Simmons, Jack (19152000), historian, was born at Manaton, College Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, on 30 August 1915, the only child of Seymour Francis Simmons, a hosiery manufacturer then serving as a private in the Royal Fusiliers, and his wife, Katherine Lillias, daughter of Thomas Finch MD of Babbacombe, Devon. His father was killed on the Somme in France in 1918, and Simmons's mother, restless and unhappy, moved for several years from place to place, often returning to her kin in Devon and the Gower peninsula. After some years she settled in Surrey, and thereafter followed the path of Simmons's career. He lived with her until she died in 1971.
Simmons was educated at Rushmore School, Bedford, and at Westminster School, which he entered in 1928. He became a king's scholar in 1929, and in 1933 matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, where he held a Hinchliffe scholarship. He had a mild spinal deformity which was severely aggravated by a fall in Oxford, and he had to suspend his studies for a year, taking schools in modern history in 1937. He then spent a year in Paris before returning to Oxford as assistant to Sir Reginald Coupland (18841952), Beit professor of colonial history. He was medically unfit for military service in the war, though he served in London as a fire-watcher at St Paul's. In 1943 he was appointed Beit lecturer in the history of the British empire, and pursued his own studies. He collaborated with Margery Perham in African Discovery: an Anthology of Exploration (1942), and in 1945 he published Southey, a biographical study which led to his election as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Simmons was joined at Christ Church in 1934 by Michael Robbins, a fellow pupil at Westminster with whom he shared a lifelong interest in railway history. He was also strongly influenced by Alfred Leslie Rowse (190397), whose Tudor Cornwall (1941) opened new vistas in local and regional studies. Simmons was as well read in English literature and topography as in imperial history, and a purposeful traveller in space as well as in time, as his edition of Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland (1970) testifies. His wide-ranging interests were closely integrated, and he was fascinated by the nexus of imperial and domestic history. He was not, however, familiar with the east midlands, where in the event he spent most of his life, and it was probably Rowse who in 1946 persuaded him to apply for the new chair of history at University College, Leicester, which he held from 1947.
The college, founded in 1921, prepared students for the external degree examinations of the University of London. It had only recently been recognized by the University Grants Committee, and the establishment of ten chairs between 1946 and 1948 was a significant step towards autonomy. With the demand for university places after the war the number of students grew rapidly, and the new professors and their colleagues would have been adequately occupied with present needs if they had not also to plan for the future. Simmons at once found himself in his element. He excelled as a teacher. While managing his own department with tact and good humour he also busied himself with the college library, a cornerstone of any academic development, and with a publications board of senate, which later became Leicester University Press. He also encouraged the appointment of William George Hoskins, newly returned from the wartime civil service, as head of the first department of English local history in the country. Simmons went on to play a leading part in the exacting campaign to obtain a university charter for Leicester, and described the process with engaging lucidity in New University (1958). It is a work which surveys everything except his own influential role, and includes a cogent sketch of the expansion of university education in England from the early nineteenth century.
Over the following decades Simmons served the university as public orator, pro-vice-chancellor, and acting vice-chancellor (in 1962), and sat on many boards, always incisively. He was successively honorary editor and president of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, and he was a member of advisory committees on archives and museums in and out of the county. He was a well-regarded contributor to the overseas service of the BBC, and in 1967 became the founding chairman of the Leicester local broadcasting council, monitoring the BBC's first such venture.
In 1953, in partnership with Michael Robbins, Simmons established the Journal of Transport History, and he maintained it energetically. At the same time he launched A New Survey of England, a topographical series published by Collins. It was intended to match the highly successful series of monographs New Naturalist, from the same house, but foundered on rising costs, despite the distinction of its first volumes: Middlesex, by R. M. Robbins (1953), and Devon by W. G. Hoskins (1954). Simmons, who was preparing what would have been an exemplary volume on Berkshire, was much disappointed, but after publishing Livingstone and Africa (1955) under Rowse's editorship, he turned to edit a pioneering series called A Visual History of Britain, to which he contributed two notable volumes, Transport (1962), and Britain and the World (1965). His interest now focused on the reign of Victoria (in 1966 he, the historian H. J. (Jim) Dyos, and the literary scholar Philip Collins founded the Victorian Studies Centre at Leicester), and particularly on the history of the railway as a defining force of the age. He published The Railways of Britain: an Historical Introduction in 1961, the first of several studies which culminated in The Oxford Companion to British Railway History (1997), which he compiled with Gordon Biddle. The Companion is an impressive work, but Simmons is at his most characteristic in St Pancras Station (1968), a biography of a great building which deploys his wide learning, his aesthetic sense, and his sympathetic grasp of practical affairs.
Those qualities also made him influential in establishing the National Railway Museum, which opened in 1975, the year in which he retired from his chair, and the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television. He long remained as active in retirement as in office. Despite failing sight he continued to the end to write and, by various ingenious contrivances, to read. He was appointed OBE in 1999. He died in the Nightingale Nursing Home, 35 Aylstone Lane, Wigston, on 3 September 2000, of a metastasized cancer, and was cremated on 15 September at Gilroes cemetery. He was unmarried.
Despite his spinal injury Simmons had an imposing and dignified bearing. Although shy and fastidious he could readily command an audience. His conversation in familiar company was lively, and no one could be more rewardingly moved to laughter. His written style was unmistakably and elegantly measured, and inescapably recalls to those who knew him the distinctive cadence and timbre of his voice.
G. H. Martin
WW (2000) · M. Robbins, Jack Simmons, 19152000, Journal of Transport History, 3rd ser., 22 (2001), 15 · H. J. Dyos, Jack Simmons: an appreciation, Journal of Transport History, new ser., 3 (19756), 13344 · M. Robbins, Jack Simmons: the making of an historian, The impact of the railway on society in Britain: essays in honour of Jack Simmons, ed. A. K. B. Evans and J. V. Gough (2003), 17 · D. Jeffreys, The Times (13 Sept 2000) · C. Ford, Jack Simmons, The Guardian (13 Sept 2000) · R. B. Peberdy, Jack Simmons, History Today, 50/12 (2000), 67 · b. cert. · R. M. Robbins and N. Scarfe, Professor Jack Simmons, The Independent (6 Sept 2000) · A. Newman, Emeritus professor Jack Simmons, OBE, www.le.ac.uk/ua/rg/dnotices/j_simmons_obit.html, May 2001
National Railway Museum, York, papers | University of Leicester, University Archives
priv. coll., 35mm cinematic film
photograph, repro. in Dyos, Jack Simmons · photograph, National Railway Museum, York, Simmons library
Wealth at death
under £210,000: probate, 28 Nov 2000, CGPLA Eng. & Wales