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  • The History Woman:Joan Thirsk (1922–2013)
  • Pamela Sharpe (bio)

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‘Historians of Past and Present’, Stephen Frederick Godfrey Farthing, oil on canvas, 1999. Joan Thirsk seated on right, facing Christopher Hill.

It should not surprise us that the passing of Joan Thirsk in October 2013 resulted not only in many obituaries but also in workshops and conference sessions that took inspiration from her work. Thirsk was a pioneer female historian working in a male-dominated institution (Oxford University) and a male-orientated field (economic history). According to a recent Royal Historical Society report on gender equality in history, the members and participants in the Economic History Society which it analyzed after its first [End Page 335] twenty-five years, in 2014, routinely divide at seventy-five percent male and twenty-five percent female.1

Joan was the doctoral supervisor of many of those who are engaged in agrarian history today.2 The contribution of her working life did not receive the recognition it deserved. She went out of her way to be encouraging to more junior female historians. I was never a Thirsk student but perhaps because of my interest in the history of the English lace industry I received appreciative notes from Joan for years. But in the keenness to commemorate Joan I believe there is more at stake. I speculate that reflection on Joan’s work involves a sense of mourning for the particular type of contribution that she and others made to economic history, now increasingly difficult to carry out.

Born in 1922, Joan Watkins did not have a rural upbringing despite her later research interests. She grew up in north London and studied French and German at Westfield College. When war broke out she was on a college placement in Switzerland and had an anxious return to England. Westfield was evacuated to Oxford but due to her facility in languages, Joan became a civilian in the Auxiliary Territorial Services at the age of twenty. So her formative years were spent at Bletchley Park – home of the codebreakers – and it was there that she met her husband James (Jimmy) Thirsk. As he wrote in his memoir Bletchley Park was full of ‘young men and women who had a zest for living and who had the stamina to use their brains for long hours, often through the night’.3 While at Bletchley Joan decided to change her future research area to history. Nevertheless the continental European influence on her work remained substantial, especially her nuanced approach to regional geographic diversity and her use of secondary sources published only in French or German. She assumed that others had similar abilities in languages, as I found out when she asked me to deliver a lecture at the Sorbonne in her stead and reminded me that my French would need to be fluent when I got there. As it happened I was moving to Australia the week the lecture was scheduled and had to decline.

Joan’s University of London doctoral thesis was supervised by R. H. Tawney and investigated the sale of Royalist land in the Interregnum. Once it was completed she became Senior Research Fellow in Agrarian History in the Centre for English Local History at Leicester University from 1951, just three years after its formation in 1948. W. G. Hoskins had famously founded the Centre, but left for Oxford the year Joan was appointed. He set Joan to work on a history of rural Leicestershire and in this she made pioneering use of probate inventories. It may be that her findings then and later about rural industry are highly contingent on the nature of that source, but its use illuminated a whole area of ‘industries in the countryside’ that was largely hidden in other sources.4 During her Leicester years Joan had two young children and mainly carried out her work in London archives, travelling to Leicester every Wednesday. Her editing work, started at that time, was substantial. She was an editor of [End Page 336] Past and Present from 1957 right through to 1992 and oversaw The Agrarian History of England and Wales from 1964 to 1972. This had been...


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