- J. F. C. Harrison:Craftsman Historian of the Common People, 1921–2018: A Personal View
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I was one of John Harrison's first graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in 1961. Wisconsin was a strange choice for me: a famous centre for American history where perversely I intended to specialize in Tudor England! But it turned out to be a lucky choice because when I began working with John, I found my real intellectual home. Both the University climate and John's practice of the social and labour history of modern Britain helped me to define my academic interests and political direction. I was privileged to work with a scholar who brought new perspectives to the study of labour lives and movements and whose whole opus was devoted to studying 'the history of ordinary people' and finding ways to balance the shaping forces of context with the agency of individuals who still managed to create their own unique lives.1
John's own socially mobile journey, described in his 1995 autobiography, made him sensitive to class relations and to cultural differences within social classes. He was born in Leicester into a family which had just moved off the land into lower-middle-class urban respectability. His father started as a railway clerk and ended as a rail company rep; his mother was a certificated teacher who gave up work outside the home once she married. She was a powerful woman and excellent manager who ruled the household (and her husband, according to John). She had upward social aspirations, 'prided herself on her correct English' and almost found the local co-op store 'too [End Page 329] proletarian' except that the annual 'divi' was equal to her husband's weekly wage so she overcame her distaste and the family became members. (Scholarship Boy, pp. 10, 19) During the hungry 1920s and 30s John's childhood was economically secure and 'relatively untroubled'. He described his family's lower- middle-class suburban culture as mainly 'keeping ourselves to ourselves': life was 'not organised on a neighbourhood basis: there were no corner shops, no pubs, no street life'. (Scholarship Boy, pp. 58–9) Social contacts beyond the family were made at church or chapel, in sporting clubs or by playing bridge. John's father voted Liberal and later Labour; his mother, not surprisingly, was a firm Tory.
By the time John entered Selwyn College Cambridge as a scholarship boy in 1939, his politics had moved left. In high school a teacher and his wife, both keen communists, had taken John under their wing, lent him books, involved him in exciting discussions and generally 'completely enchanted' him. At university, with the Spanish Civil War and the fight against fascism at the top of the agenda, John 'threw himself' into the socialist movement. He felt at that time that Marxist socialism offered 'both an understanding and an alternative'. (Scholarship Boy, pp. 77–8, 90) The Second World War interrupted his university course. He was sent for officer training to Sandhurst and then posted to command a troop of Askari soldiers in East Africa, where he met with belief systems very different from his own and witnessed the power of magic. He returned to Cambridge in 1945, the same year that he married his sweetheart Margaret, a domestic science teacher and an accomplished craftswoman.
In 1947, John joined a brilliant group of tutors in the Leeds University Extra-mural Department which provided teachers for Workers' Educational Association classes. His colleagues included E. P. Thompson, and support came from Asa Briggs, Professor in the conventional history department. They formed a Labour History Club which brought together diverse socialist historians from places like Sheffield and Hull as well. In 1959, John contributed chapters on Leicester and Leeds to the volume of Chartist Studies edited by Briggs. While at Leeds, John did a part-time PhD which was published as A History of the Working Men's College, 1854–1954, and in 1961 he brought out Learning and Living 1790–1960: a Study in the History of English Adult Education. Here he broke new ground by revealing the...