Obituary: Ron Greenall

Posted by ep273 at Jun 14, 2018 04:40 PM |
The University is saddened to hear about the death of Ron Greenall, former History tutor.

Former colleague and friend, Robert Colls, has written a tribute to Ron:


My friend and colleague Ron Greenall taught his last history class to undergraduates at the University of Leicester in 2009.  The course was the tremendously popular ‘Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution’ and Ron was doing The Classic Slum, Robert Roberts’ account of Salford life at the turn of the century.  As he put it in his diary: “this meant I’d done 50 years of history teaching (& never got sick of it)”.

Ronald Leslie Greenall was born in Salford on 4 February 1937.  His father was a police officer; his mother had been a mill-worker.  It was not long since Orwell had been in these parts but Odessa Avenue, where Ron was brought up, was not The Road to Wigan Pier.  Semi detached in stucco with a neat little garden at the front and a great scrubby field to the back, it was the other sort of northern life: not rich but not poor either, and free to roam.

After a good war spent, among other things, badgering American soldiers and their dates to take him and his mates into ‘A’ rated films, Ron went to Salford Grammar School in 1948, and in 1955 he went to the LSE.  This was the time when Angry Young Men from the North were going south to bleat and to pillage (as the mood took them), but apart from once seeing Shelagh Delaney on the train home and Albert Finney at the bookies, Ron made nothing of all that kitchen sink stuff. He hated the ‘Econ’ in BSc (Econ), but he loved everything else London had to offer.

Saturday afternoons saw him captaining the London University First XV on some suburban battlefield.  In 1958, playing second row, he led a tour to Tredegar (lost 3-8), Bridgend (won 8-0), and Stroud (won 9-3), but ended it with four nights in hospital.  It was concussion or humiliation or, as his diary put it: “Playing rugby.  Can’t dance”.  He was a great sportsman. People would stop him on campus and remind him of a great innings he’d played years before.  Professor Brian Simon once stared at him in a full lift and said he played just like Botham.  Ron, needless to say, was the only one who demurred.

Saturday nights saw him watching French and Italian at the NFT and strictly English at the National where he saw only the best including Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ (twice) and John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’.  I don’t know what he did on Sunday mornings. Not the ironing that is for sure.

In 1959 he met and married Rita Gibbs, a student nurse.  Two sons followed, Pete in 1960 and Stephen in 1962 and, after living in Wallington and teaching history at Mitcham Grammar, the Greenall caravan moved north to Northamptonshire in 1965 where Ron took on the job of embedding Leicester University in the county.

University adult educators defined themselves by their students, not their subject.  New town, new centre, young family, planning and organizing, class visiting and preparing, research and publication, Ron’s diaries are a blaze of student-centredness.  Notwithstanding all this and his blacklist of “five useless committees”, he taught over 100 classes a year for over 30 years, at Vaughan College in town, the department’s flagship, but also on the road at the university’s network of outlying centres across the two counties and at University Centre, Northampton, and nearly all in the evenings and at weekends.

A slew of books on Northamptonshire followed (1979, 1981, 1999, 2003), as well as 26 years as editor and contributor to Northamptonshire Past & Present, plus a hefty piece for Northern History on ‘Working-class Conservatism in Lancashire’ – somewhat against the 1970s leftist zeitgeist it has to be said, but Ron’s politics were Manchester Guardian old style: factual, dissenting, and just a touch contrarian.  In 1972 he wrote and presented a 10-part series for BBC Radio 3.  With his good looks, he should have been on the tele.

A local historian in the classical mould, Ron turned his classes into research groups.  Long Buckby was a favourite.  So too were Kettering and Daventry.  But his masterpiece is The Making of Victorian Salford, published by Carnegie with a fabulous book launch in the Lowry Gallery in 2000 with Ron in great droll Mancunian form.

In 1978 he was promoted to the deputy directorship of the Leicester department of Adult Education, and in 1996 he took early retirement.  He didn’t like the way universities were moving, and feared the end of the great extra mural tradition.  Cocksure vice chancellors, it is fair to say, were not to his taste.

For all his sociability and joy in his family, Ron was a private man who liked to catch you out and pull your leg.   We were once at a History Workshop Conference staying with a leftist family from Manchester Polytechnic. There were posters of Luxemburg in the bathroom and Lenin in the breakfast room where, up early on the Saturday, we encountered the youngest eating his toast and reading The Times. Ron’s eyes lit up.  Knowing full well the colours and the badge, he asked the boy about his school uniform.  “Oh this is Manchester Grammar” said The Youngster, “We work Saturdays”.  “And what are you reading?” asked The Ron. “Oh just my stocks and shares” came the reply. “Granpa left me them”.  The next morning, beneath Vladimir Ulyanov’s sternest features, Salford pulled Manchester’s leg (ever so gently).

Ron loved sport and history but above else he was a bookman. As familiar with Elmore Leonard and Dick Francis as with Edward Thompson or Eileen Power, his range never ceased to amaze me.  He knew as much about the Soke of Peterborough as Kingsley Amis and could gossip about both.  By and large he liked writers who were dry and to the point.  Sentiment or verbosity were off limits and you wont find any in his writing.  Ron didn’t like anything ‘phoney’, and could spot it a mile off.

A liver infection, caught in 1978 and never properly diagnosed, dogged him to the end.  He went into Glenfield Hospital in 2016 with yellow jaundice, deepest ochre but no complaints (never any complaints), followed by a heart attack which he beat off at any rate until 13 May last when he died at Arbour House care home.

I knew him well.  He checked every word I wrote.  We worked together for 27 years and stayed strong friends thereafter, he with his stick, and his Leffe, and his leg pull, me in a bar with a man I was privileged to be called his friend.

Ron is survived by his wife Rita, his sons Peter and Stephen, and his four grandchildren Nick and Will, Alex and Elinor.


Ronald Leslie Greenall, born Salford 4 February 1937, died Leicester 13 May 2018.





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