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
Perkin, Harold James (1926–2004), social historian, was born on 11 November 1926 at 3 Arthur Street, Hanley, Staffordshire, the eldest of the five children (four boys and one girl) of Robert James Perkin (1903–1975), building worker, and his wife, Hilda May, née Dillon (1905–1946). He attributed his later interest in social history to his solidly working-class background and a burning desire, developed early, to understand how industrial Britain and its class system came into being. In 1929 he was sent to the nursery department of the local Cannon Street infants' school and in 1931 he moved on to the Shelton junior Church of England school, where he won prizes every year and became head boy. He won a scholarship to Hanley high school in 1938. He grew up as a classic working-class scholarship boy, bright, confident, and aspiring, backed and encouraged by his parents. At fifteen he gained distinctions in all nine subjects of the school certificate.

Perkin won a major scholarship in history to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1945, graduating three years later with the rare distinction of a starred first, one of only two awarded in a field of 330 candidates. He applied to Cambridge to do a PhD but was rejected with the comment: ‘Your ability … does not seem to us to be in the direction of academic research’ (Perkin, 82). He attributed the rejection to the fact that he had not presented a conventional academic profile while he was an undergraduate. He had been the news editor of Varsity, had danced with the Ballet Joos, performed with the Footlights, and rowed as well as studying what he chose rather than what he was directed towards. But there looks to have been more than a touch of class snobbery in the decision. On 3 July 1948 he married Joan Griffiths, then working as a clerk in the Ministry of National Insurance, but later a social historian, at Salem Methodist Church, Smallthorne, Stoke-on-Trent. The couple had met four years earlier through their involvement in the Co-op Youth Movement; she was the daughter of Henry Griffiths. They had two children: Deborah Jane (b. 1958), later a BBC television producer, and Julian Robert (b. 1964), later director of technology strategy at the Financial Times.

After national service in the RAF (1948–50), and while his contemporaries who had gained an unstarred first or even a 2.1 were receiving the coveted Cambridge research studentships, Perkin took a post as assistant lecturer in the extramural department of Manchester University. In 1951 he was appointed at Manchester to the first ever lectureship in social history in Britain. He found the broad-based teaching of the subject, mainly from primary sources, an invaluable background to his own research which was initially into the social history of the landed aristocracy. Impatient of the tyranny of the authoritarian senior professors at Manchester—the ‘old lags’ as he called them—he became in 1958 secretary of the local branch of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), campaigning for non-professorial representation in the university's senate. During eighteen years of work for the AUT he rose to be national president (1970–71), fighting for better pay, conditions, and pensions for academics. He also wrote the jubilee history of the AUT, Key Profession (1969). He was an early ‘telly don’, writing and presenting two successful series for Granada which he later expanded into books, The Age of the Railway (1970) and The Age of the Automobile (1976).

Having fallen out with his head of department at Manchester, who he thought was sabotaging his attempts to develop his subject, Perkin applied for a post at the new University of Lancaster. He was appointed in 1965 as senior lecturer and in 1967 became the first professor of social history in the United Kingdom. It was while he was at Lancaster that he pioneered—along with historians such as Asa Briggs, E. P. Thompson, and Peter Laslett—the establishment of social history as an academic discipline. Fully aware of the need for an institutional academic infrastructure, he had launched the Studies in Social History series at Routledge in 1957. For thirty years it was the premier series of monographs on the subject. In 1976 he initiated the foundation of the Social History Society, chairing it for ten years. With its annual conferences and regular newsletters, it became a vital forum for the interchange of ideas. At Lancaster he set up the Centre for Social History (1975–6) and inaugurated the first MA in social history. His enduring scholarly legacy is the monumental trilogy of works The Origins of Modern English Society (1969), The Rise of Professional Society (1989), and The Third Revolution (1996), in which he charted the emergence and eventual triumph of the professional classes first in Britain and later globally. It was these books that confirmed him as one of the most visionary, gifted, and dynamic historians of his generation.

At Lancaster Perkin developed another area of expertise. He was commissioned to write a book-length report on the new universities for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (New Universities in the United Kingdom, 1969) and he became a member of what he called ‘the higher education mafia’, writing and lecturing on higher education all round the world and eventually producing twenty-five publications on the subject. Disenchanted by the rise of Thatcherism and its deleterious effects on British universities, in 1985 he accepted the offer of a chair at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he remained until his retirement in 1997. Back in England, he continued to lecture and write (including an autobiography, The Making of a Social Historian, 2002) until the onset of his final illness.

Harold Perkin was a man of forthright views, often trenchantly expressed, about people, issues, and events. But he was instrumental in establishing, defining, and promoting the discipline of social history. It was largely uncharted territory when he began his career but by its end was a flourishing, respected, and influential branch of history. He died of stomach cancer in St John's Hospice, Westminster, on 16 October 2004. After a private cremation, his ashes were interred at the church of St Mary's, Paddington, London, on 27 October. He was survived by his wife, Joan, and their two children.

Jeffrey Richards


H. Perkin, The making of a social historian (2002) · The Independent (2 Nov 2004) · The Times (15 Dec 2004) · personal knowledge (2008) · private information (2008) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.





BFINA, documentary footage


photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£58,797: probate, 27 Jan 2005, CGPLA Eng. & Wales