Sir John Plumb, former Master of Christ's College and one of the leading British historians of the last century, died this weekend in the early hours of Sunday 21 October, 2001.

Sir John Plumb, former Master of Christ's College and one of the leading British historians of the last century, died this weekend in the early hours of Sunday 21 October, 2001.

Neil McKendrick, Master of Gonville and Caius, and a former student of Sir John, here pays tribute to this influential Cambridge academic.

With the death of Sir John Plumb at the age of 90, Cambridge has lost one of its most influential historians and one of its most memorable characters. He was one of a remarkable group of dynamic and charismatic scholars (including Sir Moses Finley, Sir Geoffrey Elton, Sir Harry Hinsley, Owen Chadwick, Sir Denis Brogan, Sir Herbert Butterfield, Dom David Knowles, MM Postan, Philip Grierson, Walter Ullman, Peter Laslett and Denis Mack Smith) who made the Cambridge history faculty such an exciting place to be in the 1960s and 1970s.

When one recalls that Joseph Needham and EH Carr were then at the height of their powers in Cambridge; that exciting young scholars such as John Elliott, Quentin Skinner, Christopher Andrew and Norman Stone had already joined the faculty; and that ambitious youngsters such as Richard Overy, Geoffrey Parker, Roy Porter, Simon Schama, John Brewer and Keith Wrightson were beginning their research careers, it is little wonder that one looks back on it now as a golden age, unequalled since. Few, if any, could claim to have played a more central role than John Plumb. As a hugely influential teacher, the most popular lecturer and the most prolific writer, and as an unforgettably colourful character, Plumb dominated Christ's and Cambridge history during much of this period.

Jack Plumb did not enjoy the effortless rise to the top which so many of his colleagues did. He was the product of a working-class family in Leicester and of the local grammar school (Alderman Newton's). His first attempt to get into Cambridge ended in a humiliating form of rejection. He took the St John's scholarship examination in December 1929. Despite coming top of the exhibitioner list, quite exceptionally he was not awarded one, so he went to Leicester University and was the first person ever to take a first in history from that university college. He went up to Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1933 to begin research as GM Trevelyan's first and last research student and, apart from a brief interlude as a research fellow at King's and his time at Bletchley during the war, he never left Christ's again.

He became a fellow in 1946, and for over half a century devoted his life to the college. Unlike many academic "stars", Plumb was a dedicated "college man" and anyone who used that phrase in a disparaging way in his presence could expect an Exocet-like rebuke. Not for him the uninterrupted research time that many academic prima donnas now demand. He was in turn an official fellow, college lecturer and director of studies in history, tutor, steward, wine steward, vice-master and master. He once even unsuccessfully stood for bursar - he failed by a single vote. Greater love for his college has no man than the fellow willing to take on all these burdens, while at the same producing a stream of original research. He did not skimp on his university duties either, being, among many other things, a notably brisk and efficient chairman of the history faculty board from 1966-68.

In spite of all these commitments, he was a most productive researcher and a hugely prolific publisher. Books, articles and reviews poured from his pen. Between 1950 and 1973 he brought out 23 books, quite apart from nine volumes he edited for The History Of Human Society, four volumes for Signet Classics or eight volumes of the Fontana History Of Europe. These were the decades when he was at the height of his powers, publishing two great volumes on Sir Robert Walpole (1956 and 1960), his Penguin History Of England In The 18th century (1950), a life of Chatham (1953), a study of The First Four Georges (1956), his Ford lectures on The Growth Of Political Stability In England 1675-1725 (1967) and The Death Of The Past (1969).

These are the books which made his scholarly reputation, but Plumb wanted to be more than simply a scholar. He wrote to be read, and hungered to reach a large audience: with The Renaissance (1961) and in particular with Royal Heritage (1977) he did so. These two books sold in massive numbers, and together with his collected essays - Men And Places (1963), In The Light Of History (1972), The Making Of A Historian (1988) and The American Experience (1989) - established him as one of the few English historians to reach a wider public. He must be the only British historian for whom the Union flag was flown from the American Senate by express request of the president after a unanimous vote in Congress, in August 1991.

Plumb's major long-term scholarly standing will surely rest most securely on his work as a political historian of "the long 18th century". His great biography of Walpole has already stood the test of nearly 50 years' scrutiny and has not been bettered, while his Penguin history survived as the best general introduction to 18th-century England for 40 years until it was finally surpassed by the work of Roy Porter (Plumb's last supervision pupil); his Ford lectures have permanently changed our attitudes to late Stuart and early Georgian England.

But Plumb recognised very early in his career that other historical disciplines were increasingly coming to the fore. He wrote in Studies In Social History (which he edited in 1955) that "social history, in the fullest and deepest sense of the term, is now a field of study of incomparable richness and the one in which the greatest discoveries will be made in this generation". His prediction has long since been borne out, and he increasingly followed the dictates of his own prophecy - first in an editorial capacity, but increasingly in his own writing and research, which moved more and more into the sphere of social and cultural history. It was a decision which fuelled and exacerbated the strong personal antipathies between the Plumb and the Elton schools of historiography in Cambridge and beyond.

To Elton, who espoused ever more strongly the pre-eminent claims of constitutional history, Plumb's decisive move towards the history of social realism was anathema. Elton might be said to have won the battle (after all, he did become regius professor), but Plumb has surely won the war. The study of history has marched irresistibly in the direction in which he predicted and led.

His stature as a scholar was acknowledged by a steady stream of honours. He took a LittD at Cambridge in 1957, was promoted to a readership in 1962 and to a personal chair in 1966, was invited to give the Ford lectures at Oxford in 1965, and elected to a fellowship of the British Academy in 1968. He was elected to the mastership of his college in 1978 and was knighted in 1982. Seven honorary degrees (five in the US) testified to his international reputation as a scholar, but in many ways he still felt frustrated by the prizes which had eluded him. He was many people's favourite for both the chair of modern history and the regius chair in Cambridge and for the presidency of the British Academy. He was on Harold Wilson's infamous resignation honours list for a peerage, but was dropped in the furore which followed its "leaking" to the press.

Where he did achieve the full recognition he deserved was from his pupils. They were quick to recognise the influence of his teaching and his generous promotion of their talents. At Christ's alone he promoted the careers of historians of the calibre of Rupert Hall, John Kenyon, Frank Spooner, Barry Supple, Eric Stokes, John Burrow, Jonathan Steinberg, Quentin Skinner, Norman Stone, Geoffrey Parker, Roy Porter, Simon Schama, Clive Holmes, David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Joachim Whaley, Niall Ferguson and myself. These and many others were launched on their successful careers by Plumb's patronage and support at Christ's. Many of them were the product of his robust teaching methods, in which exagg
erated praise and excoriating blame rained down seemingly at random to keep one encouraged, and yet to prevent one from becoming complacent. Plumb as a teacher was not a paragon of all the old- fashioned virtues of charm, restraint and tolerance. Few people emerged from his supervisions unscathed. Most admitted to being profoundly influenced.

Indeed, many of his pupils would readily admit (as would I) that he was the greatest single influence on their early lives and careers. Many have told me what an inspiration he was in their days in Cambridge, and many count it as one of the great pleasures of their lives to have basked in his company. Not that it was always a comfortable experience. Jack Plumb did not earn the title of being the rudest man in Cambridge without inflicting some hurtful verbal wounds.

Novelists who used him as a model have found it no easier than his friends to come to terms with what CP Snow called "the complex and contradictory nature of Jack Plumb". Does one choose the character which Angus Wilson so memorably pinned down as John Hobday in The Wrong Set, or does one choose one of the various versions of Plumb which flit through Snow's Strangers And Brothers novels, or does one plump for the two splendid portraits of him which dominate William Cooper's two best novels, Scenes From Provincial Life and The Struggles Of Albert Woods? My vote would go to the Cooper fictional portraits. They give the best physical description of the young Plumb and the best insight into his personality, which could be so engaging and so maddening at the same time.

He never ceased to surprise. After more than 60 years as a passionate socialist, he suddenly embraced Thatcherism with an ardour that astonished his friends. As he moved ever further to the right, he met the appalled response of his old liberal friends with the smug retort, "There's no rage like the rage of the convert."

Such a complex personality inevitably subjected some of his friendships to strain. Not all of them survived, but most of his friends eventually accepted the fact that, as one of them put it, "the stimulation was worth the aggravation, the fun was worth the fury". Over the years, most of us came to realise that he saw it as his self-appointed task to set the standards we were supposed to live up to. In doing so, he amused and outraged us, encouraged and deflated us, flattered and denounced us, cajoled and contradicted us, informed and corrected us, entranced and enraged us, inspired and provoked us - all with the intent (sometimes with the insistence) of exhorting and educating us to the levels he aspired to on our behalf. If we did not always achieve the levels he set for us, it could be fun trying to do so.

And when it wasn't fun, it was always memorable. Jack Plumb made good copy. His turn of phrase made him eminently quotable. His trenchant judgments made good stories - and sometimes unforgiving enemies. His material generosity made him a splendid host. His generosity of spirit made him a splendid exemplar. His knowledge made him a splendid teacher.

He will, of course, be remembered best by historians for the impact of his work on what is known as "Plumb's century", but in London and New York (and in Cambridge and academia at large) he will, perhaps, be remembered even more for his ebullient personality, which expressed itself not only in his erudition but in his en thusiasm and his enjoyment of the good things of life.

For he played as hard as he worked. An entrepreneur, a bon viveur, a connoisseur of food and wine, a collector of fine silver and porcelain, his rooms were far more opulent than those of most dons. Fine paintings adorned the walls, fine claret and champagne flowed with abandon, and his Vincennes and S

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