Hibbert, Arthur Raymond [Christopher]
, was born on 5 March 1924 at the vicarage, Enderby, Leicestershire, the younger son and second of three children of the Revd (Harold) Victor Hibbert (18901972), vicar of Enderby from 1923 to 1951 and canon of Leicester Cathedral from 1947 to 1959, and his wife, (Catherine) Maud, née
Doar (18921984). He was educated at Radley College, and in 1942 went to Oriel College, Oxford, to read history. His education was interrupted, however, when he joined the London Irish Rifles in 1943 where, on his first day in uniform, the sergeant-major saw Hibbert (who looked even younger than his eighteen years) and asked, Who we got here, then? Christopher fucking Robin? The name stuck (private information). He served as an infantry officer with the Eighth Army during the Italian campaign, and was awarded the Military Cross during the attack on the German fortification on the River Senio in the winter of 19445. He was wounded twice while fighting with the partisans in the battle of Lake Comacchio in April 1945. In military hospital, he met another soldier, Terence Alexander, the character actor. They became lifelong friends.
After resuming his studies at Oxford in 1946 Hibbert rubbed shoulders with Kingsley Amis and Kenneth Tynan. He also met Susan Fay Primrose (Sue) Piggford (b
. 1924), an undergraduate at St Anne's College reading English, and daughter of Raynor Hugh Piggford, engineer. So distracted was he in wooing her that he failed Latin (then a compulsory subject) five times, and achieved only a third-class degree in modern history, in 1948. They married at St Peter's Church, Harrogate, soon after he graduated, on 12 August 1948. (Sue took her degree the following year.) They had two sons, James (b
. 1949) and Tom (19522011), and a daughter, Kate (b
After his marriage Hibbert began an unloved career as a land surveyor in a firm of land agents, auctioneers, and surveyors. He wrote in his spare time, and became television critic of Truth
magazine. His wife entirely supported his desire to make a living from writing even though the future, financially, would be insecure. He might have had a career in fiction, but was disappointed when a radio play was rejected by the BBC. He persevered, however, now with non-fiction, and his first book, The Road to Tyburn
(1957), was accepted by Longmans, Green, where John Guest was his editor, and remained so for the majority of his books. In 1959 he was able to give up his job as a land surveyor. His fourth book, The Destruction of Lord Raglan
(1961), won the Heinemann award for literature in 1962. Meanwhile he had acquired a literary agent, the author of The Raj Quartet
, Paul Scott, of David Higham Associates, with which agency Hibbert remained his entire life.
Hibbert went on to write over fifty books. He covered a vast range of subjects: Africa, China, India, America, France, England, and Italy, being able quickly to master fields of which he might hitherto have known very little. He wrote biographies of great English figures (he was particularly proud of his two-volume biography of George IV, published in 19723), a huge social history of England (1987), and, with Ben Weinreb, conceived and edited the monumental Encyclopaedia of London
(1983). Perhaps surprisingly for one whose war experiences were unhappy he was an Italophile and wrote a number of books on Italian history.
Some of Hibbert's best books were the result of detailed archival research on unpublished material, while others were based solely on printed sources. But his greatest gift was for narrative. His main aim was to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to … change historical opinion in any way. You've got to make the reader want to know what's going to happen next (Sunday Times
, 8 July 1990). He was described by J. H. Plumb as a writer of the highest ability, by the New Statesman
as a pearl of biographers, and by the Times Educational Supplement
as perhaps the most gifted popular historian we have. The Sunday Times
wrote, Among the most versatile of living historians, [Hibbert] combines impeccable scholarship with a liveliness of style that lures the reader from page to page, and The Independent
described him as one of England's greatest living historical writers (book jackets). Bruce Hunter, Hibbert's literary agent following Scott, wrote that he
was the most amazingly productive author I ever came across … He always met his deadlines; in fact he was usually early, very rare. He took on more work than I ever thought anyone could handle and always seemed to have leisure for holidays and walks. (private information)
Having written a biography of one of his heroes, Samuel Johnson (1971), Hibbert was elected president of the Johnson Society in 1980. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Geographical Society, and was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University of Leicester in 1996. His manuscripts (he never used a typewriter, let alone a computer) were later deposited at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.
Hibbert was a most amusing and stimulating companion: generous, hospitable, playful, and much loved by his numerous friends. He loved cats and gardening. He was, in his own words, uxorious and philoprogenitive. He enjoyed sixty years of an extraordinarily happy marriage, and was proud of his children. He died of bronchopneumonia at Townlands Hospital, York Road, in Henley-on-Thames, his home since 1954, on 21 December 2008. He was cremated after a humanist ceremony in Oxford on 2 January 2009, and was survived by his wife and their three children.
F. H. W. Sheppard