Joan Thirsk

Posted by pt91 at Oct 09, 2013 09:45 AM |

We have learnt, with great regret, of the death of Joan Thirsk (1922 - 2013), an influential figure in the development of Local History at Leicester.

Joan completed a degree in modern languages at London University. Her knowledge of German took her into the Intelligence Corps at the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park, where she met her husband Jimmy, a librarian, and became a convert to History. In 1945 she went to LSE to work on a PhD under R.H. Tawney.

At Leicester W.G. Hoskins had obtained funds to employ a research fellow, and in 1951 she embarked on a study of Lincolnshire agrarian history, from which came publications on fenland farming (an Occasional Paper of the Department of English Local History), on the Isle of Axholme, and on English Peasant Farming  in 1957. An important part of the research was to define the various local agrarian economies in Lincolnshire by systematic analysis of probate inventories, which recorded the crops and animals of those making wills. She then turned to the volume of the Agrarian History of England and Wales on the period 1500 to 1640, with Alan Everitt as her assistant. In this she again defined regional differences through an ambitious sample of inventories. This book, the first of the 8 volumes of the Agrarian History to appear, was published in 1967. Joan recently showed her regard for Local History at Leicester by depositing her research notes for the Agrarian History volume 4 (essentially transcripts of hundreds of probate inventories) to the University Library.

By then W.G. Hoskins had left his readership in Oxford to return to Leicester and she moved into that post in 1965. Her period at Leicester was a very fruitful one in the development of the Department of English Local History, and in particular she contributed to the analysis of regional differences which was developed by Everitt into the concept of the pays and by Charles Phythian-Adams into the idea of cultural provinces. Many of the ideas that figure in her many publications after 1965 must have first come into her mind during her 14 years at Leicester: rural industries and their growth in pastoral regions; the projects such as woad and tobacco cultivation that were responding to new consumer demands; ‘alternative agriculture’ when farmers experimented with new crops and animals especially in times of depression in mainstream agriculture.

She was interested in rural society, and ensured that people always figured prominently in her analysis and writing. She also edited a book on English Rural Landscapes, and co-authored a book on her adopted home village of Hadlow in the weald of Kent (in 2007). She occupied many offices, including editor of the Agricultural History Review, general editor of the Agrarian History, and the editorial board of Past and Present.  She was honoured with a CBE, Fellowship of the British Academy, and eight honorary doctorates. She was well respected through Europe and beyond.

Professor Chris Dyer, Centre of English Local History

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