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
Marwick, Arthur John Brereton (1936–2006), historian, was born on 29 February 1936 at the Elsie Inglis Maternity Hospital, Edinburgh, the younger son of William Hutton Marwick (1894–1982), economic historian, and his wife, Maeve Cluna, née Brereton. His parents, who lived at 5 Northfield Crescent, Edinburgh, were Quakers, caring and earnest intellectuals, but also austere. Marwick was educated at George Heriot's School, Edinburgh, and at Edinburgh University, where he won the gold medal for being the outstanding history student of his year. He moved to Balliol College, Oxford, where he undertook research on the Independent Labour Party. His thesis was awarded a BLitt instead of a doctorate but, undeterred, in 1959 he moved back to Scotland to take up an assistant lectureship at Aberdeen. After a year he returned to the history department at Edinburgh, where he taught for most of the 1960s, and where he built a reputation as a prolific author and an inspirational tutor. In 1969 he was appointed the first professor of history to the newly established Open University. He remained there until his retirement in 2001, serving as dean and director of studies of the arts faculty from 1978 to 1984. He also spent sabbatical leave as a visiting scholar at various American and European universities.

Marwick's move to the Open University in 1969 was a bold one. The new institution was designed to offer a university education to those who had missed the opportunity on leaving school. It was expected that many students would be in full-time jobs and that all would study in their own time through correspondence texts and educational broadcasts transmitted by the BBC. Marwick seized the opportunity to develop ideas that he had formulated at Edinburgh about the skills of the historian and the analysis of primary source material. In this he pre-empted ideas that were to become central to the teaching of history in both schools and universities later in the century, and he did so with much more humanity than many of those that followed. He also saw the Open University's link with the BBC as providing the opportunity for demonstrating the value of film as a historical source.

For many years Marwick's research interests focused on the relationship between war and social change. The Deluge: British Society and the First World War (1965) argued that war fostered domestic, as much as international change; by implication it was critical of the traditional perspective that saw war as an interruption to social and political development and a topic best reserved for military historians. It became a seminal text, going through many editions, and was still in print at the time of his death. Other work in this area was less successful, notably War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century (1974), which compared the impact of the two world wars on Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States: this book made much of a conceptual model for the study of war and society which seemed rooted in the unique British experience. There were to be more books on British history, the most successful of which was British Society since 1945 (1982); this also went through several editions. But, curiously for a solid empiricist, Marwick was also keen to develop international comparisons about perceptions and understandings. Class in the Twentieth Century (1986), Beauty in History: Society, Politics and Personal Appearance since c.1500 (1988), and It: a History of Human Beauty (2004) were not well received. More successful was The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States (1998), a 900 page discussion of what he saw as the revolution in attitudes, living standards, and relationships during the period from roughly 1958 to 1974.

Running throughout Marwick's teaching and publications was his fervent belief that history was a social necessity, enabling individuals and societies better to appreciate and understand their present. This went together with his insistence that historians eschew meta-narratives and take particular care over their analysis of source material and the presentation of their findings. These ideas underpinned The Nature of History (1970), the one book that he significantly rewrote for successive editions, becoming increasingly strident in his condemnation of what he understood as post-modernism. He took a similar combative line when he became co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary History in 1995, first with an article (1995) and then with a manifesto (1997). At the same time he changed the direction of editorial policy to include many more articles dealing with the period since 1945.

Marwick reflected his parents' earnestness and commitment to hard work; he also rebelled against them by indulging in lively hedonism when the day's work was over. He was an enthusiastic football and tennis player well into his fifties. He wore long hair and a beard and had a flamboyant style of dress. He enjoyed fine wine, and could be an embarrassment to friends and colleagues when in his cups. He never married, but had a daughter, Louise, on whom he doted, and was extremely proud when he became a grandfather. From the 1960s he lived in Fitzjohn's Avenue, Hampstead. In 2006, following a stroke, he was forced to move to Devon, to be close to his daughter. He died of a further stroke in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Exeter, on 27 September 2006. His daughter survived him.

Clive Emsley


Daily Telegraph (4 Oct 2006) · The Independent (4 Oct 2006) · The Guardian (7 Oct 2006) · The Times (10 Oct 2006) · C. Emsley, Journal of Contemporary History, 42/2 (2007), 181–4 · WW (2006) · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) · b. cert. · d. cert.





BFINA, documentary footage · Open University, course materials archive




Open University, course materials archive


obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£701,525: probate, 29 May 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales