Publication Date

April 1, 2005

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

The distinguished social historian Harold Perkin died in London on October 15, 2004, after a short illness. Perkin retired in 1997 from Northwestern University, where he had served as professor of history from 1985. Before coming to Northwestern from Britain, Perkin taught at the University of Lancaster from 1965 to 1984, first as senior lecturer and then from 1967 as professor of social history (the first such position in Britain); and at the University of Manchester from 1951 to 1965.

Perkin was born in 1926 in Hanley, later renamed Stoke-on-Trent, in the Potteries. His father was construction worker, but he also had relatives in other social orders, from the poorest of labourers to well-off factory owners. This "society-wide family" as he called it, was his inspiration for social history. A self-described "clever clogs from the terraces," Perkin won at age 11 a scholarship to Hanley High School, and subsequently a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1945. In his memoir, The Making of a Social Historian (2002), he recalled his family’s shock at seeing the university’s checklist of “necessary” items for new students, including damask tablecloths and a dinner service for 12! At Cambridge Perkin read British constitutional history, European history, and a new subject—economic history, which included much social history. Among his most influential teachers were Michael Oakeshott, Charles Wilson, and R. J. White. Perkin won a “starred first” in 1948.

Perkin began his academic career as a staff tutor in economic and social history with the Manchester University Extra-Mural Department in 1950, after a tour of duty in the RAF. It was while serving with the RAF that he married Joan Griffiths, also a child of the Potteries. Her later career as a women's historian gave Perkin enormous satisfaction.

Perkin was one of the leaders of the "social history revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s. He served as editor from 1958 of the well-known series Studies in Social History, published in Britain by Routledge and in North America by the University of Toronto Press. He was also the founder and first chairman of the Social History Society of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1985. But of course he was best known for his own works of social history. In the mid-1950s, Perkin outlined what he thought would be his first book, a history of the professionalization of modern Britain. But that book would wait another thirty years, for Perkin discovered he first needed to write its "prequel," which becameOrigins of Modern English Society, 1780–1880 (1969). This superb volume of original synthesis gave a history of the English social structure itself, as it was transformed from the pre-industrial hierarchy to the class society of the mid-19th century. Perkin contended that the industrial revolution was made possible by the very structure of the open hierarchy of the 18th century, and it involved enormous social as well as economic changes. This book became the standard interpretation of 19th century social history for subsequent generations of historians.

In the final chapters of Origins, Perkin forecast the rise of the professions, which in his judgment came to dominate British society. That story he told in a second impressive book, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (1989). In it, Perkin argued that class society reached its climax in the 1920s, to be succeeded by professional society, which in turn was split in the 1980s by a clash between public sector professionals and private sector professionals. And in telling that story, Perkin presented a very full social and economic history of Britain since the late Victorian period.

A third volume in what Perkin regarded as a trilogy appeared in 1996: The Third Revolution: International Professional Elites. This was a comparative history of professional elites across the developed world. Here Perkin put the story of the rise of the professions in different national contexts, displaying a remarkable knowledge of the different national histories and cultures. This volume marked a turn of his teaching interests towards comparative history, which he taught at the graduate level at Northwestern in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Perkin had distinguished himself as a spokesman and administrator for university teachers in Britain. He served as vice president and president of the Association of University Teachers from 1969 through 1974, and was the AUT's chief salary negotiator in those same years. This work gave him unparalleled insight into the workings of the British university system. Two books were the result: New Universities in the United Kingdom (1969), which was far more than a handbook to the “plate glass” universities; and Key Profession: The History of the Association of University Teachers (1969), which remains a major contribution to the history of British universities and academics in the 20th century.

Perkin's students remember not only his incisive intellect, his passionate interest in professionalization, but also his ready laughter, his commitment to social justice, and his fundamental warmth. Those who knew Perkin outside the seminar room were not surprised to learn that he had been active in the Cambridge Footlights (a satirical comedy group) during his undergraduate days, and that he had a successful career on the BBC, writing and hosting two popular history series, The Age of the Railway, and The Age of the Automobile; both series resulted in published volumes.

Perkin is survived by his wife, Joan; two children, Deborah and Julian; and two grandchildren.

—Bill Heyck
Northwestern University

—George Robb
William Paterson University

—Meredith Veldman
Louisiana State University

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.