Maurice Warwick Beresford (19202005), by Zigmund Baumann
Beresford, Maurice Warwick (19202005), economic historian, was born on 6 February 1920 at 403 Boldmere Road, Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire, the only son of Harry Bertram Beresford, a manager in a warehouse supplying chemists' shops, and his wife, Nora Elizabeth, née Jefferies. He had a particularly close relationship with his mother, and later dedicated a book to her. He attended local elementary schools and Bishop Vesey's Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield. He went to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1938 to take a history degree, and was drawn to aspects of the subject that did not belong in the conventional syllabus. He was interested in maps and visual evidence, and was encouraged by excursions from Cambridge led by John Saltmarsh to observe the historic landscape. After graduating with first-class honours in 1941, having been exempted from military service as a conscientious objector, he did social work, to which throughout his life he was passionately committed. He was warden of an adult education centre in Rugby in Warwickshire from 1942 to 1948.
In 1948 Beresford published an article that demonstrated, using maps and aerial photographs, that ridge and furrow preserved the outlines of the medieval open fields. This was based on part-time research without formal training: in later years he gave a lecture, On never being a research student. When planning the remains of fields in Leicestershire he came upon an area of mounds and hollows, which he realized marked the site of the medieval village of Bittesby. He then discovered 100 deserted villages in Warwickshire, expanded the work to the rest of the country, and published The Lost Villages of England in 1954. He argued that there had been a phase of deliberate depopulation by profit-conscious landlords in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries to create enclosed sheep pastures.
By the time Lost Villages appeared Beresford was well established as a lecturer in economic history at the University of Leeds, a post to which he had been appointed in 1948. Investigating deserted villages in Yorkshire, he discovered the site of Wharram Percy hidden in a valley in the wolds. He began to dig there with the help of friends, to find and date the foundations of houses. J. G. Hurst, newly graduated from Cambridge, who was keen to develop medieval archaeology, took over the excavations, which were henceforth conducted on a larger scale, using the latest techniques. Beresford and Hurst made an effective team, though they were very different in personality. Beresford talked and enthused, while Hurst, an inspector of ancient monuments, quietly exercised his influence. Together they recruited a group of collaborators who listed and mapped all known deserted medieval villages in England. The fruits of their labours appeared in 1971 as Deserted Medieval Villages: Studies. Deserted villages had a great impact on the general public; they set archaeologists and geographers on a quest to answer questions about the origins of villages, village planning, and peasant houses. The new discipline of landscape history developed out of these enquiries, inspired by Beresford's writings as well as those of W. G. Hoskins. In 1957 came History on the Ground, in which Beresford showed the potential of studying parks and planned towns as well as villages. He published, with Kenneth St Joseph, a collection of aerial photographs with a commentary in Medieval England: an Aerial Survey in 1958. His main contribution to village studies in the next three decades was organizing the camp for the Wharram Percy excavators. When the digging ended he wrote with Hurst Wharram Percy: Deserted Medieval Village, which appeared in 1990.
In the mid-1950s Beresford's research on medieval towns began, focusing on the new generation of planned towns of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which led him to visit south-west France as well as all parts of England and Wales. His New Towns of the Middle Ages was published in 1967 at the very beginning of a new wave of academic interest in urban history. Beresford investigated the past of his adopted town of Leeds, and wrote a history of its chamber of commerce soon after his arrival. This interest culminated in his study of the modern growth of the town, East End, West End (1988), in which he traced the advance of streets and houses.
Beresford's well-written and much read books influenced both landscape history and urban history. His striking phrases drew the readers' attention: Lost Villages and New Towns were typical choices of apt and attractive titles. He lectured with enthusiasm and wit, using illustration, and he frequently gave talks to adult education classes and local societies as well as audiences in universities and academic conferences. He contributed generously his time and energy to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society and the Thoresby Society. He was active in university administration, holding a chair from 1959 until retirement in 1985, and serving as dean and chairman of the school of economic studies. In the university senate those critical of the management relished his contributions to debate. His conversation could be waspish, but he was always engaging and wide-ranging. Music, opera, ballet, theatre, and cinema were all enthusiasms of his, and he was addicted in later years to continental travel. He had remarkable powers of persuasion, so he relied on others to take him to sites, as he did not drive. From student days he had taken an interest in prisoners and young offenders, and devoted a great deal of time to befriending, advising, and educating them. His well-attended evening class in Wakefield prison ran for many years. He was actively engaged in public life, serving on many committees and advisory bodies: these ranged from the parole review committee of Leeds prison to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England). His achievement was marked with honours, including four honorary degrees, two volumes of essays written in his honour (presented in 1989 and 2000), and election as a fellow of the British Academy in 1985.
From the late 1990s Beresford's health deteriorated, but he was able to attend conferences well into his eighties. He died on 15 December 2005 of a chest infection and septicaemia in St James's University Hospital, Leeds. He never married and had no surviving relative, but his numerous friends visited him in hospital, attended his cremation ceremony on 30 December, and took part in a subsequent memorial meeting on 4 July 2006 at Leeds University.
M. W. Beresford, Time and place: collected essays (1984) · M. W. Beresford, Forty years in the field: an exaugural lecture, University of Leeds Review, 29 (19867), 2746 · Y. M. Fennell, ed., Northern History, 37 (2000), 30720 [M. W. Beresford issue] · The Guardian (22 Dec 2005) · The Times (2 Jan 2006) · The Independent (14 Jan 2006) · C. Dyer, Maurice Beresford and local history, Local Historian (May 2006), 12830 · H. S. A. Fox, Newsletter, Society for Landscape Studies (springsummer 2006) · L. Butler, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 78 (2006), 2435 · M. Aston and others, Founders: Maurice Beresford, Landscapes, 7/2 (2006), 90104 · WW (2005) · personal knowledge (2009) · private information (2009) · b. cert. · d. cert.
U. Hull, papers, including papers relating to Wharram Percy
U. Leeds, Brotherton L., papers and corresp.
Yorkshire Archaeological Society, notebooks | Bodl. Oxf., O. G. S. Crawford papers
T. Stubley, gouache, exh. Royal Society of Portrait Painters, London 1988 · Z. Baumann, photograph, priv. coll. [see illus.] · obituary photographs
Wealth at death
£665,889: probate, 13 June 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales