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‘Ask Alan’: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Alan Pearsall (1925-2006)


This post has kindly been written for us by Jennifer Kain, Alan Pearsall Fellow in Naval and Maritime History 2016-17, and now a Research Associate of the IHR

Alan Pearsall receiving the Imperial Service Order medal for staff of the Civil Service – at Buckingham Palace in 1985, Alan Pearsall Estate

As I enter the final stage of my year-long junior fellowship at the IHR I wanted to acknowledge my benefactor Alan Pearsall. Alan’s bequest, and the efforts of Roger Knight in establishing the Pearsall fellowship, have given invaluable academic breathing space to early career researchers like myself since 2008. This extremely generous gesture is made even more impressive due to the fact that Alan himself did not finish his PhD. Indeed, compared to the pressure on scholars to publish today, he wrote comparatively little. Neither did he seek out the limelight or the formal recognition which seem so essential in this competitive profession now.

Alan used his expertise in a less grandiose manner, befitting his personality. Born in Yorkshire, but brought up in Lancashire, he became interested in railways and then all forms of transport at sea. Although shy and not always in good health, his immense knowledge led to a 30-year career at the National Maritime Museum, where he became Historian of the Museum in the early 1970s. Alan was a member of over 30 societies covering rail and maritime transport, naval and maritime interests. He conveyed his expertise across such a wide range of topics through writing articles, reviews, and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries. At conferences, if a question could not be answered, the call would often go up to ‘Ask Alan’. His name can be found in the written acknowledgements of those who benefitted from his knowledge, and Alan is remembered by a global network of close friends.

One such mentee at the National Maritime Museum was Roger Knight, now Senior Research Fellow at the IHR. After a number of email conversations through which Roger very kindly provided me with a copy of this photograph, we met to discuss Alan’s life and legacy.

Reading Alan’s obituaries I was struck by the description of a kind, humorous and unassuming man. I wanted to know more about his life, and his motivations for assisting a future generation of historians whom he would never get to meet.

It turns out that funding a post-doctoral role on any aspect of naval and maritime history had long been a plan of Alan’s. In the early 1990s he started to discuss the idea with Roger, who was able to assist in creating such a position at the IHR two years after Alan’s death. Dealing with Alan’s estate was no mean feat. Those closest to him recall how, as an essentially impracticable and private man, Alan’s professional and personal papers remained uncatalogued. He also suffered from long term health problems, although these did not prevent him from doing National Service in the Navy out in India after the end of the Second World War. The upshot of Roger’s efforts and Alan’s generosity was the Pearsall Fellowship, which they designed to have a broad remit, in terms of both timeframe and topic. He apparently would have been delighted with the breadth of post-doc projects undertaken thus far.

Alan recognised how the period immediately after the PhD award was a crucial time, especially due to the pressure to begin publishing. As such, I was curious whether Alan received the credit he deserved for his own more understated efforts. While he did see his Imperial Service Order medal as recognition for the efforts of his working life, Roger believes Alan’s legacy is more to do with his inestimable ‘personal worth’. When I asked how he would like to have been remembered, Roger replied that it would have been enough for us to be having a conversation about him, 11 years after his death. I hope that future Alan Pearsall Fellows will continue to have similar discussions as a way of recognising his life and legacy. On a more personal note, I aim to uphold some of Alan’s characteristics: a sense of humour, academic kindness, and a northern accent.

Roger Knight, Obituary: Alan Pearsall (1925-2006), The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 92 (August 2006) pp. 260-261.
Roger Knight, Eulogy: Alan Pearsall 27 April 2006, Journal of the Greenwich Historical Society, Vol. 3 (2006) pp. 97-102
Pieter van der Merwe, Obituary: Alan Pearsall: Naval and railway historian, The Independent, 5 June 2006.

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