford, where he graduated BA in 1948. After army service in India, he returned to Oxford in 1950 to do research under David Ogg. He graduated B Litt in 1952. After working briefly in the personnel department of a Sheffield steel works, he joined the History Department at Glasgow University, where he taught for 17 years. In 1969 he moved to the new Lancaster University and he remained there until his early retirement in 1983. He was a visiting fellow of All Souls, Oxford, in 1977-78, and a vice-president of the Royal Historical Society from 1985 to 1989. In 1978 he was awarded the degree of D Litt by Oxford University, and in 1983 was elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy.

During more than 30 years of teaching and writing, Holmes became one of the foremost authorities on the history of Britain, from the reign of Charles II to that of George II. No undergraduate can fully understand the politics of these years without reference to his work. This is particularly true of British Politics - which was republished in 1987, complete with a masterly introduction, where he reviews the debates that he had stirred up 20 years earlier - but it also includes his other books and his numerous scholarly articles. He wrote a book on the professions in Augustan England, a detailed study of the trial of Dr Henry Sacheverell in 1710, The Trial of Dr Sacheverell (1973), and shorter contributions on the electorate, riots, and a particularly effective essay contained within Transactions of the Royal Historical Society for 1977, on the work of the herald-demographer Gregory King.

As a teacher, Holmes was able to communicate his love for the past, to generations of undergraduates. He would pepper their essays - and the embryonic chapters of his research students' theses - with numerous marginalia, beautifully written, usually in pencil. He always found what they were doing interesting, and even over breakfast he could work up a genuine enthusiasm for his own or his students' latest research findings.

On leaving Glasgow in 1969, Holmes moved to Burton in Lonsdale, because although he taught in Lancashire he insisted on returning to his home county to live, and he was annoyed at the boundary changes of 1974. He loved his study at Burton where he could write, surrounded by his magnificent collection of books, and from which he could look out over his carefully tended garden.

His Yorkshire roots were also expressed in his passion for cricket, which he had played in India, and into which he poured almost as much energy as he devoted to history. A patch of the sacred turf of Bramall Lane, in Sheffield, was lovingly moved to Burton after Yorkshire Cricket Club abandoned that particular venue.

He underwent serious surgery in 1982 and 1985. Other books - planned and even researched - fell by the wayside as he struggled with one misfortune after another. He was sustained through all his illnesses by his wife, Ella, who acted as research assistant, editor, translator, indexer, secretary, typist, critic and adviser - his words in the preface to British Politics - and to whom it fell to see through the press his final book, a two-volume study of Britain in 1660-1783 published earlier this year, which completed the 'Foundations of Modern Britain' series he edited for Longman.

Like all his work it is beautifully written, with style and verve, crafted with the knowledge and authority of a scholar at ease with his subject.

Friends, students and colleagues will recall a delightful, warmhearted man, whose empathy with his chosen period, and love for his subject, rubbed off on students and colleagues alike.

(Photograph omitted)