Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Laslett, (Thomas) Peter Ruffelllocked

  • Richard Smith

Laslett, (Thomas) Peter Ruffell (1915–2001), historian, was born on 18 December 1915 at 14 Glebe Road, St Peter, Bedford, the son of the Revd George Henry Ruffell Laslett, Baptist minister, and his wife, Eveline Elizabeth, née Alden. He attended Watford grammar school before going to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1935, to read history. He graduated with a double first in 1938. His early career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he served initially in the Fleet Air Arm, protecting the convoys on the hazardous Murmansk route. He was removed from a relatively low rank as a naval rating to learn Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and then secured a commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He worked first at Bletchley Park decoding Japanese naval intelligence, then continued this work in Washington after the war ended in Europe. He was demobilized in 1945, and on 17 May 1947 he married Janet Crockett Clark (b. 1919/20), a secretary who had also worked at Bletchley. She was the daughter of Robert Russell Clark, draughtsman. They had two sons.

Laslett's academic career was resumed with a research fellowship at St John's, Cambridge, in 1948, leading to the publication of his first book, an edition of the political writings, then long neglected, of Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works (1949). At this stage Laslett combined academic pursuits with producing radio talks for the BBC's fledgling Third Programme, which began broadcasting late in 1946. Laslett's role was to attract university-based academics such as Bertrand Russell and Fred Hoyle to expound their work and ideas (usually directed to scholarly audiences) to the radio-listening public, coherently and accessibly. This experience fed into his long-term aspirations for educational reform in England, and gave rise to a career in history which was never detached from close involvement with the general public, both as his audience and as his co-researchers.

Laslett did not sustain this mixed career, because in 1953 he took up a university lecturership in history at Cambridge and was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College in the same year (though he retained his connection with the BBC until 1960). From this date his scholarly reputation grew rapidly. His interests came to focus on John Locke, whose library he had discovered, leading to its purchase by Paul Mellon and the latter's gift of it to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. His masterly edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government was published in 1960. Prior to this edition the work had been viewed as a justification of the English revolution of 1688–9 and as a celebration of the establishment of a balanced parliamentary constitution. By careful research with manuscript sources Laslett was able to show that the essay had been written ten years before it was printed, and was therefore no justification for the revolution. Laslett's example ensured that the history of political thought could not be practised by thinking of the text in isolation from the circumstances in which it was written. Indeed, his influence helped to sharpen the boundaries between the history of political thought and political philosophy, although he continued to fraternize with political philosophers, links with whom were amply apparent in Philosophy, Politics and Society, of which he was the founder and chief editor from 1957, and which contained his own essay 'Conversations between the generations' (1979). He maintained these associations into the latter years of his career, for example as a contributor to the essays he co-edited with James Fishkin in 1992 entitled Justice Between Age Groups and Generations.

In the early 1960s the subject of and the methods underpinning Laslett's research underwent a noteworthy, although not entirely unpredictable, change of direction. He had long interested himself in Filmer's prescriptive views of the household as structured around a dominant patriarch and enclosing a large number of kin, on which he lectured in Cambridge in the late 1950s. He was stopped in his tracks when he discovered an edition of the late seventeenth-century rector's book of Clayworth, Nottinghamshire, which contained two listings of the village population made in 1676 and 1688. He located another set of seventeenth-century listings for the Northamptonshire village of Cogenhoe, and in both locations it was clear that households on average contained marginally over four people, who were most often married couples and their children. Few villagers under twenty were married, and the village populations turned over rapidly from year to year as people frequently migrated across parish boundaries. Unmarried servants, who were usually unrelated to the household head, loomed large in the social structure. These features were explored in Laslett's highly influential essay 'Clayworth and Cogenhoe' published in a Festschrift for David Ogg (1963).

The discovery and analysis of these listings delayed the appearance of a book that Laslett was writing, extracts from which had been delivered in radio broadcasts in the early 1960s. The revisions he now made included a chapter on historical demography, which Laslett at once realized was important if he was to understand the social structure. The book eventually appeared in 1965 as The World We Have Lost: English Society before the Coming of Industry. The book was notable for advocating a new approach to social history that focused on the household and on the links between the processes that created it and the larger social structure. It reflected interests that few within the historical profession then shared, and it was criticized from two quarters: by those on the intellectual left who disliked Laslett's insistence on the unimportance of the English revolution for social structural change; and by those of the right who found the promotion of quantitative methods and a rapprochement with demographers and other social scientists distasteful in a historical profession where political and constitutional history, with their emphasis on élites, had long occupied the prime position.

Laslett realized that research into family structures could not be undertaken by individual historians working in isolation because the quantities of information needed were so large. He teamed up with E. A (Tony) Wrigley, then a lecturer in geography at Cambridge, and in 1964 they co-founded the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, with Laslett focusing on household and social structure and Wrigley on demography and economy. The group eventually secured substantial research funds, principally from the Social Science Research Council, founded in 1966, and attracted researchers from a wide range of disciplines, notably history, geography, computer science, social statistics, sociology, and anthropology. In its early days the Cambridge Group, through Laslett's radio broadcasts, mobilized help from hundreds of local amateur volunteers, who collected evidence from parish registers and local censuses in such quantity that in the words of the eminent French demographer, Louis Henry, they constituted 'le secret weapon anglais'. Laslett was keen to involve the community of volunteers in a dialogue regarding the findings, and helped to found a journal, Local Population Studies, devoted to publishing research findings both by members of the Cambridge Group and by the amateurs. This subsequently grew into a very well-regarded publication. The first fruits of the data gathering appeared in 1972 under Laslett's editorship, as Household and Family in Past Time. This reported the analysis of over 100 English pre-industrial census returns alongside studies of other European and non-European societies, since Laslett was keen to ensure that this type of work was not pursued solely within an Anglocentric forum. Laslett's interests extended to the history of bastardy, the age of sexual maturity, and the application of microsimulation to assess the impact of chance on social structural processes. These interests gave rise to a sequence of books: Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (1977), Statistical Studies in Historical Social Structure (1979), Bastardy and its Comparative History (1980), and Family Forms in Historic Europe (1983).

Laslett retired in 1983 from the university readership in politics and the history of social structure, to which he had been appointed in 1966. In the 1980s in particular his research interests moved in another direction, with a focus on the history of old age and the interpretation of ageing social structures. This work combined careful historical analysis alongside an engagement with contemporary developments as western societies assumed unprecedented characteristics, with substantial proportions of their populations over sixty years of age along with rising expectations of life among those in their seventies and eighties. His book A Fresh Map of Life (1989) was a major historical and sociological assessment of the novelty of this type of society, and a passionate plea for social values in which the elderly and the retired would not be marginalized. Laslett himself did much to counter such forms of exclusion, through the role he played from 1982 in founding and further developing the University of the Third Age. This interest in servicing the educational needs of groups who were not favoured recipients of national educational resources mirrored the initiative he had taken in the early years of Harold Wilson's first Labour government, when with Michael Young he developed the idea of an Open University using radio and television to deliver course content. It was no coincidence that Laslett helped design an early Open University course on historical data and the social sciences, using much coursework deriving from the Cambridge Group: this encapsulated an approach which had been the hallmark of his career from 1946, in which he had stressed the need for scholars to communicate to the widest possible audience, and for historians to engage conceptually and empirically with the whole of the social structure.

Laslett was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1979, and appointed CBE for his services to historical demography in 1997. He remained full of energy, despite failing health, until his death, on 8 November 2001, at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, of aspiration pneumonia and cerebrovascular disease. He was survived by his wife, Janet, and their two sons.


  • The Times (14 Nov 2001)
  • Daily Telegraph (15 Nov 2001)
  • The Guardian (17 Nov 2001)
  • The Scotsman (19 Nov 2001)
  • The Independent (26 Nov 2001)
  • R. Smith, ‘Peter Laslett—historian’, History Today, 52/3 (2002), 4–6
  • WW (2001)
  • personal knowledge (2005)
  • private information (2005)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.



  • BL NSA, recorded lecture


  • P. Hastings, photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at Death

£461,717: probate, 11 June 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales