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  Raphael Elkan Samuel (1934–1996), by Stefan Wallgren, early 1990s Raphael Elkan Samuel (1934–1996), by Stefan Wallgren, early 1990s
Samuel, Raphael Elkan (1934–1996), historian, was born on 26 December 1934 in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, London, the son of Barnett Samuel (1906–1971), a solicitor, and Minna Nerenstein, later Keal (1909–1999) [see ], a composer. Raphael was the only child of Jewish parents who separated when he was six and later divorced. He was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb and subsequently around Parliament Hill by his mother; she taught the piano and was also a partner in the family business Shapiro Valentine, a bookshop specializing in Hebraica. She became a communist activist and much of Samuel's childhood was spent with his aunt and uncle Miriam and Chimen Abramsky, who provided a second home.

Samuel's particular combination of political activism and passionate interest in history was first nurtured by his uncle Chimen Abramsky, a renowned Judaic scholar, book collector, and historian of socialism. In 1939 Raphael and his school were evacuated to Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire, while his mother became an aircraft factory worker in Slough, where she met her second husband, Bill Keal. Between 1945 and 1952 Samuel attended the progressive King Alfred's School in Hampstead and from there, inspired by his history teacher John Handford, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. Between 1952 and 1956 (with a year off for medical reasons) he read history under another political mentor and lifelong friend, the seventeenth-century historian Christopher Hill.

Even as a dedicated communist at the height of the cold war, Samuel (then known as Ralph) made a considerable impact on a broad range of his Oxford contemporaries, both intellectually and practically. Practically, he revived the moribund socialist society as a novel forum for discussion between socialists and communists, and a seedbed of the future new left. Intellectually, he arrived in Oxford already well versed in Marxist historical debate through his schoolboy membership of the Communist Party historians' group (which included Hobsbawm, Thompson, Hill, Hilton, and others). He himself drew no distinction between his political and historical work. It was allegedly on party orders that he devoted his final year exclusively to academic work and gained a first-class degree. This total dedication to communism was shattered in 1956 by Khrushchov's revelations about Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Samuel left the Communist Party, and—together with his Oxford contemporaries Stuart Hall, Charles Taylor, and Gabriel Pearson—founded the Universities and Left Review, one of the starting points of the new left movement in Britain and a forerunner, together with Edward Thompson's New Reasoner, of the New Left Review, founded in 1960.

Although briefly an editor of New Left Review, Samuel's dissociation from communism provoked in him a crisis of confidence, which lasted well into the 1960s. After Oxford he joined Michael Young's Institute of Community Studies to study youth and housing in Bethnal Green. Attachment to the institute also led him to share a house at 19 Elder Street, Spitalfields—once a Huguenot and weaving quarter in the oldest part of the East End on the edge of the City—which he later bought and made his permanent home. In the early 1960s, however, a near breakdown led him to seek refuge and even consider settling in Ireland. A gradual re-engagement with Britain was prompted by Christopher Hill, who in 1962 secured for him a part-time tutorship in sociology at Ruskin College, a trade-union-supported Oxford college which prepared working people who had left school without qualifications for university. He continued to work at Ruskin until the last year of his life, when he became professor at the University of East London and the director of a centre for London history.

In 1966 Samuel put on the first of the annual ‘history workshops’ at Ruskin. Not content with the existing diploma course, he encouraged students to pursue historical research projects which built on their own experiences, and to present their findings alongside established academics at the yearly workshops. These workshops also signalled a renewal of political engagement sparked, in particular, by his alarm about the condition of Britain around the time of Enoch Powell's ‘rivers of blood’ speech. The workshops lasted until the 1980s and regularly attracted over 1000 participants, mainly students and teachers from Britain and abroad and a wide spectrum of unaffiliated 1960s-style radicals. It was at the workshop of 1969 that the National Women's Liberation Conference was first proposed. Samuel published the best of these Ruskin research essays in a series of history workshop booklets.

In 1976, together with a number of new left, Oxford, and Ruskin friends, Samuel founded the History Workshop Journal, and he remained one of its most active editors until his death. His impact was clearly to be detected in the journal's initial sources of inspiration: the experimentalism of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, the commitment to accessibility pioneered in adult education, echoes of a popular front politics uneasily combined with more anarchist notions of history from below.

From this time Samuel also began to publish more of his own work. After his early sociological work in Bethnal Green, Samuel's interests switched to Ireland. It was archival work on the famine and the nineteenth-century Irish poor which rekindled his passion for history. But he published nothing until the early 1970s, when collaborative work with his students and a growing interest in oral history resulted in a study of quarry labourers in Headington, Village Life and Labour (1975), and a pioneering investigation of manual work in Victorian England, ‘The workshop of the world’ (History Workshop Journal, 3, 1977). Six years of interviews also resulted in an extraordinary autobiographical account by Arthur Harding of the East London Edwardian and inter-war criminal underworld, starting out from childhood in Arthur Morrison's notorious ‘Jago’ in Shoreditch, published as East End Underworld (1981).

In the 1980s political change produced a substantial shift in the direction of Samuel's writing. Mrs Thatcher's defeat of organized labour and her mobilization of patriotic support for the Falklands War, the demise of Marxism, the growth of feminist and post-colonial criticism, and the linguistic turn strongly affected both Samuel and the History Workshop Journal. Most important for him was the fading of a politics of class. In a book-length essay for the New Left Review he put his own communist childhood and beliefs into a historical perspective, in ‘The lost worlds of British communism’ (1985–7). He also attempted to set the split between Labour and the SDP in a longer-term social-historical context, initially ascribing the disintegration of pre-1950 class identities to the emergence of a new consumerist middle class. By the end of the 1980s, however, he had become convinced that this political shift was only one component of a larger set of social and cultural changes involving all groups in the population.

Samuel tried to grasp this process through an examination of changing attitudes towards the past. He actively participated in the political debate about the place of history in the national curriculum, but always stressed that historical awareness was as much a product of ‘unofficial’ knowledge (myth, ritual, childood memory, fiction, fantasy) as of formal schooling. In his contributions to the three volumes he edited on Patriotism in 1989 he noted that in the preceding thirty years there had grown up an ‘extraordinary and ever-growing popular enthusiasm for the recovery of the national past’. He defended this development as a phenomenon which drew as much on radical as on conservative or nationalist roots. By 1994, in his last book, Theatres of Memory, intended as the first volume of a trilogy, this interest had been elaborated into a major research study of ‘memory work’ and the changing role of history in late twentieth-century Britain. He argued against detractors, especially on the left, that the expanding historical culture from ‘theme parks’ and ‘living museums’ to ‘heritage’ and ‘retro-chic’ was not only more democratic but also more inclusive of minorities of all kinds. Shortly after the publication of Theatres of Memory Samuel developed cancer of the lung, from which he died at his home at 19 Elder Street, Spitalfields, on 9 December 1996. He was buried in Highgate cemetery on 18 December. A second volume of the trilogy, Island Stories, was published posthumously in 1998.

In his personal life, Raphael Samuel actively sustained a wide range of friendships dating from different periods in his life: from his early Oxford days, Stuart Hall, Dennis Butt, and Peter Sedgwick; from his Ruskin years, Tim Mason, Gareth Stedman Jones, Alun Howkins, Sally Alexander, Sheila Rowbotham, Jerry White, Barbara Taylor. His adult life was also punctuated by a series of important and intellectually creative relationships with women, including Jean McCrindle, Lydia Howard, Hannah Mitchell, and Miranda Chaytor. Particularly important were the years 1970–76, during which he lived in Elder Street with Anna Davin and her children. On 3 July 1987 he married university lecturer Alison Elizabeth Light (b. 1955). It was a close and happy relationship, reinforced by shared passions and commitments, and it was an enormous source of strength throughout his last illness.

No account of Samuel's writings or of his publishing and political activity could convey the extraordinary impact he made on all who met him or saw him speak. His physical appearance was in itself arresting. It conveyed intensity, energy, singularity of purpose, and drivenness, but lightened by considerable charm, an infectious sense of humour, and a never diminished boyish enthusiasm. He was slightly built, with a thin angular face, a sallow complexion, burning black eyes, and a mop of black hair which in middle age was sustained by the substitution of a long side-lock swept precariously across the crown of his head to conceal a bald pate. His dress, like his appearance, was singular, indefinably French, bohemian—even slightly dandyish—but harking back several decades, like a denizen of a left-bank café in a film from the 1940s or 1950s.

In his youth a memorable political orator (who reputedly even addressed workers in languages other than his own), Samuel brought an equally theatrical talent to the delivery of academic papers. He never wrote out lectures, but instead brought thick files bulging with clippings, dog-eared photocopies, and pasted pieces of paper, each containing a few lines of typescript. Characteristically in his talks a few propositions were thickly elaborated with a mosaic of connected quotations, retrieved with a touch of suspenseful uncertainty from the bulging files and accompanied by a frequent sweeping back of the thinning mop of hair. The effect at its best was electrifying. Few who attended ever forgot the ‘paper’ he delivered to the Oxford Stubbs Society on the Irish famine: an eloquent, fiercely indignant, and witheringly contemptuous yet scholarly denunciation of whig attitudes. At their most powerful, these rhetorical powers introduced a passion into historical debate matched only by Edward Thompson.

As in all memorable theatrical performance, power of delivery was inseparable from risk. A precise sense of time and timing was essential, if audience and speaker were to share the suspense of locating the right quotation from the jumble of manuscripts—a suspense which could easily turn into impatience or exasperation if the hunt went on too long. This happened spectacularly in Oxford on the occasion of a special Ford lecture which Samuel delivered on ‘The conservative view of history’ in 1994. There, nervous and perhaps exhilarated by being honoured by Oxford, for which he felt long-standing affection, he spent so much time on preliminaries and paper-sorting, that he barely reached the substance of the lecture at all.

Samuel's importance, therefore, cannot be measured solely by his writing or even by his organizational achievements. From his time in the Communist Party, through the foundation of the new left, to the establishment of annual history workshops and the development of the History Workshop Journal, Samuel was a brilliant and tireless, if eccentric, inspirer of events and creator of institutions which would not have come into existence without his energy and his ability to inspire others.

Gareth Stedman Jones


S. Hall, S. Rowbotham, and R. Blackburn, ‘Raphael Samuel 1934–1996’, New Left Review, 1221 (Jan–Feb 1997) · Raphael Samuel, 1934–1996: tributes and appreciations (1997) · A. Light, ‘A biographical note on the text’, in R. Samuel, Island stories (1998) · R. Samuel, ‘The lost world of British communism’, New Left Review, 154 (1985) · R. Samuel, ‘The lost world of British communism’, New Left Review, 156 (1985) · R. Samuel, ‘The lost world of British communism’, New Left Review, 165 (1987) · The Times (11 Dec 1996) · The Guardian (10–11 Dec 1996) · The Guardian (21 Dec 1996) · The Independent (11 Dec 1996) · Daily Telegraph (12 Dec 1996) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [widow]


Bishopsgate Institute, London · priv. coll.


S. Wallgren, bromide fibre print, 1990–94, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Guardian (10 Dec 1996) · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Times

Wealth at death  

£298,659: probate, 3 March 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales