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  (Philip) Nicholas Seton Mansergh (1910–1991), by Elliott & Fry, 1950 (Philip) Nicholas Seton Mansergh (1910–1991), by Elliott & Fry, 1950
Mansergh, (Philip) Nicholas Seton (1910–1991), historian, was born into a middle-ranking Anglo-Irish gentry family on 27 June 1910 at Grenane House, Tipperary, Ireland. He was the second son of Philip St George Mansergh (1863–1928), railway engineer, and his cousin Ethel Marguerite Otway Louise Mansergh (1876–1963). Educated at the Abbey School, Tipperary, and St Columba's College, Dublin (1923–9), he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1929, where he read modern history under R. B. McCallum. Despite a disappointing failure to get a first, he began postgraduate research under W. G. S. Adams, the Gladstone professor of political theory and institutions, who shared his particular interest in Ireland. Mansergh's work for the BLitt (1933) and DPhil (1936) was published in a pair of pioneering ‘political science’ books: The Irish Free State: its Government and Politics (1934) and The Government of Northern Ireland: a Study in Devolution (1936). In 1937 he was appointed tutor (but not fellow) in politics at Pembroke, a post which enabled him to produce a major work entitled Ireland in the Age of Reform and Revolution (1940, later reissued and expanded as The Irish Question, 1840–1921). At the same time he was secretary to the Oxford University politics research group under Sir Arthur Salter, which proved to be a useful experience.

Meanwhile Mansergh was looking for a mixed-doubles partner in tennis, a game at which he excelled. The search resulted in marriage to Diana Mary Keeton (an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, daughter of the headmaster of Reading School) on 12 December 1939. Their long and happy partnership produced five children (three sons and two daughters), while Diana also acted as his devoted research assistant until his death, and beyond.

During the Second World War, Mansergh became the Irish expert and director of the empire division of the Ministry of Information (leading to his appointment as OBE), and then an assistant secretary at the Dominions Office (1946–7). Despite his natural gifts as a civil servant, he returned to academic life in 1947 as a research professor at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. In 1953 he moved to Cambridge as the first Smuts professor of the history of the British Commonwealth.

Nicholas Mansergh was a striking figure, lean and tall, 6 feet 3 inches and inclined to stoop, until spinal osteoarthritis developed in old age. With a huge head and heavy spectacles, he was the very model of a professorial archetype. He had a prominent mole on his left cheek and outsize fingernails. He had a ready smile, which regularly punctuated even the driest of his lecture material, and which reinforced the general impression of an unfailing good humour and kindliness, a man who enjoyed life. He was slow and deliberate of utterance, curiously adding an ‘a’ or ‘ah’ sound after dental consonants in a way which was all too easily (if affectionately) imitated. His speech was not always easy to follow, either, as he tended to talk in hushed tones about anything remotely important, and to drop the ends of his sentences. And what he had to say was invariably cautious and guarded. All the more astonishing, then, that at fellows' lunch in St John's during the Suez crisis of 1956, he should cut short mystified attempts to justify government policy, with the loud, imperious observation, ‘I shall never vote conservative again-ah’.

But in general there was a diffidence in discussion, a reticence in answering questions, a reluctance to commit himself in public either to an opinion or a decision, which contrasted sharply with the fluency, confidence, sense of direction, and even stylistic adventurousness which pervaded his prolific written output. Between 1952 and 1983 (essentially to 1974), he published a two-volume Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs covering the years 1931 to 1952, three volumes of supporting Documents and Speeches, four books on Commonwealth history (including a keenly felt study of British South African policy), three revised new editions of earlier books, two major lecture-booklets, some three dozen articles, and, as editor-in-chief, the twelve magnificent and highly acclaimed volumes of documents, Transfer of Power in India, 1942–7 (TOPI), which appeared from 1970 at the rate of one a year. In many ways the centrepiece of his œuvre was The Commonwealth Experience (1969; new edn, 1982), covering the years from 1839 to the present; more than one of its chapters were masterly examples of the art of writing history. In retirement he completed The Unresolved Question: the Anglo-Irish Settlement and its Undoing, 1912–72 (published posthumously, 1991), an unrivalled and humane analysis of contemporary problems in his beloved Ireland, the first major synthesis of Anglo-Irish relations in the wider Commonwealth context, which he understood better than anyone. If in his writing about Commonwealth history, Mansergh retained what was often described as an Olympian detachment, in Irish history this was much harder. As a boy of eight in co. Tipperary he had heard the shots which killed two policemen at Soloheadbeg on 29 January 1919 and which heralded the opening of the War of Independence; for him, the events of Irish history were experienced as ‘near realities, not as distant phenomena or as issues in high politics’ (The Unresolved Question, 3).

As a Cambridge professor (1953–70) Mansergh was notably—and successfully—concerned to raise the profile of the study of both Irish and Commonwealth history; he travelled widely (frequently to Canada and New Delhi, but also to Canberra, Duke, and Cape Town); he cared deeply about his pupils and knew exactly how to help and encourage them. As master of St John's College (1969–79)—to which office he was elected after fourteen years as a fellow—he was well regarded as a patient and courteous ‘safe pair of hands’; he was dignified but never pompous, hospitable rather than managerial. At meetings he was perhaps overscrupulous in making sure all views were fully expressed, except his own; it is not the way to guarantee the swift dispatch of business and his chairmanship had its critics. As a contemporary historian his achievements were impressive and influential. The TOPI documents should ensure the name of Mansergh an enduring place in learned references. He contributed uniquely to the understanding of what an apparently nebulous Commonwealth actually was, and The Commonwealth Experience is widely recognized as the finest book on the subject, exemplifying that ‘detachment with sympathetic insight’ which he always aimed at. His contributions to modern Irish history place him among its most accomplished and fair-minded practitioners too.

He obtained an Oxford DLitt in 1960 and a fellowship of the British Academy in 1973. He was an honorary fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford (1954), and Trinity College, Dublin (1971). He was presented with a Festschrift in 1980 (The First British Commonwealth: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Mansergh, ed. N. Hillmer and P. Wigley).

As he grew older, Mansergh neatly substituted ‘lawn mowing’ for ‘lawn tennis’ as his hobby in Who's Who. He died at Brookfields Hospital, Cambridge, on 16 January 1991, from pneumonia which set in at the end of a prolonged period of ill health precipitated by a fall on an escalator of the London underground. He was buried on 26 January in the new cemetery, Cashel Road, in his native Tipperary, at a Church of Ireland funeral attended by representatives of all Ireland and many walks of life. The taoiseach, Charles Haughey, read the lesson, a symbolic signal that Mansergh will be remembered as a scholar who tried to bring reconciliation to Ireland.

R. Hyam


D. W. Harkness, ‘Philip Nicholas Seton Mansergh, 1910–1991’, PBA, 82 (1993), 415–30 · F. H. H. [F. H. Hinsley], ‘Professor Nicholas Mansergh’, The Eagle (1991), 35–9 · W. K. Hancock, ‘Nicholas Mansergh: some recollections and reflections’, The first British commonwealth: essays in honour of Nicholas Mansergh, ed. N. Hillmer and P. Wigley (1980), 3–9 · The Times (18 Jan 1991) · The Independent (18 Jan 1991) · Irish Times (25 Jan 1991) · The Guardian (31 Jan 1991) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [Diana Mansergh]


Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1950, NPG [see illus.] · W. Narraway, oils, 1973, St John Cam.

Wealth at death  

£418,058: probate, 24 July 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales