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Professor Michael Thompson


Please note: There will be a service for Michael on 14 September at St Helen’s church in Wheathampstead at 3pm. The service will be followed by tea at Anne and Michael’s home in Holly Cottage, Sheepcote Lane, Wheathampstead, A14 8NJ.

It is with very great sadness that the Institute of Historical Research announces the death of Professor F. M. L. (Michael) Thompson who was Director of the Institute between 1977 and 1990. Michael was a much-admired and much-loved historian, teacher and mentor. He was born in 1925 and educated at the Bootham School in York. After war service with the Indian artillery he read History at the Queen’s College, Oxford where he shared rooms with the future historian of the United States, Jack Pole. After taking his doctorate at Oxford he was successively Lecturer and Reader in History at University College, London; Professor and Head of Department at Bedford College, London; and Director of the IHR. He was also a most active figure in the historical profession, serving as President of the Economic History Society (1983-86) and then of the Royal Historical Society between 1988-92. He was editor of the Economic History Review 1968-80, and he gave the Ford Lectures in English History in Oxford in 1995.

His first book, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (1963) opened up  the subject that he was to shape and make his own across the whole of his career, the history of the land, including the history of its owners and tillers, in the modern era. It was a brilliant start, mixing hard economic history with entertaining anecdote in an always lucid style. Michael Thompson went on to publish equally important studies of the landed classes in the twentieth century, the subject of his presidential lectures to the Royal Historical Society; to produce a history of Hampstead, Hampstead: Building a Borough, 1650-1964 (1974) as full of fascinating details and historical byways as is the place itself; to write the social history of the nineteenth century in The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 (1988); and to publish his Ford Lectures as Gentrification and the Enterprise Culture: Britain 1780-1980 (2001). He was the editor of the 3-volume Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950 (1990). There was even time for a history of the University of London – The University of London and the World of Learning (1990) – which he had graced for the whole of his teaching and research career. All the while he was also publishing articles in learned journals, chapters in books, and delivering formal lectures in which he tried out new ideas and excavated small corners of his very large field. These pieces, some 24 in total, have been collected together and have just appeared in two volumes entitled English Landed Society Revisited published by Edward Everett Root ( The last of the essays chronologically, a brilliant account of the decline of ‘land’ as a political issue in the early twentieth century, was published as late as 2010 when FML was well into his ‘eighties. It was fitting and altogether satisfying that Michael’s collected essays should have been in his hands a few weeks before his death.

The thoughts and condolences of the whole IHR community are with Anne, Michael’s wife, and all his family.

Lawrence Goldman

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  1. Judy Wilkinson

    I used to babysit for his children; the photo brings back memories of many happy times. JMW.

  2. Rohan McWilliam

    Large numbers of us will be sorry to hear of the death of Michael Thompson. He was one of the great architects of modern social history, the author of a series of works that have stood the test of time. He helped make the understanding of Victorian Britain a vigorous and dynamic field, setting a very high bar for the rest of us. His book on English landed society is essential reading despite having been published in 1963! His edited collection on the social history of modern Britain was a decisive intervention in the field, questioning some of the standard views based on class. My favourite piece by Michael Thompson was his shrewd article critiquing notions of social control that were then dominant. It’s still important (and indeed features in my teaching). He was a transformative historian.

    Many of us will, however, remember him as the generous and kind man that he was. This was especially true during his Directorship of the Institute of Historical Research (1977-90). Younger scholars like myself found it to be a location where they could flourish. I was able to establish the Postgraduate Seminar in his time (and got Michael to speak at it). We all treasure the memories of Michael Thompson’s own seminar on the nineteenth century–not least his ability to look as if he had dozed off during a paper and then to ask the sharpest and (occasionally) the most devastating question at the end! We particularly admired Michael for making a space for viewpoints that, one suspects, he did not always agree with. I can’t go into the IHR tearoom without thinking of Michael smoking his pipe in the corner. He managed to be quiet and unassuming and yet to make an enormous difference. We remain in his debt and we mourn his passing.

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