John Ramsden, 1947-2009

A historian who transformed understanding of British conservatism has died.

November 12, 2009

John Ramsden was born in Sheffield on 12 November 1947. His grandfather had been a miner and his father, though he left school at 13, worked his way up to the position of deputy director in the National Coal Board's regional office.

Professor Ramsden's academic talent won him a scholarship to King Edward VII School in Sheffield and then a place at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1966.

He followed a history degree with a doctoral thesis on the organisation of the Conservative Party in the early 20th century.

This was supervised by Robert Blake, whose book The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970) was one of the few landmarks in a field that then lagged far behind the study of left-wing movements.

Professor Ramsden took up the baton and, during a period that saw Tory triumph under Margaret Thatcher eventually giving way to disastrous defeat, established a solid historical interpretation of Conservatism.

His first book, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902-1940 (1978), was one of three he would eventually contribute to Longman's six-volume History of the Conservative Party, and arose directly out of his PhD.

Further research eventually led to a definitive single-volume synthesis, An Appetite for Power: A History of the Conservative Party since 1830 (1998).

Apart from visiting academic posts in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, Professor Ramsden spent most of his career, from 1972 until he retired to his original family home in Sheffield last year, at what is now Queen Mary, University of London.

He was appointed professor of modern history in 1996, served as both head of history and dean of the faculty of arts, and produced more than 60 plays for the staff-student drama group Queen Mary Players.

His love of cinema was reflected in a monograph on The Dam Busters (2002) for the Tauris British Film Guides. This was followed by a cultural history of Anglo-German relations since 1890, Don't Mention the War (2006).

Virginia Davis, current head of history at Queen Mary, recalled "an enormously supportive colleague" who was "particularly impressive for the sheer range of his contributions, in terms of academic publications, teaching innovation, administrative leadership and collegiality. He once invited the whole department on a three-day battlefield tour, which usually formed part of his course on the First World War."

Professor Ramsden died of cancer on 16 October, and is survived by his wife, Susan McKay.

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