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Beales, Hugh Lancelot (1889–1988), economist and social historian, born at Sedbergh, Yorkshire, on 18 February 1889, was the son of William Beales, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, and his wife, Zaida Mary Ann Elizabeth Scantlebury Green. He grew up in a radical political household. He was sent to the Kingswood School, Bath, a Methodist school, and won a scholarship to Manchester University, where he read medieval history under T. F. Tout. He served in the ranks throughout the First World War, refusing any promotion. Like many others, he would not speak of his wartime experiences either to friends or family; but they seemed to give him a lasting sympathy with ‘the common soldier’, ‘the underdog’, ‘the common man’—oft-repeated phrases. From army days onwards he was universally known as Lance Beales.

In 1919 Beales became a lecturer in economic history at Sheffield University, with duties that included extramural teaching—which remained a lifelong commitment. A strong supporter of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), he always believed that mature working people were far better able to understand the social effects of industrialization than were the young straight-from-schools. In 1922 he married Gladys Prydderch (1895–1982), with whom he had two sons and a daughter. He was called to the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1926, and became reader in economic history in 1931; but he maintained a northerner's perspective of ‘north–south’ as well as ‘the two nations’ all his life. Three or four important scholarly articles in the Economic History Review followed, but that was all at that level. But in 1929 came his The Industrial Revolution, a short account written for WEA classes which became almost a bible for the whole adult education movement, and was still in circulation in the 1950s. Some of the Labour Party and trade union leaders emerging from such classes said that it had an influence as great as R. H. Tawney's Equality and his Acquisitive Society.

The great book on the social preconditions and consequences of the British industrial revolution, long expected, ever promised, from his encyclopaedic knowledge of nineteenth-century economic and social history, never came; but Beales had an extraordinary impact as a lecturer, teacher, and talker. His memory was, like that of Webb, Laski, and Kingsley Martin, almost photographic. So he would lecture without notes, thinking out loud fiercely with his hand on a pile of ‘old books’ taken (sometimes at random, it seemed) from his vast private collection that seemed to hold up a rambling mid-Victorian house in Finchley. His intellectual strength was to see unexpected connections, but, as he thought as he talked, he would often move back and forth through time and space, and appear to end on a quite different subject matter in a different century from that on which he had begun. To the best students, this was an everlasting stimulus; but to the average student, the pyrotechnic display of historical free association could appear a perplexing muddle. None the less, when the LSE was evacuated to Cambridge in wartime, his lectures drew many auditors from quite different faculties. He and his wife (known as Taff to all) kept open house to LSE students in the evening, but others came too for limited cocoa and biscuits and endless argument.

What was good in lecturing and discussion, however, was fatal in writing. Beales suffered a social historian's version of Acton's disease: knowing so much, it was difficult to construct a narrative when one thing always reminded him of another. A whiff of Marxism, which he scorned, might have helped; he was untheoretical but not simply an empiricist, because he was forever reminding his listeners of the different perspectives and different interpretations that past writers, whether pamphleteers, factory inspectors, or academics, had put on the same events. However, during the thirty years he taught at LSE it is known that he supervised over 300 PhDs, and when his friend and disciple Oliver McGregor helped in his promotion for an honorary degree at Sheffield in 1971, he counted 160 scholarly works that were either dedicated to Beales or gave him the main thanks.

Beales's commitment to adult education made him an early broadcaster from Savoy Hill and he wrote a notable series of articles in the 1930s in the Political Quarterly about the policies of the BBC. He shared Reith's educational mission, but had a very different idea of education, which was social, even socialist. He knew Allen Lane and with Krisnan Menon and Tom Williams appeared as joint editor of the early Pelican non-fiction titles. Most of the imagination and input in choosing authors and titles was his. He saw cheap books, drawing on the precedent of Brougham's Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge of the 1830s and 1840s, as the great instrument of social betterment. Apart from some aspects of LSE, he had a hostile view of the neglect by the universities of popular education.

In 1949 Beales was passed over for the chair at LSE when Tawney retired. One reason could obviously have been his lack of that one major publication, but he had also strained the Christian tolerance of Tawney to the point of anger by his militant and sarcastically provocative atheism, and had angered Lionel Robbins too with his contempt for classical theoretical economics—only historical explanations of the economy mattered. When the chair next became vacant, it was only a year before compulsory retirement and again, more understandably, he was passed over. Personal chairs were then rare. He left in bitterness. He refused to set foot in LSE again until a great party for his eightieth birthday arranged by former students. But in the meantime he had conducted a come-all-ye seminar each week across the road in a room in the White Horse on Saturday mornings, only later moving on to the slightly more formal auspices of the university's extramural department in Senate House.

However, Columbia, Harvard, and Washington, Seattle, all honoured Beales with visiting professorships. His mental powers held until a year or two before his end. He would say that ‘you can all dance on my grave if I don't finish the book before I go’. Many said they would, so perhaps fortunately he chose cremation. Sadly in his last years he developed an irrational fear of dying in poverty, like so many of his nineteenth-century working-class leaders or writers. So he sold secretively and in small lots his library, dispersing probably the biggest private collection ever gathered of nineteenth-century social history. After his wife's death in 1982, Elizabeth Monkhouse, an extramural lecturer, lived with him and cared for him. He died in his hundredth year, at his home, 16 Denman Drive, Hampstead, London, on 19 April 1988.

Bernard Crick


LSE Magazine, 76 (Nov 1988) · The Times (22 April 1988) · The Independent (23 April 1988) · The Guardian (26 April 1988) · b. cert. · WWW · personal knowledge (2004)


BLPES, letters relating to academic committees and appointments

Wealth at death  

£167,266: probate, 22 Aug 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales