A. F. Thompson, 1920-2009

October 29, 2009

A historian who greatly influenced pupils ranging from Melvyn Bragg to what amounts to a whole school of younger historians has died.

A.F. Thompson, commonly known as "Pat", was born in Preston on 6 June 1920, but spent much of his childhood in Northern Ireland. After completing his secondary education at Dulwich College in London, he went on to study history at Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutors included A.J.P. Taylor.

Although Mr Thompson was to spend his whole career in Oxford, apart from brief visiting professorships in the US, the Second World War proved to be a significant interlude. After training as a glider-parachutist, he was dropped into Normandy and spent three happy days in a remote French village with not a German in sight until the fighting eventually caught up with him. Repatriated because of injury, he was then able to apply his intellectual skills to the war effort via a posting to Bletchley Park, the intelligence-gathering and code-cracking centre.

On his return to Oxford, Mr Thompson began to research 19th-century political history. In 1947, he was appointed history tutor at Wadham College, where the colourful figure of Maurice Bowra was in the early stages of his 40-year stint as warden. Mr Thompson remained at Wadham until his retirement in 1987, playing a major role in the administrative life of the college as domestic bursar, senior tutor and sub-warden.

Although he was co-author of the first volume of A History of British Trade Unions since 1889 (1964) and formed part of the committee responsible for publishing William Gladstone's diaries - most of them edited by his graduate student, Colin Matthew - Mr Thompson was not a prolific writer. Yet his commitment to supervision and undergraduate teaching - he was, until 1964, tutor in politics as well as history - left its mark on many leading historians of the next generation, such as Ross McKibbin, fellow of St John's College, Oxford, and author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51.

For Cliff Davies, emeritus fellow in history at Wadham, Mr Thompson played an important role "as a young officer back from the war, imbued with ideas of social justice, in transforming the college through meritocratic recruitment".

He added: "He was a brilliant tutor of an encouraging sort and a great graduate supervisor, who built up a tremendous school of people specialising in 19th- and 20th-century labour and trade union history. He was a sort of academic impresario - although he would have been a disaster in research assessment exercise terms."

Mr Thompson died on 9 October 2009 and is survived by a daughter, a son and a grandson.


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