Alun Howkins (1947-2018)

We were sad to hear recently of the death of Professor Alun Howkins.

Alun left school at 15 for a host of manual and other jobs before returning to education in his early 20s via Ruskin College. After further studies at Oxford and completing a PhD at Essex University, he embarked on a career in which he made a real contribution to the field of social history.

While he wrote on a host of subjects, his most influential works were his three books on the history of the rural poor: Poor Labouring Men: Rural Radicalism in Norfolk, 1872-1923 (1985), Reshaping Rural England: A Social History, 1850-1925 (1991) and The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900 (2003).

Alun played an active role in the historical profession, not only through the Social History Society, but also as an editor of journals including the History Workshop Journal. He also sought out new audiences, including with his 1999 BBC TV series Fruitful Earth, on how the struggle for food has shaped modern society.

SHS stalwart Dr Katrina Navickas recalls:

Alun will be best remembered for three qualities: a brilliant historian of rural England and the labour movement; a colleague who always went out of his way to support fellow historians and students; and finally an expert in folk song and lore who kept vital traditions alive.

I first met Alun at a conference rethinking the Swing Riots of the 1830s. Inevitably, he broke into song during his talk, not solely for entertainment (though that was important), but to give us a deep and genuine insight into the culture of agricultural labourers in 19th century England. His ability to connect the past with the present was without measure, and folk culture was his medium. So he could remind us that the ‘past is a different country; they do things differently there’, while simultaneously illustrating the important continuities of poverty, class and power.

His commitment to social justice was often evident, but never with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude: always encouragement to do our duty as historians to understand the inequalities of past and present. His book The Death of Rural England was an instant classic and stands the test of time as a significant reflection on the impact of changing processes of power on the lowest in society.

Alun was hugely supportive of new scholars; he contributed to a series of workshops I organised rethinking protest history, and as always, gave us deep insights, challenging analysis and stirring bursts of folksong. His legacy runs deep in the new scholarship in rural history, but there will be no-one like him again.

He will be fondly remembered by his students at Sussex, including the many historians ushered into the profession under his tutelage. One of these was SHS committee member Dr Helen Rogers, who recalls her time taught by Alun:

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by Alun in my first year at Sussex. At grammar school in Bolton, during the early Thatcher years, social history had been economic history’s poor relation. It was all Turnip Townshend and pig iron while commoners and vagrants were on the wrong side of history. Alun turned what I had learned on its head, showing how to retrieve the history from below I had been looking for but didn’t know how to find. His tutorials were exhilarating—a heady mix of debate about the past and passionate commitment to recovering the lives of the poor and dispossessed—that invariably led to Alun breaking out in song. Tunefully, he was ahead of his time, showing how songs provide a tangible connection with the lives, emotions, and material culture of the poor that he wrote about with such conviction. For the first time I could ask ‘what about women’ and, after I gave him a strident critique of E.P. Thompson on Methodism, he hinted gently that historians can be generous in their criticism. It took me a while to pick up on that bit of advice.

Alun was the beating heart and soul of an extraordinary community of historians at Sussex. In those days, when academics had time for a pint over lunch, he encouraged undergraduates to be part of that community. As chair of the history work-in-progress seminar—its title signaled so much—he invited us to suggest historians we would like to give papers as well as always introducing us to speakers. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize he was initiating us into an apprenticeship and a craft. How fitting for a historian who was always a working man!