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Pelling, Henry Mathison (1920–1997), historian, was born on 27 August 1920 at 4 Curzon Road, Prenton, Wirral, Cheshire, one of the two sons of Douglas Langley Pelling, a stockbroker, and his wife, Maud Mary, née Mathison. He was educated at Birkenhead School (1926–39) and was elected to an open exhibition in classics at St John's College, Cambridge (1938). He matriculated in 1939 and was placed in the first class in part I of the classical tripos in 1941, whereupon his studies were interrupted by war service. The following year he was commissioned in the Royal Engineers. Having served in the Normandy campaign and the assault on Berlin (1944–5), he returned to Cambridge as an undergraduate (1946) and gained first-class honours with distinction (a ‘starred’ first) in part II of the historical tripos (1947). Under war conditions, he had qualified for the BA in 1942; he took his Cambridge MA in 1947 (incorporated as an Oxford MA in 1949), and was awarded the Cambridge PhD in 1950 and the LittD in 1975.

In abandoning classics in favour of modern history, Pelling found his vocation. He now began research on the early history of the Labour Party, a field where triumphalist myth making yielded to his exact scholarship. The Origins of the Labour Party (1954), reshaped from his PhD thesis, remains a classic pioneering study, built to last. From 1949 to 1965 he was fellow and praelector of the Queen's College, Oxford, living in college. His teaching covered both modern history and politics; a member of two faculties, he never agreed to become an examiner in either, preferring to put his research first. His move back to Cambridge in 1966, to the new post of director of research in the history faculty, acknowledged this priority. He had many graduate students and was a PhD examiner of formidable rigour, though he also showed real kindliness towards younger historians, many of whom became lifelong friends. While he was highly appreciative of female company, potentially uxorious, and fond of children, he remained unmarried.

Pelling's books represent a scholarly achievement in at least two fields. Having made himself the unrivalled authority on the history of the labour movement, he branched out in the 1960s into the new field of electoral history. The Social Geography of British Elections (1967) was the result—still an indispensable handbook to further research. Curiously, Pelling saved his most exciting ideas not for his big books, but for a series of trenchant essays, often originating as after-dinner talks or seminar papers. This was the origin of his influential volume Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain (1968). He became well known to generations of students through his Short History of the Labour Party (1961), which went through eleven editions in his lifetime. The History of British Trade Unionism (1963) was likewise updated many times; and Pelling published early books on American labour history which blazed a trail for later historians. His biography Winston Churchill (1974), though commercially successful (not least to the author), saw his talents less well matched to the subject. Accuracy always out-trumped rhetoric for Pelling. He liked to bet on election results, culminating in the general election of 1997, on which he made his usual healthy profit; and his shrewdness in managing money gratified him.

The pace slowed only with his serious stroke in 1971, which left him permanently scarred despite a resilient recovery; after this Pelling seemed older than his years. His achievement was recognized, perhaps belatedly, by his election as fellow of the British Academy in 1992. He had decided to retire early from his university post in 1980 (having been promoted to a readership at Cambridge in 1976) but he continued to live in St John's College, where he had held a fellowship since returning from Oxford, occupying a succession of book-lined, paper-strewn rooms. Pelling continued writing ‘my last book’ on Churchill's Peacetime Ministry, 1951–55 (1997) which—tenaciously, triumphantly—he saw to publication in his final months. He had been admitted to the Midfield Lodge Nursing Home, Cambridge Road, Oakington, near Cambridge, and died there on 14 October 1997; the causes were given as congestive heart failure, ischaemic heart disease, hypertension, and myocardial infarction. A well-attended funeral in the chapel of St John's College on 22 October was followed by cremation at the Cambridge crematorium.

Pelling's career was his life, and his work won the kind of esteem that mattered to him: the respect of professional colleagues for his reputation as the foremost empirical labour historian of his generation. Many people were surprised at the value of his estate, over £1.8 million; but it was totally in character that it was divided equally between his college and the Save the Children Fund.

Peter Clarke

Sources  

P. Clarke, The Guardian (21 Oct 1997) · P. Linehan, The Independent (21 Oct 1997) · G. Garnett, Daily Telegraph (29 Oct 1997) · The Times (31 Oct 1997) · Lord Morgan, ‘Memoir of Henry Pelling at the Queen's College, Oxford’, Queen's College Library, Oxford · will, 17 Feb 1981 · WW · b. cert. · d. cert. · passports · WWW

Wealth at death  

£1,864,656: probate, 4 Dec 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales