Justin Champion, 1960-2020

Tributes paid to a scholar ‘ahead of his time’ in showing how history can ‘mobilise, empower and engage a wider public’

July 9, 2020
Justin Champion

A leading advocate for public engagement and the study of black history has died.

Justin Champion was born in 1960 in Gloucester, where his father worked as a designer at the Gloster Aircraft Company before securing a Workers’ Educational Association scholarship to study English at King’s College, Cambridge. His son was educated at the King Edward VI School in Southampton before going to study history at Churchill College, Cambridge. He stayed on to do a PhD on the English Enlightenment, a field he continued to work on for the rest of life.

On completing his doctorate in 1989, Professor Champion went to the Institute of Historical Research’s Centre for Metropolitan History to study plagues and develop his understanding of statistical techniques. A year later, he moved to La Sainte Union College of Higher Education in Southampton, where his father was already working, as a lecturer in early modern history. In 1992, however, he joined Royal Holloway, University of London for the rest of his career, serving as head of history from 2005 to 2010.

Although he produced important monographs in his specialist field, Professor Champion was equally committed to taking history beyond the walls of the academy. He frequently appeared on television and radio and established the UK’s first MA in public history at Royal Holloway. He once spoke about “the almost apartheid we see in a lot of our English history” and, as president of the Historical Association from 2014 to 2017, was vocal in making the case for black history. When he received the prestigious Medlicott Medal for outstanding services to history in 2018, he delivered a lecture addressing the highly topical question of statues and public art depicting controversial historical figures.

Anna Whitelock, current head of history and reader in early modern history at Royal Holloway, praised Professor Champion as “one of his generation’s most significant thinkers...Despite being deeply immersed in the past, he was also a man ahead of his time. Throughout his career, he made the case for the importance of scholarship to be communicated outside the academy and for history to be used to mobilise, empower and engage a wider public. Justin’s life was underpinned by a determination to challenge conventional thinking. He was a restless radical; always questioning, always curious, always challenging and never cowed by convention or expectation.”

Although he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014, Professor Champion remained active in research and supervision until recently. He died on 10 June and is survived by his wife Sylvia and daughter Alice.


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