Classics of labour history: John L. Halstead on the life of Royden Harrison

Any organisation that has been in existence for more than half a century is bound to endure the loss of much-loved and admired members whose long years of service have mirrored their professional progress from rising stars to elder statesmen and women. In this obituary, published in Labour History Review in 2003, Dr John L. Halstead, who himself died in 2021 (obituary), recorded the career of his friend and fellow SSLH member Professor Royden Harrison, one of the founder members of the Society and someone who did much to ensure that it developed as a non-sectarian and open organisation. Harrison also played a key role in the Society’s ultimately successful campaign in the 1970s to abolish provisions enabling public records to be suppressed for a full one hundred years – a campaign which culminated in the SSLH Bulletin’s publication of leaked police records revealing the secret surveillance of hunger marchers in the 1930s. In Halstead’s account, the episode led to the then Labour home secretary Merlyn Rees being forced to work through the night to formulate a response. As the obituary notes, ‘Harrison was never “armchair” about anything’.

Obituary: Royden John Harrison (3 March 1927 – 30 June 2002)
Obituary of Royden Harrison, from Labour History Review

John L. Halstead

Royden Harrison who, together with Sidney Pollard, was one of the first editors of this journal (then the Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History), and was for many years a key figure in our activities and finally a Vice-President, died in a Sheffield nursing home on the morning of Sunday, 30 June 2002. Obituaries appeared first in The Guardian, 3 July 2002, and then in The Times and the Independent, 29 July 2002. A memorial meeting at Sheffield on 23 November 2002 was attended by a large number of Royden’s colleagues, former pupils and, above all, friends. Harrison was born in London, of a Scottish Highland father, who had turned down an academic career at the University of Glasgow for the greater financial rewards of business, and an artistically inclined mother. His early education at the King Alfred’s School, Hampstead, was interrupted by the war and family disruption and continued in Canada and Australia. His education in Australia at a progressive school included the study of formal logic and philosophy with an Austrian refugee. This he greatly appreciated, though he always regretted the lack of a thorough grounding in mathematics. His army career was confined to the unit library. It did not completely take away opportunities to discomfort the ‘top brass’, a pursuit he always enjoyed, and it was useful preparation for study of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. At Oxford, there was G. D. H. Cole. Harrison became one of his star pupils and started with him a D. Phil on his own choice of subject, English Positivism. He moved to London before this was completed, so as to be near archives at the Bishopsgate Institute and be with his future wife Pauline Cowan, who was engaged in molecular biology research at Kings’ College. It was in London that Jim Fyrth introduced him to the Workers’ Educational Association and where he took his first classes of industrial workers. An appointment in the University of Sheffield Extramural Department followed in 1955, where he established an unparalleled reputation in teaching miners. He moved to Bernard Crick’s Department of Political Theory and Institutions in 1965 as a Senior Lecturer. He was promoted to Reader in 1969. A chair and the succession to Edward Thompson as Director of the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick followed from 1971. He retired in 1982. What we can especially note here is that Harrison was influential in the Society for the Study of Labour History’s foundation as an open forum. Members would only be required to profess an interest in the subject, not declare a socialist faith, produce a party card or satisfy any test imposed by ‘the academy’. While this point was not in dispute for most, some members took a different view and there are learned societies constituted on a different basis. The position taken was advantageous. In the early days, the Society required all the support it could attract. In 1960, the history of labour lacked respectability in many academic quarters. We needed subscriptions. Harrison generated many — particularly from working people in adult classes. He was also the prime mover in solving the Society’s later financial crises of 1968 and 1981. The last was especially serious. He deserves more credit than most for our continued existence as a learned society… Read the full text.

This is the fifth in a series highlighting labour history classics to have appeared in the SSLH Bulletin and its successor Labour History Review. See more of our Classics of Labour History series.

All articles published since May 1960 can be accessed through a subscription to Labour History Review.