Obituaries: John Carswell

Ruth Gorb
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:12

John Patrick Carswell, historian and civil servant: born London 30 May 1918; Principal Private Secretary to Minister of Pensions and National Insurance 1955-56; Under-Secretary, Office of Lord President of the Council and Minister for Science 1964; Under-Secretary, Department of Education and Science and Ministry of Health 1964-74; Secretary, University Grants Committee 1974-77; Secretary, British Academy 1978-83 (Emeritus); Honorary Research Fellow, Department of History, University College London 1983- 97; FRSL 1984; married 1944 Ianthe Elstob (two daughters); died London 12 November 1997.

John Carswell was one of that dying breed, a man of letters. His scholarship was prodigious, his writing elegant, his life devoted to learning and literature.

His passion for education ranged from his work in the 1960s in the Department of Education and Science, when he was deeply involved in the expansion of new universities, to his reading of the classics at the family dinner table - no visiting child was exempted, but was given a quick resume to date of the Dickens, Conan Doyle or Mark Twain in progress, before being plunged into the next instalment.

The son of the barrister and writer Donald Carswell, and the writer Catherine Carswell, he was born in Holly Bush House, in Hampstead, north London, next door to the historic Holly Bush pub. It was the heyday of "literary Hampstead" and young John grew up at the heart of it, with D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, Ivy and Maxim Litvinoff frequent visitors to the Carswell home. Catherine Carswell's close friendship with D.H. Lawrence was pivotal to both their lives and they exchanged hundreds of letters - letters which she, after Lawrence's death, sold for pounds 400 to pay for her son's schooling.

He went to Merchant Taylors' School, then St John's College, Oxford, and from 1940 to 1946 served in the army in India. Ianthe Elstob, who had been Carswell's Hampstead childhood sweetheart, was working there for the Ministry of Information and in September 1944 they were married in Old Delhi. They returned in 1946 to live for a while with his mother in Camden Town - after her husband's death, chronically short of money, Catherine Carswell had been living in a windowless boiler-room, stoking the boiler in return for lodging, and the flat where the young Carswells started their married life was hardly more salubrious.

In 1946, Carswell entered the Civil Service, and worked in the new Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, playing an active part in the launching of the Beveridge Report and consistently concerned with providing a better deal for the aged. In the 1960s his efforts were concentrated on the Department of Education and Science, and in the 1970s he was secretary of the University Grants Committee: university financing was a subject he cared about deeply, and his book Government and the Universities in Britain - Programme and Performance 1960-1980 was published in 1985.

When he retired from the Civil Service in 1978 Carswell was appointed Secretary of the British Academy and held the post for five years, travelling all over the world on the academy's behalf. It was during the time that Isaiah Berlin was president and the two men were close friends, lunching together regularly until very recently when both suffered declining health.

Throughout his career Carswell distinguished himself as a writer and historian. His book The South Sea Bubble, published in 1960, was said by A.L. Rowse to be the best on the subject; The Descent on England (1969) was praised by Hugh Trevor-Roper for its scholarship and political understanding; and From Revolution to Revolution (1973) was described by the Times Literaary Supplement as a "tour de force". His life of Algernon Sidney, The Porcupine, was published in 1989, a memoir of Ivy Litvinoff in 1983, and in 1992 he published The Saving of Kenwood, the result of years of research into the preservation of one of Britain's most famous open spaces - a subject dear to his Hampstead heart. He was a prolific reviewer for the TLS, and his brilliant insider's review of the television programme Yes, Minister, when it was at the height of its success in the 1980s, will go down in the journal's history.

Carswell had a gift for friendship, many of his friends dating back to school or Oxford days. With one fellow undergraduate, now professor of philosophy at Oxford, Sir Peter Strawson, he had two permanent annual fixtures: one was a walking and talking holiday, the other a battle with lead toy soldiers played at the Carswells' cottage in Berkshire - a game that took two full days each year to complete and had rules so complex that only two giant intellects could have invented or understood it.

John Carswell was a great traveller and an inspirational guide to his family, even if his insistence on clinging to out-of-date guidebooks could lead to trouble: on one famous occasion an 1890 edition Baedeker resulted in the family checking into what had been a hotel, but was now a residential home for the infirm. Wherever he travelled, he was always glad to get home to Hampstead, and it was here that his energies were focused in the last decade of his life: he fought almost single-handed the battle to save Branch Hill, 12 acres of land abutting Hampstead Heath, from development. His victory was a triumph, the climax of a lifelong love of the place where he was born. He was chairman for two years of the Heath and Old Hampstead Society, one of the oldest preservation societies in the country, and became its vice-president.

His battle against philistinism was tempered by an impish wit and courtly good manners. Slightly pedantic in style, with a gentle charm, he nevertheless pursued what he saw as good causes with terrier-like tenacity. Earlier this year, he edited and had published a new edition of Lying Awake, the unfinished autobiography of his mother, which had first been published in 1950. He had done everything he wanted to do, and during the last months of his life he talked to everyone who had been important to him. He left his house in order.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments