Lives of the fellows

Asa, Baron Briggs of Lewes in the County of East Sussex Briggs

b.7 May 1921 d.15 March 2016
BA Cantab(1941) BSc Lond(1941) Hon DLitt East Anglia(1966) Hon DSc Florida Presbyterian(1966) Hon LLD York Canada(1968) Hon LLD New England(1972) Hon DLitt Strathclyde(1973) Hon DLitt Leeds(1974) Hon LLD Sussex(1976) Hon DLitt Cincinnati(1977) Hon DLitt Liverp(1977) Hon LLD Bradford(1978) Hon DLitt Open University(1979) Hon LLD Rochester New York(1980) FBA(1980) Hon LLD Ball State(1985) Hon LLD East Asia(1987) Hon LLD George Washington(1988) Hon DLitt Birm(1989) Hon DLitt Teeside(1993) Hon LLD Southampton(1995) Hon LLD Tulane(1996) Hon LLD Lond(2001) Hon FRCP(2004)

Lord Asa Briggs was an eminent social historian, university administrator and prolific author who wrote the fourth volume of the history of the Royal College of Physicians. He was born in Keighley, Yorkshire, the son of William Walker Briggs, an engineer, and Jane Briggs née Spencer. He won a scholarship to Keighley Boys’ Grammar School and then went up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge at the age of just 16. In 1941, he graduated with a BA in history and also a BSc in economics from the University of London’s external programme, achieving two firsts.

From 1942 to 1945, as the youngest warrant officer in the British Army, he worked as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, the central site for British codebreaking during the war. Here he worked in hut six with Alan Turing, deciphering Enigma machine messages from Germany.

After the war, Briggs was elected a fellow of Worcester College, Oxford. In 1950, he was appointed as a reader in recent social and economic history. He was subsequently a faculty fellow of Nuffield College (from 1953 to 1955) and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey (from 1953 to 1954).

From 1955 to 1961, he was professor of modern history at Leeds University. He then moved to the newly-established Sussex University, where he was professor of history, dean of the school of social studies, pro vice chancellor and then vice chancellor. In 1976, he returned to Oxford as provost of Worcester College, retiring in 1991.

In 1969, he was one of a number of academics who lobbied the then prime minister Harold Wilson to launch the Open University. Nine years later, Briggs became chancellor, a post he held until his retirement in 1991.

He was best-known as an historian of 19th century social history; he wrote The age of improvement (London, Longman Group, 1959) and a trilogy on the era – Victorian people. Some reassessments of people, institutions, ideas and events 1851-1867 (London, Odhams Press, 1954), Victorian cities (London, Odhams Press, 1963) and Victorian things (London, Batsford, 1988). He also published works on Chartism and studies of Karl Marx in London, and, between 1961 and 1995, wrote a ground-breaking five-volume history of broadcasting in the UK.

His history of the Royal College of Physicians (from 1948 to 1983) was published in 2005 (A history of the Royal College of Physicians of London: volume four, Oxford, Oxford University Press for the Royal College of Physicians), beginning with the creation of the NHS and covering key developments over the next 35 years, including the RCP’s seminal 1962 report on Smoking and health.

In his ninth decade, Briggs wrote three volumes of autobiography, Secret days: code-breaking in Bletchley Park (London, Frontline, 2011), Special relationships: people and places (Pen & Sword, 2012) and Loose ends and extras (London, Frontline Books, 2014).

He was president of many organisations and societies, including the Workers’ Educational Association, a post he held from 1958 to 1967, the Brontë Society (from 1987 until 1996), the William Morris Society (from 1978 to 1991) and the Victorian Society (from 1986 until his death).

In 1976 he became a life peer as Baron Briggs, of Lewes in the County of East Sussex. In 2004, he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

His leisure interests were wide: he enjoyed literature, poetry, music, sport, travel, fine wine and good food. In Who’s who he listed his recreations as ‘memories of travel and of great lunches and dinners’.

In 1955 he married Susan Anne Banwell. They had two daughters (Katharine and Judith), two sons (Daniel and Matthew) and 14 grandchildren. Asa Briggs died at his home in Lewes. He was 94.

RCP editor

[The Guardian 10 August 2012 – accessed 16 May 2018; The Guardian 15 March 2016 –accessed 16 May 2018; Financial Times 15 March 2016 – accessed 16 May 2018; The Independent 16 March 2016 – accessed 16 May 2018; The Telegraph 16 March 2016 – accessed 16 May 2018; Oxford Today 7 May 2018 – accessed 16 May 2018; University of Sussex Obituary: Lord (Asa) Briggs, former University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor – accessed 16 May 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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