Obituary: Michael Thompson, 1925 - 2017
- Published Date:
- 04 Sep, 2017
Michael served in the army in India from 1943 to 1947, and recalled encountering Gandhi and the insolent treatment he received from a fellow officer. Michael left at the time of independence and before the horrors of Partition. Michael’s own Quaker family background and education at Bootham’s School in York meant that he had more in common with Gandhi’s peaceful resistance than with British imperialism. Although he had no religious beliefs, his Quaker upbringing was obvious in the modesty with which he held responsible offices: self-promotion was anathema. Even when he was in senior positions, his usual attitude was wry amusement at the pomposity and self-importance of others, marked by his infectious laughter. He was always ready to deflate himself as well as others. For many years, he participated in competitive shows with – if memory serves – ponies and traps. Michael recalled being asked what he did to fill in his time when not competing – the assumption being that horses were his main occupation, and that he might have some casual employment for the rest of the year. Michael was delighted. When I last saw him, shortly before his death, I asked him which of his many papers he was most proud – and the answer was ‘Nineteenth-century horse sense’, his inaugural lecture that appeared in the Economic History Review. It summed up Michael: real insight into the economic importance of horses, written with wit and panache, but also with affection for the animals that pulled carts, ploughed fields, hauled coal, and ran races. It was a classic piece, based on learning lightly worn on an important but quirky subject, that opened up many new lines of thought.
After the war, Michael read history at Oxford and started his doctorate under the supervision of Hrothgar Habakkuk, on the subject that was to define his career – English landed society in the nineteenth century. The thesis was completed in 1956, and his first, and classic, book appeared in 1963: English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century. This book set the scene for work by many other scholars, and remains on reading lists well beyond the usual expiry date of history monographs. Michael gained his first academic post in the Department of History at UCL in 1951. His appointment was made in more relaxed days of being invited for conversation with the head of department, the formidable and stern Sir John Neale. One of Michael’s favourite stories was to recount that when Neale asked ‘How does the idea of a job appeal?’, he thought he was being asked if he wanted a cup of tea, and said he did not mind if he did. Michael suffered from poor hearing and tinnitus, which sometimes made conversations unnerving, with long gaps before he replied – a sort of Quaker hesitation to speak, relieved by puffing the pipe which was for many years a fixture.
Michael was a leading economic historian, the editor of the Review from 1973 to 1979, President from 1983 to 1986, and a regular attender at the annual conference where he was a significant contributor as well as a genial and sociable presence. However, he never held a post in a separate department of economic history, a structure that was more common then now; at most, he taught on the joint degree in economics and economic history at UCL. In 1968, he left UCL to join the Department of History at Bedford College (University of London), where he was highly popular as head of department in the beautiful surroundings of Regent’s Park. In 1977, he moved to be Director of the Institute of Historical Research, presiding in a scholarly but relaxed and genial way over tearoom discussion and in seminars, at a time when the intercollegiate school of history was one of the glories of the historical profession. He retired in 1990, having spent his career entirely in general history departments. It was fitting that he served as President of the Royal Historical Society from 1989-1993, the only person to be president of both the Economic History and Royal Historical Societies.
Michael’s intellectual interests reflected his institutional affiliation. He rarely used any formal economic theory in his work, whether Marxist or neo-classical. His approach was implicitly non-Marxist, arguing not for class conflict but for the notion of respectability that cut across society. Neither did he draw on formal economic theory: he was more interested in how society worked, how landowners coped with different soils or handled falling rent rolls; or how the replacement of horses by internal combustion engines affected the demand for hay. This is not to say that he lacked a sharp analytical mind, and capacity to criticise the work of others: he had both. His Ford lectures at Oxford and his Presidential addresses to the Royal Historical Society returned to landed society, subjecting the work of Bill Rubinstein and Lawrence Stone on the sources of wealth and the openness of the landed elite to serious correction. He asked precise questions, and turned to detailed archival work to provide an answer, presenting his findings in stylish, witty and accessible prose. He could see the virtue of slightly off-beat subjects, such as the history of horses or the role of chartered surveyors; he brought together social, economic, political and cultural history – a range of interests that made his time at the IHR so productive. His work will last as a major contribution to the history of Britain, above all of landed society – others have followed his lead, but no one has replaced him or can rival his combination of archival richness, elegant and witty prose, and sharp analysis. More than anything, his warmth and genial wisdom will be much missed by his many friends.