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Jeffery, Keith Johnlocked

  • Brian Holden Reid

Jeffery, Keith John (1952–2016), historian, was born on 11 January 1952 at 356 Ravenhill Road, Belfast, the youngest of three children (following his sister, Elizabeth, and brother, Brian) of Frederick (Fred) Jeffery (1914–1997), headmaster, and his wife, Gladys Elizabeth, née England (1919–2015). At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 16 Onslow Gardens, Belfast. His father came from Sunderland, co. Durham, and his mother from Athy, co. Kildare. His father was headmaster of Downey House, the preparatory school for the Methodist College, and later a vice-principal of the college. Keith Jeffery attended both schools before going to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read history, winning the prince consort prize and Seeley medal. He then undertook PhD research under the supervision of Jack Gallagher. On 7 August 1976, in Truro Cathedral, he married Sally Alexandra Visick (b. 1953), a Cambridge contemporary and landscape architect, daughter of Alec Cecil Visick, engineer. They had two sons, Benjamin (Ben) and Alexander (Alex).

In 1977, in the first paper he delivered to the military history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, Jeffery insisted that he was an imperial and not a military historian. His subsequent career defied this assertion, however. Appointed to a lectureship at Ulster Polytechnic in 1978, he quickly completed two books, States of Emergency (1983, with Peter Hennessy) and The British Army and the Crisis of Empire, 191822 (1984). The latter—based on his doctoral thesis—was an incisive survey of ‘how the structure of war imperialism was gradually but inexorably demolished’ (p. 10). In 1984 Ulster Polytechnic merged with the New University of Ulster to become the University of Ulster. As the founding secretary of the Army Records Society, Jeffery assembled The Military Correspondence of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, 19181922 (1985) and set the standard to which all subsequent volumes aspired. He also made a major contribution to the creation of a prosperous and successful learned society. In 1988 he also brought his administrative talents to bear when appointed to the joint editorship of Irish Historical Studies.

Promoted senior lecturer and then reader, Jeffery was a well-organized and diligent scholar. A stream of works appeared, Men, Women and War: Historical Studies, XVIII (ed., with T. G. Fraser, 1993), based on a conference organized by the Irish Conference of Historians, the splendid A Military History of Ireland (ed,, with Thomas Bartlett, 1996) and his 1998 Cambridge Lees Knowles lectures, Ireland and the Great War (1999). In 2003–04 his prominence as an Irish historian was rewarded by a Parnell fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge. During these years he also established himself as a lecturer of renown and not just in Cambridge: he served as visiting fellow at the Australian National University and Defence Academy in 1997–8; gave the Phillimore lecture at the British Library in 2003; the Stout lecture at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, the following year, and the third Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies lecture at Aberystwyth in 2006. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 2009.

After twenty-seven years at Ulster, being appointed professor in 1997, Jeffery became professor of British history at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2005. He followed this move with the publication of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: a Political Soldier (2006), one of his most important works. This biography of a mercurial and staunchly Unionist soldier won the Templer medal awarded by the Society for Army Historical Research. Jeffery’s later dissection of the myths surrounding Wilson’s assassination in 1922 in the Times Literary Supplement (4 May 2007) was one of his finest essays.

In 2005 Jeffery was selected as the official historian of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) and given privileged access to its papers. MI6: the History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 19091949 (2010) was delivered to mark the centenary of SIS’s foundation, on schedule despite Jeffery’s falling victim to cancer and undergoing three debilitating operations within weeks of its completion. He wisely decided that the book should deal with the institutional evolution of the SIS and the intricate process of intelligence collation. As he put it, the ‘story of human intelligence is not generally one of fiendishly clever master spies’ (p. xiv). None the less, it included plenty of memorable details. At the launch of the book in the Durbar Court at the Foreign Office in London, Jeffery told wonderful anecdotes about the start of the cold war, including British agents being parachuted into the Caucasus disguised as Argentine ice-cream salesmen. His final book, 1916: a Global History, appeared in 2015. But in the same year his cancer returned. He retired from Queen’s at the start of 2016 and on 12 February died at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. He was survived by his wife and sons.

Keith Jeffery was a wise and humane man and historian of verve and style. Always great fun, consistently courteous and generous, he loved to entertain. Among his joys were cooking and fine wine. He was musical, with a resonant bass voice frequently heard at the concerts of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir. In 1974 he coxed the first eight of the Lady Margaret Boat Club (as the St John’s College boat club is known) to the head of the river. From his father he inherited a loyalty to Sunderland Football Club but his real sporting passion in later life was for Irish rugby. Quick, lively of retort—with darting brown eyes behind his spectacles—he had a habit during discussion of looking to the left as if doubting, while simultaneously sustaining his own point of view with a witty aside. Throughout his career he maintained a beguiling Ulster diffidence. Above all else, he exhibited an unflagging commitment to the study of history. All his books were characterized by clear argument and powerful focus. He could be acerbic about those whom he disliked but was never arrogant. He proved a pioneer in three areas of historical scholarship that gained prominence during the last two decades of the twentieth century: on the decline of British power, modern Irish history, and the relationship of intelligence to military policy, strategy, and statecraft. To these themes he brought wit, discernment, and an unflagging zest for scholarship.


  • Irish News (15 Feb 2016)
  • Belfast Telegraph (17 Feb 2016); (23 Feb 2016)
  • The Times (21 Feb 2016)
  • The Guardian (18 March 2016)
  • Irish Times (19 March 2016)
  • Daily Telegraph (28 March 2016)
  • G. Bennett, ‘Keith Jeffery, intelligence historian (1952–2016)’, Journal of Intelligence and Terrorism Studies (2016)
  • personal knowledge (2020)
  • private information (2020)


  • obituary photographs
death certificate
marriage certificate