We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Sir  John Harold Plumb (1911–2001), by Paul Joyce, 1975Sir John Harold Plumb (1911–2001), by Paul Joyce, 1975
Plumb, Sir John Harold [Jack] (1911–2001), historian and college head, was born at 65 Walton Street, Leicester, on 20 August 1911, the third son of James Plumb, a shoe clicker in a boot and shoe factory, and his wife, Sarah Ann, née Timson. Plumb enjoyed his ‘rags to riches’ reputation, but was inclined to overdo it. His school, Alderman Newton's, Leicester, was an old and distinguished grammar, and his history teacher, ‘Bert’ Howard, was gifted, if markedly eccentric.

Entry into academic life

Plumb's career began with a setback. In 1929 he was interviewed at Cambridge for the St John's scholarship group but, despite a strong performance, was not offered an exhibition. Since he could not afford to pay his own way, he settled for University College, Leicester, then taking London University degrees. Plumb turned mortification into a springboard. He obtained a good first-class degree, reportedly the first obtained in history at Leicester, and laid successful siege to Cambridge, where he was accepted by Christ's College to read for a PhD, entering in 1933. As sometimes happens, when he at last reached the promised land, he did not always enjoy it, yet he stayed there for the rest of his life.

Plumb's chosen subject was the Convention Parliament of 1689, and his supervisor was G. M. Trevelyan, then regius professor. Plumb's own account (in The Making of an Historian) of his first interview with the gruff, monosyllabic Trevelyan is a comic masterpiece, but the occasion, though punctuated by long silences, was fruitful. Trevelyan, doyen of the whigs, taught Plumb the value of social history, discoursed on the poetic element in the past, and paid careful attention to Plumb's prose style. Most of all, Trevelyan urged him not to concentrate on a narrow field but to write for the general public. Plumb repaid him with respect, and edited a volume, Studies in Social History, as a tribute to Trevelyan on his retirement in 1955. In his introduction Plumb wrote movingly of the poetry and pity of historical scholarship. The meeting, too, was symbolic. Trevelyan was among the last of the gentlemen-scholars, without money worries, at home in the great country houses; Plumb was one of the new breed of meritocrats, with a career to make. He monitored it with care and brought to the task hard work, competence, and determination. Another person at Cambridge who influenced Plumb was the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow, the trajectory of whose career was remarkably similar to Plumb's. Snow's father had worked in the same factory as Plumb's; Snow had attended the same school as Plumb, and then become a fellow of Christ's. Among other things, Snow introduced his protégé to fine wine, a pleasure on which Plumb spent generously in later years.

On completing his thesis Plumb was elected to an Ehrman research fellowship at King's College, but his historical career was then interrupted by five years of war. Plumb spent most of it at Bletchley Park in charge of a section which monitored the German naval code, RHV. Bletchley was a university in its own right, harbouring some of the brightest of academics, and Plumb's good fortune in being billeted with Anthony de Rothschild at Ascott House, Wing, Buckinghamshire, gave further impetus to his taste for good living.

Establishing a reputation

At the end of the war Plumb returned to Cambridge where, true to form, King's failed to elect him to a fellowship. But in 1946 he moved back to Christ's, and became a university lecturer. He was an excellent teacher at a time when some dons still viewed teaching with lofty disdain. His earliest publications paid pious tribute to his native county. In 1936 he had printed a brochure on the Leicester Co-operative Boot and Shoe Society, and in the late 1940s worked on the political history of Leicestershire between 1530 and 1885, published in volume two of the Victoria History of the County of Leicester in 1954. But his big opportunity was an invitation to undertake the eighteenth-century volume of the Pelican History of England for Penguin Books. His decision to accept was brave. General surveys are notoriously difficult to write and, at that time, the Hanoverian period was not popular with schools or with the general public. Even worse, the reputation of Sir Lewis Namier was at its height, and most writers on the period awaited his approval—or more likely, disapproval—with some concern. Published in 1950, England in the Eighteenth Century was a great success and laid the foundations for Plumb's financial security. He steered clear of Namierite preoccupations, and social history bulked larger than political: it began, characteristically, not with praise for the balanced constitution, but by describing the stench of Hanoverian towns. The structure—built round the careers of Sir Robert Walpole, William Pitt, earl of Chatham, and the younger Pitt—was sensible, with short chapters and few footnotes. It sold a million copies, many of them to former servicemen catching up on their education after the war. Plumb had begun one of his lifelong tasks: to rescue eighteenth-century historiography from obscure controversies and give it shape and significance. The book also demonstrated one of Plumb's gifts, an eye for piquant detail: that fuchsias were introduced into England in 1732, that a snug sinecure in Ireland was taster of the king's wine in Dublin, or that the Manchester police in the early nineteenth century ran the local gasworks.

Having worked on the Convention, it was natural for Plumb to be invited to contribute to the History of Parliament, refounded in 1951. For a short time he served on the advisory committee, which he found tedious. He had always kept a wary distance from Namier, partly because he found Namier's personality uncongenial, partly because he suspected that the History of Parliament was a doomed enterprise. Namier, he once remarked, was ‘lost in a Sargasso sea of detail’ (private information). Nevertheless, when the first volumes did appear in 1964 Plumb's review was balanced and fair. In 1956 he published the first of his avowedly popular books, The First Four Georges. Plumb claimed to have written it in six weeks, it made fun of some fairly easy targets, and sold exceptionally well.

In the same year Plumb published the first volume in his biography of Sir Robert Walpole. Three things made it a great success: Plumb's evident empathy with his subject, a connoisseur of wine and a collector of paintings; his use of the Walpole and Townshend manuscripts in Norfolk; and a brilliant opening survey entitled ‘Robert Walpole's world’. A second volume followed in 1960. Though some parts have dated, notably because of Ragnhild Hatton's biography of George I (1978), even in its unfinished form it remains a masterly achievement. Plumb was greatly reproached for not finishing the third volume, and indeed it kept away other scholars from the subject. But this omission was essentially the penalty of success: publishers' invitations, public lectures, radio and television, and committee work ate into research time and undermined concentration. Plumb fully employed the time granted him.

Eminence

The life of Walpole established Plumb as a major scholar, and recognition was soon forthcoming. Cambridge gave him a LittD in 1957 and promoted him to reader in 1962. His interest in painting made him a good choice as a syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum (1960–77) and as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1961–82). His interest in art was also expressed in a collective volume which he edited, The Horizon Book of the Renaissance (1961), a great popular success. He continued to play a very active part in the life of Christ's as vice-master from 1964 to 1968.

Plumb's interests now shifted to the wider world and he began to write what he called ‘philosophical history’. His contributions to a volume which he edited, Crisis in the Humanities (1964), proved controversial. In the introduction he complained that the profession of history had ‘lost all faith in itself as a guide to the actions of men’ (Crisis, 9), and later in the book he deplored ‘the whole sickening deadening process of increasing specialization’ (‘The historian's dilemma’, Crisis, 34). But when Christian or Marxist historians offered their own guide to action, based upon their understanding of the past, Plumb retorted impatiently that they had the wrong agenda. Meanwhile, he worked on his Ford lectures at Oxford, delivered in 1965 and published in 1967 as The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675–1725. This book gave him the chance to put in place the keystone to his work on the eighteenth century and arose directly out of his biography of Walpole. Plumb offered an organizing concept which gave shape and meaning to Hanoverian history after decades of Namierite atomization. There was perhaps some overstatement of the case. ‘Adamantine strength’ (The Growth of Political Stability, 188) seemed scarcely to fit a century of considerable challenge and great change, and ‘immense inertia’ (ibid.) underestimated the flexibility of Hanoverian institutions. But Plumb was fortunate in his opponents. He was strongly attacked by a strange alliance of left-wing historians, searching for class antagonisms, and by enthusiastic Jacobites, anxious to refight the battle of Culloden. By and large, the counter-attack failed.

Plumb was given a personal chair in English history in 1966 and was considered for the regius chair of modern history in 1967 in succession to Herbert Butterfield. He attributed his failure to win that post to the reception his chapter in Crisis in the Humanities had garnered three years earlier. Disappointment was perhaps eased by growing demands on him as a lecturer, editor, and author. He spent more and more time in America, which he greatly admired, embarking on formidable lecture tours to unlikely places. From 1967 he contributed a monthly column to the Saturday Review and his growing reputation in America as a sage was some consolation for the suspicion with which many at Cambridge still regarded him. He served without enthusiasm as chairman of the history faculty at Cambridge from 1966 to 1968. What time he had to spare from his many activities was devoted to sailing and to his house at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, elegantly furnished and expensively decorated. He was elected fellow of the British Academy in 1968.

Plumb's growing international career was reflected in his edging towards world history, not indeed written by a committee, which he mistrusted, but by individual historians writing on their own chosen countries. But the thirty-volume enterprise under his general editorship, History of Human Society, was, in Plumb's own words, ‘grandiose’ (The Making of an Historian, 155), and after eight good volumes by other authors, ‘flopped’ (ibid.). Plumb's own projected contribution on the British Empire never appeared. The Death of the Past (1969) was admired by some but has not lasted well. The melodramatic title promised more than Plumb provided, and he seemed curiously unable to decide whether the past was a foundation on which to build or an incubus to be shaken off. To many people Plumb's insistence on progress seemed shrill and, at times, unsophisticated. ‘Progress’ and ‘action’ were dangerously loose words. It is by no means self-evident that the twentieth century, with two world wars, the gulag and the holocaust, and finishing with a worldwide AIDS epidemic, gave more happiness to the human race than previous centuries. In art, music, and architecture the concept of progress seems strangely alien: nobody believes that Benjamin Britten was clearly superior to J. S. Bach, nor does the comparison seem worth making. If ‘progress’ is confined to science and technology, it is true but trite. Plumb's ‘one certain judgement of value that can be made about history, and that is the idea of progress’ (‘Historian's dilemma’, 34) is dogmatism masquerading as scholarship. In the end, Plumb called for a ‘new past’, to replace the ‘old past’ (Death of the Past, 145), but, on investigation, it transpired that the ‘new past’ was Plumb's own version of events: it rested, as Maurice Cowling observed, on ‘simple assertion’ (Cowling, 398). At times, even Plumb's confidence faltered. ‘The end of an epoch’, published in the American journal Horizon (vol. 14, 1972), found him in America, contemplating urban violence (he was mugged on Brooklyn Bridge in New York), campus riots, and the drugs scene. Meanwhile, partly under the influence of younger colleagues, he returned to eighteenth-century social history with Man versus Society in Eighteenth-century Britain (1969) and a very successful Stenton lecture at Reading in 1973, ‘The commercialization of leisure in eighteenth-century England’, reprinted in The Birth of a Consumer Society (1982), jointly edited with John Brewer and Neil McKendrick.

Later life

Plumb retired in 1974. He was considered for, but did not receive, a life peerage in Harold Wilson's resignation honours list in 1976. In the following year he joined Huw Wheldon in writing a BBC television series, Royal Heritage, about the builders and art collectors in the British royal family; the illustrated book to complement the series sold 250,000 copies. He was master of Christ's from 1978 to 1982, entertaining splendidly in the master's lodge. A knighthood followed in 1982. Plumb enjoyed his retirement enormously—he was a member of Brooks's, welcome at country houses, and on good terms with royal personages. His indefatigable lecturing, particularly in America—well described in volume two of his collected essays, The American Experience (1989)—had brought him considerable wealth, and he was able to collect vintage wines, paintings, and porcelain. ‘I have no guilt’, he remarked cheerfully; ‘having jumped on to the coat tails of the bourgeoisie, I have no intention of being shaken off again’ (Daily Telegraph, 23 October 2001). In retirement he moved politically from Labour to admiration for the Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a meritocrat after Plumb's own heart. In 1991, to mark his eightieth birthday, he was accorded the remarkable honour of a reception by the United States congress, with the union flag flying over the senate at the special request of President George Bush. Success on this scale, academically and financially, was hard to forgive and he was attacked fiercely. Descriptions such as ‘rude’, ‘choleric’, and ‘waspish’ were flung at him, but rich food and excellent wine at high table do not always produce unassuming and modest men. His private wealth was earned the hard way in countless books and dozens of tiring visits across the Atlantic at a time when air and sea travel remained slow. He was said to be an academic schemer, and indeed the success of his graduate students was astonishing. Many of them combined high-flying academic careers with success as communicators of history to the wider public.

Plumb was short and bespectacled, plump in middle age, portly later. A kind and considerate host, he could be uneasy with undergraduates, barking out ‘Done lots of reading in the vacation?’ in best Trevelyan fashion. Twice engaged, he never married, and had no children. He died, following a stroke, at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, on 21 October 2001. His effects were auctioned off at Cheffins, Cambridge, on 14 May 2002, and raised £800,000. They included a fine portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, believed to be by Charles Jervas, a chalk drawing of George IV, and a set of the works of Jonathan Swift, which had belonged to Thomas Babington Macaulay and had been given to Plumb in 1955 by Trevelyan, Macaulay's great-nephew. He made large bequests to the Levy–Plumb Trust for humanities students at Christ's, and to the Glenfield Trust at Leicester for hospitals. To each college servant at Christ's, Plumb left £500.

John Cannon

Sources  

J. H. Plumb, The making of an historian (1988) · J. H. Plumb, The American experience (1989) · G. R. Elton, The practice of history (1967) · review of Plumb, The death of the past, History, new ser., 56 (1971) · N. McKendrick, ed., Historical perspectives: studies in English thought and society in honour of J. H. Plumb (1974) · P. Snow, Stranger and brother: a portrait of C. P. Snow (1982) · J. A. Cannon and others, eds., The Blackwell dictionary of historians (1988) · C. Roberts, N. Landau, and S. Baxter, ‘The growth of political stability reconsidered’, Albion, 25 (1993), 236–77 · M. Cowling, Religion and public doctrine in modern England, 1 (1980), 396–9 · The Guardian (22 Oct 2001) · The Times (23 Oct 2001) · Daily Telegraph (23 Oct 2001) · New York Times (23 Oct 2001) · The Guardian (26 Oct 2001) · The Independent (27 Oct 2001); (31 Oct 2001) · The Times (9 May 2002) · Cambridge Evening News (17 May 2002) · WW (2001) · personal knowledge (2005) · private information (2005) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

King's Cam., G. H. W. Rylands MSS  

FILM

 

BFINA, current affairs footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview with B. Levin, The Levin interviews, NP8314WR TR2


Likenesses  

P. Joyce, bromide print, 1975, NPG [see illus.] · P. Joyce, bromide print, 1975, NPG · L. Gowing, oils, 1978, Christ's Cam. · Redman, photograph, 1978, repro. in The Guardian (22 Oct 2001) · J. Polak, oils, 1980, Christ's Cam. · J. Ward, pencil and watercolour drawing, 1991, NPG · Ramsey & Muspratt, photograph, repro. in The Observer (27 Oct 2001) · B. Schmitz?, oils, repro. in The Independent (27 Oct 2001) · photograph, repro. in The Times (23 Oct 2001) · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph (23 Oct 2001) · photograph, repro. in The Independent (27 Oct 2001)

Wealth at death  

£1,374,755: probate, 15 March 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales