Asa Briggs

Daniel Snowman meets the co-founder of the University of Sussex and doyen of Victorian history.

Thought, work and progress: the key words of mid-Victorian England according to Asa Briggs. And they might stand as the personal motto of Lord Briggs of Lewes, a man whose monumental productivity as scholar, author and doer of good public works would have won him the plaudits of a Prince Albert or a Gladstone. But if the burghers of Leeds or Lewes ever decide to erect a statue of Asa Briggs, I hope they don’t make it look too earnest, for he is the most engaging of men, utterly without pretension. ‘I suppose I am a bit of a Victorian,’ he acknowledges, but with an almost schoolboyish grin which instantly offsets any suggestion of stuffiness.

The author of The Age of Improvement was born in Keighley in 1921 and rose through sheer ability, and an unquenchable thirst for hard work, to become Professor of History at Leeds, co-founder and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, Chancellor of the Open University, Chairman or President of a score of learned and historical societies and author of countless articles and books great and small. You can read Briggs on Victorian cities, people and things, on steam and transportation, public health and education, science and technology, music and literature, food and drink, sport and public entertainment, print and publishing, Chartism and the Channel Islands and, in five mighty tomes, on the history of British broadcasting. Chronologically he ranges from prehistory (in the opening chapter of hisSocial History of England) to the present and future (in Fins de Siècle), while his core writings about Victorian England are peppered with comparative material from or about Sydney and Melbourne, New York and Chicago, Dublin, Lyons, Tokyo and Berlin.

Samuel Smiles, apostle of self-help, would have approved. Grandfather Briggs, an engineer (like Asa’s father), heard Smiles’s lecture and told his grandson about them years later. ‘My grandfather got me interested in history,’ Briggs recalls. ‘He took me to every abbey and castle and small town in Yorkshire when I was a boy.’ It was through his grandfather, too, that Asa developed a lifelong interest in science and technology. His mother’s family farmed land in nearby Oxenhope where the cashier in the mill was a Mr Butterfield – whose son Herbert was also to become one of England’s best-known historians.

A scholarship to Keighley Grammar School led Briggs, under the influence of a forceful and encouraging headmaster, to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Here he famously obtained not only a Double First in History but also – concurrently (and in secret from his college) – a First in Economics as an external student at the LSE, which was evacuated to Cambridge during the war. Thus, Briggs was able to feast at the table of Postan and Saltmarsh, Oakeshott and Ernest Barker, Hayek, Laski and Eileen Power. He revelled in the richesse, devouring lectures, consuming books and pouring out weekly essays for both sets of masters on such diverse subjects as medieval and constitutional history, political philosophy and economic theory.

His versatility was soon to be stretched yet further. After a brief stint teaching at his old school, Briggs was called up into the Royal Corps of Signals where he learned Morse and was trained in fast interception. Then he received a call: he was to go on a cryptographic course – and thence to Bletchley where he spent three years as part of the top-secret team that broke the Enigma code.

While still at Bletchley, Briggs was wooed by both Oxford and Cambridge, finally accepting a Fellowship at Worcester College, Oxford, where he obtained a Readership and stayed for ten years. He was wooed by Churchill, too, who had asked Bill Deakin to recruit bright young historians (Alan Bullock was another) to help check the text of his forthcoming History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Apparently the curmudgeonly old aristocrat was graciously receptive to the strictures of the Keighley scholarship boy, even when Briggs accused him of having been – of all things – too Marxist in his interpretation of the American Constitution. But the most substantial products of Briggs’ Oxford years were his history of Birmingham (a work of ‘total history’, not to mention urban and social history, well before such things became commonplace) and a bustling volume of essays on mid-Victorian ‘persons and themes’ which he entitled Victorian People.

In October 1955, Asa Briggs, recently married and still only thirty-four, became Professor of Modern History at Leeds University. Here, this natural bridge-builder brought the history of social and scientific thought into the syllabus, introduced an experimental series of History ‘general’ subjects and discovered a taste for spotting and hiring new talent. He also developed a profound distaste for academic territoriality and departmentalism. At Leeds, Briggs was already ‘redrawing the map of learning’, something he was soon invited to do on a far wider scale.

The University of Sussex was to Asa Briggs what the Great Exhibition had been to Prince Albert or the BBC to Reith: a visionary undertaking for the betterment of the nation. Sussex was the first of seven ‘New Universities’ planned for the 1960s, all placed near coasts and cathedrals in deliberate contrast to the urban ‘redbrick’ of Leeds, Manchester and the rest. Briggs was there from the start, appointed to take overall charge of academic affairs.

Briggs at Sussex was a torrent, a dynamo, an engine. Buildings were designed and assigned, deans and dons appointed (I was lucky enough to be one of them), new concepts coined. Students would major in the ‘core subject’ of their choice (somewhat in the American style) while also studying a series of ‘contextual’ subjects in the ‘Schools of Study’ to which they were assigned. Quality control was guaranteed by an Oxbridge-style tutorial system. Buzz words in this academic terra nova were ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘cross-cultural’. There were taboo words, too; what ‘sex’ was to the Victorians, ‘departments’ were to Sussex.

Throughout this surge of social engineering, Briggs remained an active historian. He had already embarked upon what must have seemed the commission of (and doubtless for!) a lifetime: a multi-volume history of British broadcasting. The first instalment appeared in 1961: four hundred packed pages chronicling the birth of the British Broadcasting Company and its transformation into a Corporation. Briggs had research help throughout the broadcasting project. If the outcome sometimes reflects the official sources on which it is largely based, it is worth remembering that there was little ‘media’ or ‘cultural’ history when Briggs began, and it is perhaps unfair to criticise a pioneer for not having adopted an approach that his own work helped stimulate. One of the by-products of Briggs’ work, incidentally, was that he was able to persuade the BBC to set up a properly catalogued written archive at Caversham.

He also found time during the early years at Sussex to writeVictorian Cities, a richly allusive set of essays on the pattern of Victorian People which brought together years of accumulated research and personal experience of Birmingham and Leeds, Manchester, Melbourne and Middlesbrough, and that great ‘world’ city, London.

Briggs became Vice-Chancellor in 1967 and soon found himself having to pilot Sussex through the choppy waters of student protest. But not even the most disaffected student could accuse the VC – self-evidently a conscientious academic who wrote books, gave lectures and talked to students – of being a grey administrator. As a result, Sussex was a pretty happy ship, experiencing nothing like the disruption that afflicted (for example) the University of Essex or the LSE. Briggs remained at the helm for a decade, finally leaving Sussex in 1976. That year he was given a life peerage. Before accepting, he made it clear to prime minister Callaghan that he would not accept a party whip in the Lords, and would not have time to attend very often. Apart from everything else, he had a new job.

As Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, Lord Briggs was, in a sense, going home. This was where he had done his earliest historical research and penned his first books. To many great men of action, the headship of an Oxbridge college is a final reward for a life of service, grassland for a warhorse no longer required for serious battle. Retired cabinet ministers, ambassadors and even professors have learned to enjoy the unrelenting round of drinks and homage that come with the territory, and who can complain if their presence brings the college added lustre? Briggs is not averse to such pastimes and good company, but he went to Worcester for more than that. For fifteen years (until 1991 when he was seventy) he moved and shook with the mightiest of them. But he also tried, as he had at Sussex, to break down the barriers between teachers and taught, artists and scientists, town and gown. One of Briggs’s proudest achievements as Provost was to make the house (previously the abode of the formidable Oliver Franks) more accessible to undergraduates.

Meanwhile, the great broadcasting juggernaut pushed its way through to the war years and beyond, while in 1983 Briggs published the most important longitudinal study of English social history since Trevelyan, a book bursting with typically Briggsian detail about coins and medals, ballads and baubles, cities and seasides – plus much of the politics which Trevelyan had proclaimed inappropriate to social history. A couple of years later Briggs’ collected essays began to appear in volume form.

My own favourite among Briggs’s books, and I suspect it may be his, is Victorian Things, a companion piece to its predecessors on People and Cities, which appeared in 1988. The Victorians filled their lives and packed their homes with objects: hats and bonnets, stamps and matches, pots and pans, tongs and coal scuttles, photos, phones and phonographs. Victorian Things makes no claim to be comprehensive, nor does Briggs squeeze arcane symbolism from his multifarious bits and bobs as a French semiologist might have done. But, in its undemonstrative way, the book breaks new ground as Briggs gives pride of place to the objects themselves. Things, more than documents, are the new emissaries from the past.

Here, as so often, it is Briggs’ insatiable curiosity about the past that drives his history. If he tends to give less prominence than some historians to analysis and explanation it is because he objects to ‘premature generalisation’ and the sterile academic debates this can lead to. Rather, he attempts to communicate the direct experience of the past to his readers via the detail, backed up by an army of apposite quotations. Briggs typically dazzles with detail – especially, perhaps, in the Victorian trilogy where an overall picture emerges of a sensible, bourgeois world populated by energetic people genuinely dedicated to the idea of ameliorating their lot and that of their progeny. An age of improvement, indeed.

At seventy-eight, Asa Briggs, looking and sounding like a man ten years younger, remains as industrious as ever. Projects and presidencies come and go. The Workers’ Educational Association and the Open University, the University Grants Committee, the Labour and Social History Societies, the Commonwealth of Learning, the Booker Committee and Glyndebourne Trust, the Bronte Society, Ephemera Society, Victorian Society and the editorial board of journals and magazines (including this one) – Briggs has sat on them all and chaired most. With homes in Lewes and Scotland, an office in London and a hideaway in Portugal, he still rushes to and from trains and planes. Deadlines loom. New projects are accepted while previous ones lie unfinished. Recent books include collaborations with Patricia Clavin on a volume on European History since 1789, Roy Porter on Bethlem and myself on Fins de Siècle, plus a short history of Chartism (for a series of pocket histories of which he is general editor). Next off the assembly line are a book about Michael Young and a history of the Royal College of Physicians, while awaiting completion are a history of Longman, a book with Peter Burke on the history of communications and a project about forms of work during the Second World War. As for the BBC, Briggs was furious when the Corporation closed its broadcasting history unit and is determined to do a volume, entirely under his own steam, to include the John Birt years.

What has driven the engine so ferociously for so long? Why does Briggs still work so hard, travel so extensively? Has he written too much? Briggs knows all the jibes about ‘Lord Briggs of Heathrow’ and laughs them off without quite denying their truth. ‘I love writing,’ he says, ‘and am never completely happy unless I have a book on the go.’ There is a moral dimension, too. ‘I always feel there are certain questions that I ought to look at,’ says Briggs, evidently inspired by the sense of service that also motivated the Victorians. His critics say that no one man can master the range of topics Briggs writes about and point to phrases, quotations and examples that recur in Briggs’ writings. Some of his writings are indeed partly reworkings of earlier material. Also, the style and subject matter are highly discreet in a rather old-fashioned way; if you want to find out about Disraeli’s sex life or Rowntree’s drinking, don’t go looking in Briggs. This is doubtless because Briggs abhors the modern obsession with prurience. But some readers also sense a busy writer skating along the public surface of a topic and missing some of the more suggestive crevasses beneath.

As this chronicler, beneficiary and product of Victorian idealism looks back over our own times he perceives what he believes to be the rise and decline of many of our great institutions of public improvement – the BBC, the Arts Council and the National Health Service, for example. It is deeply ironic that this apostle of all that was best in Victorian values should have seen them evoked, erroneously in his view, by a prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who aspired to tear down so much that genuine Victorian values had helped to erect.

There is a further reason why we are losing touch with the qualities bequeathed by our Victorian ancestors, of course, and that is the sheer passage of time. The Victorians, so well remembered (and in some cases encountered) when Briggs was a lad, have long since passed away, and the Victorian era itself will shortly become ‘the century before last’. The revival of interest in the Victorian era, which Briggs (with John Betjeman) did so much to pioneer and spearhead, is ebbing away as younger scholars gravitate towards more recent periods.

Perhaps each generation is attracted to the era just outside its own collective memory. That is healthy enough, and Briggs holds no special brief for the primacy of Victorian studies. But he worries that our political leaders encourage very little sense of history (and fulminates about the lack of history in the Dome – an exhibition presumably mounted to mark a calendrical watershed). To Asa Briggs, nobody can expect to plan the future who does not also understand the forces which have created the present. But this preternatural optimist is not given to cursing the darkness. Briggs’ instincts, rather, are to light a candle by which to get on with the next job. Whichever of the many on his plate that might be…

  • Daniel Snowman’s most recent book (co-edited with Asa Briggs) was about ends of centuries. He is currently writing a book about the cultural and intellectual impact on Britain of the émigrés from Hitler’s Central Europe.