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Burrow, John Wyon (1935–2009), intellectual historian and historiographer, was born on 4 June 1935 at 28 Victoria Road North, Southsea, Hampshire, the only child of Charles Wyon Burrow (1908–2003), insurance company inspector, later a salesman for a cereals manufacturer, and his wife, Amy Alice, née Vosper (1909–2003). At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 11 Penrhyn Avenue, Cosham. Since his childhood and youth were spent on one side or the other of the Plymouth Sound he had every right to regard himself as a west of England man, an identity not diluted by later and longer residence in East Anglia and Sussex. After attending a preparatory school paid for by his paternal grandfather he became a day boy at Exeter School, then a scholar at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he read history and where J. H. (Jack) Plumb was his director of studies. Plumb influenced Burrow more as academic patron than as historian. In their different ways Duncan Forbes and Peter Laslett provided the attractive models, especially when Burrow was awarded a research fellowship in 1959, having obtained firsts in both parts of the tripos two years earlier.

After casting around for a theme in nineteenth-century political history Burrow hit upon what became his joint métier as intellectual historian and Victorianist by writing a thesis that developed into a brilliant argumentative book, Evolution and Society: a Study in Victorian Social Theory (1966). Reading Darwin's Origin of Species may have set him off (he later wrote an excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of this work), but Darwin and social Darwinists barely had walk-on parts in this book, which was more concerned with the pervasive attractions of all kinds of evolutionary thinking—philological, geological, and anthropological, as much as biological—to Victorian social theorists. The book stood out from standard works on the history of the social sciences by virtue of its refusal to endorse the present-minded priorities of whiggish histories of the modern disciplines. So much did rejection of teleological criteria of meaning and significance become a hallmark of Burrow's later work that he occasionally worried lest he had allowed himself to be too influenced by Talcott Parson's prescriptive views on social theory in his first book.

Burrow met his future wife, Margaret Diana (Diane) Dunnington (b. 1933), when they were both undergraduates; they married at St Lawrence's Roman Catholic Church, Cambridge, on 11 October 1958 and their first child, Laurence, was born in 1961, the year Burrow obtained his doctorate. A fixed-term teaching fellowship at Downing College in 1962 enabled him to prolong his stay in Cambridge until 1965. His teaching mainly centred on the history of political thought. One of the students he supervised was Quentin Skinner, who became a lifelong friend. Intellectual history at Cambridge then existed on the fringes of what were thought to be more mainstream branches of history. Burrow's applications for permanent posts at Cambridge were unsuccessful—setbacks which remained active memories long after he enjoyed a successful academic career elsewhere.

Burrow's first permanent appointment was to a lectureship in the school of European studies at the new University of East Anglia, where he remained until 1969, the year his second child, Francesca, was born. He demonstrated his European credentials by translating Wilhelm von Humboldt's Limits of State Action (1969) but was not happy with the teaching restrictions that came with his European affiliation at East Anglia and so was open to the offer of a post at the University of Sussex by Donald Winch, dean of the school of social sciences, initially to teach a compulsory final-year ‘contextual’ course on the history and philosophy of the social sciences. As Sussex grew so did demand for this and other courses involving intellectual history, making it possible to justify another permanent appointment, which went to Stefan Collini in 1974. Collini, Winch, and Burrow collaborated on That Noble Science of Politics: a Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History (1983), the opening chapter of which contained the anti-whig manifesto that became a distinctive feature of the Sussex approach.

Sussex was the first British university to create an undergraduate degree in intellectual history, and Burrow was promoted to be the first occupant of the Sussex chair in the subject in 1982, a year after the publication of what was perhaps his most learned and richly stylish book, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981). Historiography for Burrow was not an excuse for rehearsing over-arching philosophies of history: it was neither more nor less than an inquiry into ‘what one age finds of interest in another’, and it could be pursued by the deceptively simple process of ‘eavesdropping on a conversation in the past’ (The Languages of the Past, 19). In Burrow's hands the narrative histories of England by Macaulay, Stubbs, Freeman, and Froude yielded deep insight into Victorian society and culture. Macaulay, that ‘most Augustan of the great Victorians’ (A Liberal Descent, 59), had a special affinity for him, though it was a true Augustan, Edward Gibbon, for whom he had an enduring admiration that was first expressed in a short study published in 1985.

Burrow enjoyed the ‘absence of disciplinary tribalism’ and the freedom to innovate that characterized Sussex in the 1960s and 1970s (A Liberal Descent, x). This became less true during the 1980s when cuts in funding led to intellectual history being stripped of its autonomy and incorporated within a history department that was more often concerned to reallocate its posts than preserve the original enterprise. At a time when he was gaining national and international recognition in the form of election to the fellowship of the British Academy (1986), an honorary doctorate from Bologna (1988), and invitations to lecture around the world, the university in which he had made his reputation was becoming less congenial. A solution to this problem came in 1995 when he was offered a new chair of European thought at Oxford, with a fellowship of Balliol College. He had given the Carlyle lectures there ten years earlier, later published as Whigs and Liberals: Continuity and Change in English Political Thought (1988), and spent a period as visiting fellow at All Souls. The public furore surrounding the financing of the chair (it was funded by Gert-Rudolf Flick, whose family fortune had resulted in part from the use of slave labour under the Nazis) led to withdrawal of the original support, and it was only through other private funds that Burrow was able to remain in post until his retirement in 2000.

In the last decade of his life Burrow published two substantial books aimed at a non-specialist readership, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848–1914 (2000), which made good use of his recent years of teaching European themes, and A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (2007), his most ambitious work, in coverage at least. This latter book brought to bear on the whole range of historical writings an experienced pen and a mind on top of its form, clearly enjoying the licence to roam beyond the authors and periods in which he had made his reputation. The critical and commercial success of this work gave him a larger audience and well-deserved satisfaction. His last work was a personal memoir, Memories Migrating (2009), originally written to provide a portrait of the Burrow family for his two grandsons, but bravely and wittily brought up to date after he had received the diagnosis of the facial cancer from which he died at his home in Bridge Street, Witney, Oxfordshire, on 3 November 2009.

Donald Winch

Sources  

J. Burrow, The languages of the past and the language of the historian: the history of ideas in theory and practice: the John Coffin Memorial Lecture delivered before the University of London on Thursday 12 February 1987 (1987) · J. Burrow, Memories migrating (privately printed, 2009) · The Guardian (18 Nov 2009) · The Times (2 Dec 2009); (14 Dec 2009) · Daily Telegraph (28 Dec 2009) · The Independent (22 Jan 2010) · www.sussex.ac.uk/cih/people/burrow, accessed on 13 July 2012 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) [S. Collini] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

University of Sussex Library, Brighton, special collections, misc. papers


Likenesses  

obituary photographs