Dr (Irene) Joan Thirsk CBE

A tribute to Honorary Fellow Joan Thirsk by Fellows Adrienne Rosen and Kate Tiller

Kellogg’s first woman Honorary Fellow, Dr Joan Thirsk CBE, has died aged 91. She was a pioneering agricultural, economic and social historian, an influential teacher and mentor to other scholars, and a significant supporter of local history and of adult education. After wartime service at Bletchley Park she completed a PhD with R.H. Tawney, following which her academic career took her first to the University of Leicester, and then to Oxford as Reader in Economic History from 1965 to 1983. She was a Fellow of the British Academy, President of the British Agricultural History Society, Vice-President of the British Association for Local History, a Commissioner for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, editor of the Agricultural History Review and a board member of the journals Past & Present and the Economic History Review. As general editor of the monumental Agrarian History of England and Wales she saw that great project to completion in 2001, herself editing volumes on the 16th and 17th centuries. Her many publications included, and often combined, local, national and international perspectives.

Joan was frequently, in her own academic work and in her encouragement and guidance of others, an innovator. She opened up new topics, thinking in fresh ways, employing familiar and unfamiliar sources to the full and with system and focus, and paying attention to people, processes and experiences of which little account had previously been taken. Here was someone who knew how to bake different kinds of bread, who did just that, and who thought about agriculture not just as an economic sector but also in terms of how it could be done in time and place and by whom. It is not surprising that the history of food was just one of the major themes she brought to the historical fore and which are now an accepted part of the historian’s agenda.

In the course of her career and a lengthy and productive retirement Joan offered influential insights into the characteristics of history and historians. She believed strongly that the study of history could, and should, be both rigorous and inclusive, drawing in topics and people from all backgrounds. Reflecting on accounts of the development of the historical profession which barely mentioned women, she researched and recovered an impressive array of female contributors to historical knowledge, coined the term ‘history women’ and formulated Thirsk’s Law. She observed that ‘whenever new openings have appeared on the English scene …new academic endeavours, or the setting up of a new organisation …, women have usually been prominent alongside the men, sometimes even outnumbering them….But the situation has lasted only until the venture has been satisfactorily established….when it has become institutionalised, formalised and organised. Then the formal structure hardens, the direction and the style as well, always falls under the control of men.’ In economic and social history major themes such as family, household, children, fashion, food and consumerism began as new and peripheral concerns in the work particularly of women historians, first to be criticised and then incorporated into the historical mainstream. For Joan ‘history women’ frequently demonstrate particular strengths and perceptions, reflected in the production of a ‘graphic, well-authenticated, fully rounded, and convincing history of people.

Joan Thirsk was gentle, unassuming, but determined. She was always willing to help other historians, professional or amateur. When the first courses for University qualifications in local history were mooted by the Department for Continuing Education in 1980 she was a stalwart supporter of the work that eventually led to certificates, diplomas, and finally master’s and doctorates in the subject. She served as course examiner and championed the particular insights brought to historical studies by ‘non-standard’ and adult students. In 1998 her contributions to the establishment of a new era and the founding of Kellogg College were recognised by her election to an Honorary Fellowship. She maintained her interest in the progress of both the College and the Department for Continuing Education, an admiration expressed in the gift in recent years of a significant collection of books on English local history to Kellogg’s library. She also leaves a rich and continuing legacy to the College through her published work and her breadth of ideas and commitment to history and higher education in its broadest sense.