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date: 29 January 2020

Briggs, Asa, Baron Briggsfree

(1921–2016)
  • Miles Taylor

Asa Briggs, Lord Briggs (1921–2016), by Jane Bown, 1999

Jane Bown © National Portrait Gallery, London

Briggs, Asa, Baron Briggs (1921–2016), historian, university administrator, and college head, was born on 7 May 1921 at 114 Emily Street, Keighley, Yorkshire, the elder of two children of William Walker Briggs (1891–1949) and his wife, Jane, née Spencer (1893–1973). His father was a skilled engineer who originally came from Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire where he, like his father before him, worked in the Vickers shipyard, whilst his mother’s family farmed at Oxenhope, just outside Keighley.

Keighley, Cambridge, and Bletchley

By the time Asa was born, his parents were running a greengrocers in the mill-town on the edge of the Yorkshire moors: Brontë country, amidst ‘smoking chimneys and heather among the bracken in the hills’, Briggs later recalled (Special Relationships, 4). His father was Anglican, whilst his mother’s family were Congregationalists. He won a scholarship to Keighley Grammar School. His precocious talents were evident from an early age. He sent in letters on the temperance question to the local newspaper, won a prize essay (on the League of Nations), and lectured for the Co-operative Guild and the Workers’ Educational Association. Neville Hind, his headmaster, recommended him to his Cambridge college, Sidney Sussex, and he went up to read history at the age of seventeen, the youngest freshman at the college, it is said, since Oliver Cromwell. At Cambridge his lecturers included Herbert Butterfield and Michael Oakeshott. He also served as ‘confraternitas’, the president of the college history society. Unknown to his college tutors, he combined his studies for his history BA with studying for a BSc at the London School of Economics, exiled in Cambridge for the duration of the war. There he was taught by Eileen Power, Michael Postan, and Harold Laski.

Briggs graduated in 1941 with a first in both parts of the history tripos, simultaneously gaining a first in economics from the LSE, which offered him a Gerstenberg studentship for postgraduate study. Deciding to defer this position until after the war, he returned to teach at his old school, until he was conscripted on his twenty-first birthday the following year. On the advice of C. P. Snow he joined the Royal Signals Corps, undergoing his initial training at Catterick Camp in north Yorkshire and Trowbridge in Wiltshire. Then in 1943, on the recommendation of Howard Smith, a Cambridge friend, he was recruited to the Intelligence Corps. As a sergeant-major he became the youngest warrant officer in the army at that time. He went to work at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, part of the code-breaking unit led by Frank Adcock. This episode in his life—‘my second university’ (Serious Pursuits: Communications and Education, The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs, Vol 3, 1991, 7)—was not revealed until many years later, when he wrote a memoir about Bletchley. Working alongside other recruits such as Alan Turing and Roy Jenkins, he helped decipher enemy signals in the Mediterranean. He also contributed to Operation Bodyguard, duping the Germans into believing that the D-Day landings would take place somewhere other than Normandy.

Oxford and Leeds

Demobilized from the army, and encouraged by Hugh Dalton, Briggs considered standing for the Labour Party in the general election of 1945 in a safe Yorkshire seat. With his former college tutor, David Thomson, he contributed to a book about post-war peacemaking (later visiting occupied Germany). He also began his long connection with the BBC, writing and presenting talks for the Services Educational Unit and for the Schools Department.

Academia beckoned. Peterhouse, Cambridge, offered Briggs a fellowship, but he went instead to Worcester College, Oxford, where he became a fellow in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). His old Cambridge college tried to lure him back in 1950, but he remained in Oxford, appointed reader in recent social and economic history the same year. There, he taught the PPE syllabus (amongst his students were Rupert Murdoch and John Sainsbury). He teamed up with Hugh Clegg and Henry Pelling to teach labour history and developed his own optional course, ‘British social and economic history since 1760’. He also became involved in the Oxford branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, joining its roster of tutors in 1953 (becoming national vice-president in 1954 and president from 1958 to 1967). His commitment to widening education also led to his contribution to the early years of History Today (established in 1950).

From Oxford, Briggs developed his expertise on the Victorians. Keenly interested in the life of Joseph Chamberlain, he was commissioned to write the final volume of an official history of Birmingham, covering the period since 1865. By the time this work was published in 1952, his reviews and essays on the Victorian period (and much else) were dotted around academic journals as well as newspapers and magazines (principally the Manchester Guardian and the New Statesman). From 1953 he was also a regular presenter on the BBC’s light programme. To this compendious historical knowledge of the nineteenth century, Briggs added insights from economics, as well as urban sociology, the latter topped up by spells spent at the University of Chicago (as a Rockefeller fellow, 1952–3) and Princeton (as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, 1953–4). The first full fruit of this industry came in 1954 with the publication of Victorian People: A Reassessment of Peoples and Themes, 1851–67, a study of a series of representative men from the period (including Samuel Smiles, Robert Applegarth, Thomas Hughes, Anthony Trollope, and Benjamin Disraeli).

In 1955 Briggs left Oxford, returning to the West Riding of Yorkshire, to Leeds, where he was appointed to replace Norman Gash as professor of modern history. Newly married—on 1 September 1955, to Susan Anne Banwell (b. 1933), the daughter of Somerset farmers and a graduate of St Anne’s College, Oxford—he settled into the quintessentially Victorian city just as it was beginning to be redeveloped after the years of war and austerity. Within the history department he pushed for the expansion of the curriculum into non-European history, and he modernized some of its stuffy ways: addressing colleagues by their first names and dispensing with his gown when lecturing. He collaborated with John Saville, Edward Thompson, and others in the discussions that led in 1960 to the establishment of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

In Leeds, Susan and Asa Briggs started a family. Three of their four children, Katharine, Daniel, and Judith, were born during their time in the city, where their home in Roundhay was described by A. J. P. Taylor as ‘like Asa himself, small, squat and full of Victorian bric-a-brac’ (Smith, 13). A fourth child, Matthew, was born in Lewes. Briggs’s children grew up to the rat-ta-tat sound of the typewriter, as his prolific writing and reviewing expanded. Whilst at Leeds he completed a history of Lewis’s (the Liverpool department store), a landmark textbook history on nineteenth-century Britain (The Age of Improvement, 1959), an edited volume on Chartism, a Festschrift for G. D. H. Cole (the Oxford economist and historian, as well as sometime mentor to Briggs), and a biography of the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree.

Briggs’s family also grew used to the suitcase ready at the door. A 1956 profile noted that he ‘prefers the airport to the ivory tower’ (Observer, 30 Sept 1956). In 1951 he visited west Africa (under the auspices of the Delegacy for Extra-Mural Studies at Oxford) and met Kwame Nkrumah, writing up the trip in a series of syndicated articles. The following year, invited by the Army Education Corps, he went to Malaya during the state of emergency there, lecturing to British troops and taking in Hong Kong and Singapore. Trips to India (British Council, 1957) and Poland (1959) followed. He published overseas too: on Chartism and on the Labour party in Italian (1952 and 1956); and an influential essay on the welfare state in French in 1961.

Back home, Briggs added to his portfolio of public service. In 1957 Sir Ian Jacob, director-general of the BBC, invited him to write the history of the corporation, a commission that Briggs modified into a history of broadcasting and which, over the next four decades, spawned a new discipline (media history), as well as leading to the creation of the BBC’s own archive (now at Caversham). The first of five volumes of the history, dealing with the decades before the beginning of the BBC, was published in 1961. Briggs’s work in this field later earned him the Marconi medal for communications history from the Aspen Institute in Colorado (1975). He also joined the University Grants Commission in 1959, just as the Treasury, anticipating the post-war baby boom and heeding calls inspired by the ‘space race’ for scientific and technological innovation, had agreed to a major expansion of the universities.

Sussex

Briggs was at the forefront of the dynamic growth of higher education in the 1960s. In 1960, just as he was about to leave for a six-month sabbatical at the Australian National University in Canberra, he was invited by Sir John Fulton, the vice-chancellor-designate of the University of Sussex, to become professor of history and dean of social studies. Briggs took on the roles from 1961 with gusto. Charged by Fulton with overseeing academic organization, he arrived at Sussex with a new ‘map of learning’. Interdisciplinary undergraduate programmes encouraged students to move across subjects in the arts, sciences, and social sciences. Seminars displaced lectures (a switch Briggs had already encouraged at Leeds). New teaching methods such as document packs and course readers, and intra-campus television for teaching and training, were launched under his watch. He also helped bring the Institute of Development Studies and the Science Policy Research Unit to Sussex.

Although in demand elsewhere—both York and Keele wanted him as vice-chancellor—Briggs succeeded Fulton as vice-chancellor of Sussex in 1967. Under Briggs the university continued to grow, notably in postgraduate numbers, and bring in new resources, for example the Mass Observation Archive. Briggs cultivated local philanthropy: Caffyns, the car dealers, supported the costs of the secular Meeting House, part of Basil Spence’s original campus design, which opened in 1966, and Reginald Phillips, a local property developer, endowed various academic posts. With support from the Gulbenkian Foundation and Thomas Lyddon Gardner, chairman of Yardleys, the cosmetics manufacturer, the Gardner Arts Centre opened in 1969. Briggs made his family home in Lewes, a few minutes’ drive from the university, in a grade-two listed eighteenth-century house, The Caprons, in Keere Street, where he and Susan hosted the great and the good, their wide circle of friends including the actor and director Richard Attenborough and composer Benjamin Britten. Briggs became a trustee of Glyndebourne in 1965 (music was a lifelong passion), patron of the Charleston Festival (at the former Sussex home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant), helped establish the Brighton Film Theatre (in the old Prince’s Cinema in North Street), and later joined the board of governors and trustees of Brighton Pavilion.

Inevitably, his time as university impresario slowed Briggs’s academic output down to a more normal pace. Victorian Cities, arguably his finest work, appeared in 1963, setting new standards for comparative urban history. There were two further volumes of the history of broadcasting (in 1965 and 1970), the latter, The War of Words, doubling up as a social history of the Second World War. There was also another collection of essays on labour history, co-edited with Saville (1971; a third volume followed in 1977). There was no let-up in academic reviewing, with regular pieces for the Yorkshire Post (payment came in the form of a daily delivery of the Leeds paper to his home), the Financial Times, The Economist, New Society, The Guardian, and The Listener.

As vice-chancellor, Briggs steered Sussex through the campus radicalism of the era. In March 1970, when students interrupted a lecture he was delivering in order to protest over claims that the university kept secret files on student activists, Briggs asked for their patience until he was done and then stayed behind for an hour to assure the hecklers that there was no such surveillance. He later joked that his tactics for dealing with demonstrators came from his familiarity with the Chartists, but his reputation for even-handedness led the students’ union at the University of Stirling to ask him to arbitrate during the student occupations there in 1973. Despite giving up the presidency of the Workers’ Educational Association in 1967, he remained committed to the cause of opening up higher education, at Sussex bringing in day-release courses for shop stewards, weekend programmes for GPs, and seminars for magistrates’ clerks.

In 1967 Briggs was invited by the Labour government’s minister for the arts, Jennie Lee, to help set up the new ‘University of the Air’, or the Open University as it became known. He served on the planning committee for two years, advising on curriculum content and student development. When the Open University opened in 1970 he recorded a lecture, using film and music, on the history of Leeds for the arts foundation course. Later, he assisted in the introduction of the Open University in Hong Kong and Macau, and in 1978 he became the third chancellor of the Open University, a position he held, past the age of his formal retirement, until 1994.

Other significant public appointments came Briggs’s way. He joined the governing board of the British Film Institute in 1970. In the same year he was appointed by Labour’s education secretary, Richard Crossman, to chair a committee on the training of nurses. Briggs’s committee reported two years later to the government of Edward Heath, and some of its recommendations were taken up in the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act of 1979. Protection of the built environment was another call on his expertise. He chaired the UK education panel for the European Architectural Heritage Year in 1975 and from then on became involved with many conservation groups, such as the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches, the Civic Trust, the Victorian Society, and the William Morris Society. He also took up the cause of education overseas. He chaired the council of the European Institute of Education in Paris from 1974 to 1990, which drafted a common EEC policy on education. In 1974 he helped to establish the United Nations University, based in Tokyo, serving on its council until 1980.

Westminster, Oxford again, and retirement

Briggs was made a life peer in 1976 for services to education, although he rarely spoke in the House of Lords, where he sat as a crossbencher, only making his maiden speech three years later, with just ten more speeches in the years that followed. In the same year he left Sussex to become provost of his old Oxford college, Worcester. Whilst the university found little use for his experience, he and Susan revelled in the life of the college, which went mixed during his headship. He also took pride in the increase of science undergraduates.

Outside the college, Briggs presided over an interdisciplinary seminar on the history of the book, reviving a previous interest in the subject. Longmans had commissioned him in the early 1970s to write their history, he gave the Ellen McArthur lectures at Cambridge on ‘Commerce and culture: the publishing business in Britain’ in 1992, and finally, in 2008, A History of Longman appeared. As part of this, Briggs advised on the creation of an archives centre for the publishing and printing industry at the University of Reading. Oral history also benefited from Briggs’s touch. With Paul Thompson at the University of Essex, he began the National Life Stories Collection at the British Library in 1987, participating in fifteen hours of interviews as one of Thompson’s subjects. There were more international assignments. Also in 1987, Briggs assisted in the start-up of the Commonwealth of Learning, based in Vancouver, a distance higher-education provider with similarities to the Open University.

At Oxford Briggs returned to the history of broadcasting, with two further volumes published in 1979 and 1995, before BBC director-general John Birt suspended the project. Emulating G. M. Trevelyan, Briggs authored A Social History of England (1983), a huge commercial success, although of disappointment to academic reviewers. He also completed his nineteenth-century trilogy, with Victorian Things published in 1988. There were more commissioned histories, of Marks and Spencer and Toynbee Hall (both 1984), Victoria Wine (1985), and the Leverhulme Trust (1991). The Ford lectures at Oxford in 1991, on ‘Culture and communication in Victorian England’, were Briggs’s swansong as a historian. To his dismay, they were unpublished, but some of the material went into the widely translated book he co-authored with his former Sussex colleague, Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media from Gutenberg to the Internet (2001).

Briggs’s retirement from Worcester College in 1991 brought a wave of accolades: a Festschrift in 1990, the Wolfson history prize in 2000, and the Medlicott medal from the Historical Association in 2010, to add to the many honorary doctorates received over the years. He had been elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1980. Presidencies of the Social History Society, the British Association for Local History, and the Society for the Study of Medicine all registered his status as a pioneer. By 1991 three volumes of his essays had been published, but there was more to come. Further commissioned histories, on the Haut-Brion vineyard (1994) and of the Royal College of Physicians (2005), appeared, as well as a study of the Channel Islands during the Second World War (1995) and a substantial biography of Michael Young, the sociologist and founder of the Consumers’ Association (2001). With former colleagues, Briggs also edited Fins de Siècle: How Centuries End, 1400–2000 (with Daniel Snowman, 1996), and wrote Modern Europe, 1789–1989 (with Patricia Clavin, 1997).

Susan and Asa Briggs kept their house in Lewes but also purchased a wing of Tyninghame House in East Lothian, Scotland, as a vacation retreat and home for Briggs’s hoard of books, antiques, pottery (including a mini-collection of ceramic statuettes of Sun Yat-Sen and Mao), and other curios from his years of globetrotting. Well into his nineties he maintained his daily writing routine. There were three volumes of memoirs and a collection of his poetry (published a month after his death). One more book, Victorian Music: A Social and Cultural History (jointly authored with Janet Lovegrove) appeared posthumously, in 2018.

With his polished Yorkshire brogue, down-to-earth manner, and career mostly spent in the civic and ‘plate-glass’ universities, Briggs was never truly part of the post-war establishment. Yet he rescued the Victorians from the doldrums, put the new campuses of the 1960s on the map, and championed the expansion of higher education at home and overseas. Rightly he was described as the ‘Macaulay of the Welfare State’ (London Review of Books, 6 June 1985). He died at The Caprons in Lewes on 15 March 2016 and was survived by his wife and children.

Sources

  • G. Smith, ‘Asa Briggs: a personal profile’, Cities, class and communication: essays in honour of Asa Briggs, D. Fraser, ed. (1990), 10-21
  • A. Briggs, Codebreaking in Bletchley Park: a memoir of hut six and the Enigma machine (2011)
  • A. Briggs, Special relationships: people and places (2012)
  • A. Briggs, Loose ends and extras (2014)
  • M. Taylor ed., The age of Asa: Lord Briggs, public life and history in Britain since 1945 (2015)
  • The Times (17 Mar 2016); (19 Mar 2016); (23 Mar 2016); (26 Mar 2016)
  • Daily Telegraph (17 Mar 2016); (5 Oct 2016)
  • The Guardian (17 Mar 2016); (28 Mar 2016)
  • The Independent (17 Mar 2016)
  • Keighley News (21 Mar 2016)
  • D. Read, The Historian (Spring 2016), 37
  • P. Faulkner, Journal of William Morris Studies, 21/4 (2016), 5–7
  • P. Thane, Biog Mem FBA, 16 (2017), 529–55
  • WW (2016)
  • personal knowledge (2020)
  • private information (2020)

Archives

  • Worcester College, Oxford

Film

  • J. Harris, interview, June 1991, U. Lond., Institute of Historical Research
  • J. Nickerson and A. Briggs, interview, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN59EdP-iNg, accessed 13 August 2019
  • documentary, interview, and current affairs footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

Likenesses

  • G. Argent, bromide print, 1970, NPG
  • J. Bown, bromide print, 1971, NPG
  • J. Bown, bromide print, 1999, NPG [see illus.]
  • N. McBeath, bromide print, 1992, NPG
  • W. Teakle, bromide print, 1994, NPG
  • L. Morley, resin print, 1960s, NPG
  • D. Hill, oils, 1989, Worcester College, Oxford
  • P. Greenham, oils, 1987, Worcester College, Oxford
  • obituary photographs
marriage certificate
birth certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive
death certificate
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
(1920–)