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  • Alun Howkins:Teacher and Mentor
  • Rohan McWilliam (bio)

Shortly after Alun Howkins passed away in 2018, I wrote to Malcolm Chase at the University of Leeds lamenting this huge loss. Malcolm had been part of the Graduate School at the University of Sussex with me in the early 1980s. He responded by saying that Alun was really the 'second supervisor for all of us'. This captures something of how we saw him. Second supervisors were less common at that time but we did not need one: we had Alun.

No one embodied History at Sussex University better than Alun Howkins: committed to interdisciplinarity, left-wing politics and the making of people's histories. He loomed over our student years in the best way. He had a presence that lit up a teaching room even before he walked in the door and he never believed that teaching stopped when the seminar was over. He was always fascinated by his students and (in a phrase he often used) was prepared to go to the wall for them if there was a problem. My earliest memory of Alun comes from my first day as an undergraduate in 1979. A talk about the University's interdisciplinary 'contextual' courses became a rant about the new Tory government which, he said, was stealing our education from us ('mind you, the last government wasn't much better').

Alun was an enabling presence teaching us to write history. He believed archives were places of liberation. Alun talked us through the process by which he researched his study of Whitsun in nineteenth-century Oxfordshire (which had appeared in 1972 as History Workshop pamphlet no. 8) and showed us how taking song, dance and entertainment seriously was a way of creating important new forms of social history. The big question for him, when looking at the past, was: whose side are you on? What mattered was the reality of people's lives and what was done to them. Alun, I think, saw the historian as a kind of avenging angel: exposing social injustice and the realities of exploitation. We saw his rage when confronted with unfairness both in the past and the present. At the same time, he exuded warmth because he genuinely cared about other people. 'Hello, comrade' was his usual greeting. He meant it.

As many have said, Alun seemed to know about everything. He had the very Sussex view that there were no frontiers on the map of learning. Despite his own work on the nineteenth century, he would, for example, talk brilliantly about the English Civil War and the seventeenth century. We may associate him with his work on late Victorian rural life but he also wrote with passion about Britain in the 1930s. Alun encouraged us to always think [End Page 323] deeply about economic history (a perspective that is too easily forgotten today). Many of us will remember Alun holding court in the Gardner Arts Centre bar (following the weekly work-in-progress seminar), where he would mix bonhomie and a love of beer with deep intellectual seriousness. He was never frivolous nor a dilettante. I last saw him a couple of years ago when I got him to Anglia Ruskin University to talk about rural radicalism in Victorian East Anglia. He spoke with deep authority and took us into the lives of the labouring poor and the ways they began to organize. We saw the full richness of history from below emerge from his talk with its sensitivity to the texture of popular experience. It is how I will want to remember him: passionate, engaged, entranced by his sources. [End Page 324]

Rohan McWilliam

Rohan McWilliam ( is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge) and a former President of the British Association for Victorian Studies. He is at work on a social and cultural history of the West End of London since 1800.



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