Obituary: Raphael Samuel

Gareth Stedman Jones
Wednesday 11 December 1996 01:02 GMT

Raphael Samuel brought to the writing and popularisation of history a seemingly inexhaustible energy and creativity. He was also an inspired teacher and the author of books and essays which have expanded beyond recognition the intellectual and imaginative ranges both of English history and of the writing of history itself.

But he was not only a teacher and a writer; he was also an organiser and a prophet, a close, sometimes uncanny reader of "the signs of the times". He preached and practised a new vision of a popular history: a democratic history which put the everyday lives of ordinary people at the heart of a large and even sweeping history of the nations of Britain over the last two centuries.

Samuel gave new meaning to the idea of history as an experimental art, inventing the History Workshop (a term he borrowed from one of his heroines, Joan Littlewood, founder of Theatre Workshop) first as a local and then as an international movement. The extent of his empathy was exceptional. No one charted more exactly the ways in which the Industrial Revolution had increased the extent of toil in every branch of Victorian industry, but no one could have acknowledged more generously the contribution of Tory antiquaries in Early Hanoverian England to the writing of a national history. His cast of historical actors ranged from the Catholic priests ministering among the post-famine Irish poor, the proletarian Gladstonian roughs of Headington Quarry through South Wales village Bolsheviks in the 1920s, to the mobsters of the Edwardian East End underworld.

His insights were the product of an omnivorous intellectual appetite which crossed disciplines and periods: Samuel wrote with the insights of a literary critic, the acuity of an anthropologist and the wit of a political journalist. Up until his last hours he remained passionately engaged with the future of history, both of his own many projects and those of the many friends and admirers whom he had helped to inspire.

Raphael Samuel was brought up in a London household which was Jewish and Communist. His political education and his love for history were nurtured by progressive schooling at King Alfred's School, Hampstead, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he became a devoted student, and later friend, of Christopher Hill. In 1956 he left the Communist Party which had done so much to shape his youthful years and was one of the founder editors, together with Stuart Hall and Charles Taylor, of what was soon to become New Left Review. He settled in Spitalfields in east London in an early- 18th-century house which contrived to have been inhabited by Jews, Jacobins and silk-weavers. This was to become his own workshop and later on the home which he made with his wife, the writer and critic Alison Light.

In 1962 Samuel was appointed Tutor in Sociology at Ruskin College, Oxford, a trade-union supported institution which prepared for university working people who had left school without qualifications. Upon this post he stamped his genius. He was a brilliant, if eccentric, teacher. Rather than submitting his students to the textbook learning of vocational courses, Samuel believed that every person had a history/story of importance to tell, and one which they could be empowered to write, thus becoming the historians of their own past. As one student wrote: "I came to Ruskin knowing I could not write an essay, and left Ruskin sure that I could write a book." To those who took up this challenge Samuel was a source of, sometimes obstinate, always uplifting, faith in themselves. He led people on journeys of creative self-discovery by blowing away the walls which separated working people from literary culture.

From Ruskin, beginning in 1966, Samuel also launched a series of national workshops on topics which were then unheard of as the stuff of history and are now the sine qua non of every history course: women's history, the history of childhood, empire and patriotism, the changing definition of nations, the cultural diversity of Britain. Participation in these workshops in the 1970s and 1980s sometimes encompassed thousands. These gatherings had not only a political aim - the exploration of difficult areas of national life - but also a radical pedagogic purpose. Established professors and well-known intellectuals shared platforms with Ruskin students, offering the first fruit of their research.

Samuel did not call for the dismantling of conventional academic hierarchies, he simply dismantled them. Many of the contributors - professional historians and students - became the first writers for the History Workshop Journal which he co-founded in 1975 and is now a leading international historical review. Here, a group of radical historians formed an extended family which soon stretched to all continents, but which had at its centre Samuel's tireless inspiration and continuous intellectual growth.

In the 1980s, when so many intellectuals of the Left retreated from the public sphere or fell silent, Samuel was intrigued rather than repelled by Thatcherite Britain. Thatcherism expressed and mobilised some deep- rooted popular yearnings which Samuel was determined to understand. He was not afraid to share some of the enthusiasms in popular culture which others spurned. The new leisure-time pursuits of the 1980s fascinated him as much as Staffordshire figurines and Victorian music-hall.

This engagement with the continuous remaking of a people's past, through the barely remarked and kaleidoscopic shifts in popular sources of enthusiasm and identification, began to be put together in his magnum opus, Theatres of Memory, the first volume of which appeared in 1994. Samuel was a powerful, idiosyncratic thinker. But in his own inimitable way, he long anticipated an understanding of culture which is now global.

Even in his last year, Raphael Samuel was engaged in new projects. He became professor at the University of East London and began to form a centre of London history.

Raphael Elkan Samuel, historian: born London 26 December 1934; married 1987 Alison Light; died London 9 December 1996.

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