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Fox, Alan (1920–2002), sociologist and industrial historian, was born at 102 Goldsmith Avenue, Manor Park, West Ham, in the East End of London, on 23 January 1920, the only child of Walter Henry Fox, a journeyman typewriting machine enameller who had served in the First World War, and his wife, Rhoda, née Rous, an anxiously attentive mother. They lived in the drab streets of an unfashionable metropolitan suburb—an ordinary family unconnected to either the organized working class or the professional cadres of inter-war Britain. His journey through life might therefore have been as one of the unremarkable and unremarked majority of the English native population were it not for the peculiar openness of British society in his generation, a series of lucky chances, and the paradoxical fortunes of war which finally led him to honours in the RAF, a distinguished career as an Oxford don, and a happy marriage.

A protected child, Fox found sociability difficult. He was sensitive, introverted, observant, and a ‘bookworm’ but hardly noticed among the mass of children at his local state elementary school where he failed the eleven-plus examination and left at the age of fourteen along with the vast majority of his contemporaries, to face the fragmented and unpromising labour market of the slump years of the 1930s. Then came his first stroke of luck: he found a job at the local grammar school where the stern and supervisory chemistry master tutored him as a waged assistant in the discipline of the laboratory. Then, again with the influence of the same master, he went on to a job as a seventeen-year-old in a factory making photographic roll film. All this was a substitute for apprenticeship in the photographer's trade and a compensation for failure in the entrance examination to the clerical grade of the civil service—a scarce job for life ardently sought by aspiring young Britons from ordinary families at the time. Meanwhile Fox was beginning to explore the austere charms of the Youth Hostels Association and thereby acquiring both the stamina of the long-distance cyclist and an enduring love of English rural beauty. He also widened his aesthetic, literary, and political horizons by fumbling his way through public libraries and private conversations towards what he was finally to attain, the life of a cultivated man of letters.

On the outbreak of the Second World War in the late summer of 1939 Fox was nineteen and volunteered as aircrew. Again he failed an examination, this time through defective eyesight, which barred him from pilot training. His two years in the darkness of a photographic factory were, however, sufficient to let him into the RAF as a ground staff photographer. His ambition to fly was realized in India in the battle for Burma against the advancing Japanese. A new squadron, no. 3 photographic reconnaissance unit, was split to form a tactical and a strategic squadron, the latter equipped with American B25 Mitchell twin-engined bombers, fitted with additional long-range fuel tanks in the bomb bay. The planes flew without armour on the theory that if they were fast, high, and alone, they could with luck make a run or two over targets in occupied Burma without being intercepted by Japanese fighters. The commanding officer called for volunteers from the photographers. Fox responded immediately, knowing that otherwise there was no promise of promotion to the rank of sergeant (the lowest official rank for RAF aircrew), and flew on ‘ops’ for two years involving sorties of seven or eight hours. He described them in his autobiography as a ‘mixture of monotony, some fear, aesthetic pleasure and discomfort’ (Fox). After surviving two hazardous years he was awarded the DFM.

On demobilization, Fox was unclear what to do. Suburbia was spurned. He had acquired radical opinions and a detestation for bureaucratic authority. As he wrote in his autobiography, ‘life in the ranks had made me interested in relationships of power, authority, and status, but especially from the point of view of the under-dogs and how they might defend themselves against their masters’ (Fox, 153). These attitudes, now deeply absorbed into his character from dangerous and bitter experiences, aided by chronic illness and an unhappy love affair, drove Fox towards the country—to the Forestry Commission in Scotland where by chance he saw an advertisement for Ruskin College, Oxford, in his bothy. After that his path through life became more satisfying. He went to Ruskin in January 1947 and, after gaining a distinction in the diploma in economics and political science, moved to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1948 to read philosophy, politics, and economics, taking a second-class degree in 1950. On 19 August the same year he married Margaret Bessie Dow (1929–2007), daughter of Laurence Dow, secretary to a confectionery firm. She was reading modern languages at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and subsequently became a tutor at Ruskin and a lecturer at Oxford Polytechnic. He soon settled to an unusually happy domesticity. They had two sons, Stephen (b. 1954) and Andrew (b. 1956).

In 1950 Fox became a research student at Nuffield College, Oxford, where Hugh Clegg was leading a team of industrial relations experts. After researching a BLitt thesis on the history of industrial relations in the Black Country, which he combined with a lectureship at Ruskin, he was commissioned to write the history of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, which was published in 1958. He was meanwhile appointed to a research fellowship at Nuffield College to work with Clegg and A. F. Thompson on the project to write a history of British trade unions, the first volume of which appeared in 1964.

In 1963 Fox moved finally to a university lectureship in sociology based at Barnett House—Oxford University's department of social and administrative studies—led by the newly appointed A. H. Halsey. There Fox felt at home with many friends. A long intellectual journey followed. It began with a standard if enthusiastic commitment to the trade unions within an industrial relations system which produced low wages and long hours for the proletarian majority in a rigid hierarchy of status and conditions. In 1966 he submitted an important research paper to the royal commission on reform of the trade unions and employers' associations, chaired by Lord Donovan. Opposing what he termed ‘unitary’ management theories, he adopted the ‘pluralistic’ position that conflict was both endemic and legitimate in the existing system, and that management should recognize this, and negotiate accordingly. In the early 1970s, however, he departed from the Oxford school of pluralists in industrial relations, and even from his great and close friend Allan Flanders (though their personal friendship survived an intellectual rift). The Oxford school had sought reforms within the existing structure of ownership and employment relations; Fox came to seek a more radical transformation, setting out his critique of pluralism, and offering a new theory of high trust relations, in Beyond Contract (1974). After his retirement in 1979 he produced his culminating work, History and Heritage: the Social Origins of the British Industrial Relations System (1985), a sociological and historical analysis which confirmed his position as the outstanding interpreter of industrial relations in the Britain of his generation. In 1990 he published a sensitive and intimate autobiography, A Very Late Development. He died at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 26 June 2002, of multi-organ failure, and was survived by his wife, Margaret, and their two sons.

A. H. Halsey


A. Fox, A very late development: an autobiography (1990) · P. Ackers and A. Wilkinson, eds., Understanding work and employment: industrial relations in transition (2003) · P. Edwards, ‘The analytical heritage of Alan Fox's History and heritage (1985)’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 14 (2002), 139–58 · T. Topham, ‘Alan Fox's autobiography’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 14 (2002), 159–68 · The Times (12 July 2002) · The Guardian (6 Aug 2002) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £28,000: probate, 8 Aug 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales