Justin Champion, Historian (1960 – 2020) by Graham Smith

What we need is radical social change that redistributes the wealth of the very few to the many, and that will change life. We are inheriting, at the moment, the consequences of a long form of decolonisation. The British Isles, throughout the 18th and 19th, and most of the 20th century, colonised the world, raped it in one sense, and we are now confronted with the consequences of that. (Justin Champion, ‘The Big Questions, BBC1, 12 June 2016; 22.16-22:40).

Justin Champion was a consummate scholar, producing works that offered new ways of seeing the early modern world that were based on novel approaches to reading the past. In his writings, many of which he made open access, he broke new ground in the study of early modern radical thought. His debt to Christopher Hill was obvious and acknowledged. In his 2018 memorial lecture he restated the long tradition of civil rights struggle in England, countering revisionist criticisms of Hill by pointing out that he had pioneered a new way of looking at neglected materials that, in turn, had opened new possibilities for further research into radical discourse and action. Indeed, in Justin’s work, Hill’s project is followed so that space can be found for the voices of the marginalised and for their language of dissent to be heard. This was a part of the golden thread of liberty that Justin grew ever fonder of talking about. It was also why he became a valued ally of oral history and a proponent of public history.

There are multiple versions of the Hill lecture. There is a published version, ‘Heaven Taken By Storm’, which is a fantastic read, but it is the earlier spoken presentation that I like best. Justin’s lecturing style, with its autobiographical asides and occasional self-deprecation, points to his belief in communicating complex histories with a sense of humility and fun. It is also testament to his conviction that the historian’s life experience influences their methods and their understanding of the past. Conversely, it was people’s lives in the past that sparked his curiosity. His radio programmes included biographies of well-known historical figures such as Francis Bacon, but also less recognised individuals, such as Jacques Francis. It was this interest in Francis and Southampton, where he went to school, that led to his interest in black history.

There will be still other varieties of the Hill lecture recalled by colleagues and friends, as he regularly tried out how he might express his thoughts by casually dropping nuggets of weighty historical analysis into everyday conversations. Indeed, there must be hundreds of people who have fragments of Justin’s developing radio, television, and lecture ideas lodged in their memories. His radical networks were not only social networks that existed in the history he studied, but also were part of his everyday social relationships.

The public reception of the past was of key importance to Justin. He proselytised against academic insularity and for university engagement as a public utility. As far as he was concerned, people’s deep passion for the past was an opportunity for historians to help enhance and improve contemporary debate. He often found ways to gently chide those historians who thought that the past was too foreign a land for the masses. This was the view of a man whose father had found his way to study at Cambridge through the Workers’ Educational Association. Good history, for Justin, explained prejudice and inequality; it was critical and provoked debate. This passion for public history led him to fight for the founding of a pioneering MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London, the institution at which he was based for most of his career. The MA was ultimately launched in 2009 and is currently the most well-established programme of its kind in the UK. Justin’s collegiality and the warm-friendship he enjoyed with the editors of the site also led him to make numerous highly engaging contributions to Historians for History.

Justin in RHUL 2
Justin Champion discussing Black History Month, Founders Buildings, Royal Holloway, 2017

His search for historical truth was an inherently aesthetic and ethical project and Justin’s public history was as much a moral as an intellectual venture. History mattered, he told his peers in 2007, because it has the capacity to produce better human beings. History could help the public deal with the difficult and the unknown, and quoting Hugh Trevor Roper from five decades earlier: ‘History that isn’t controversial is dead history’. His art of history was not only to be found in uncovering past lives but in conveying their historical significance. He rejected empiricism and objectivity, yet he loved his numbers, not only in his earlier work on ‘epidemics and the built environment in 1665’, but in later years, when he could quote visitor numbers to heritage sites in support of his argument for a citizens’ history.

He could also note in passing in an article about history on television that in A History of Britain (BBC, 2000), Simon Schama had spoken 300 times directly to camera. Justin’s ability as a public intellectual was based on studying the limitations and opportunities of different media and how others presented historical concepts through them. He was interviewed for many programmes, and appeared in at least seven television mini-series and documentaries from Fire, Plague, War and Treason (2001) to Charles I: Downfall of a King, which aired just last year. He loved making television programmes and would enthuse on the craft of production and revel in reaching new audiences. He enthused about television as a ‘platform for communicating its learning and moral integrity in an energized and enthusiastic public sphere’.

He was engaging on television, but he truly excelled on radio in explorations of complex historical ideas. A regular on In Our Time, the BBC Radio 4 flagship programme presented by Melvyn Bragg, he contributed to episodes on miracles, Calvinism, the trial of Charles I, the apocalypse, divine right, Bedlam, The Putney Debates, and the Quakers. There were other programmes on duelling, and toleration and a programme on the history of reading, based on marginalia and the defacing of books. He reviewed for Nightwaves and commented on various historical issues for the Today Programme and Radio 5 Live.

He also took his own responsibilities as a citizen historian seriously. As the President of the Historical Association from 2014 to 2017, he used his position to highlight the lack of black historians working in schools and universities. In response to being awarded the Association’s Medlicott Medal in 2018, he offered a hugely insightful lecture on ‘Defacing the Past or Resisting Oppression?’ in which he described the alterations and removals of statues and public art depicting controversial historical figures and actions.

He spent his final years dealing with cancer: ‘It is a bit annoying to say the least’, he noted in a memorable interview for Royal Holloway’s college radio, explaining, ‘that is the reason I’ve taken early retirement, and that’s a big loss for me. Not so much the routines of academic life, but the opportunity to distort and corrupt young minds is one, you know, you could never get tired of that’, he said, making one of his favourite jokes. ‘And the moments of revelation when someone gets it and goes on to have their own career is just fantastic’. He had an infectious love of teaching and a deep respect for students’ perspectives. While understanding the validation we receive from our teaching, he asked his colleagues to think beyond themselves. Passing a room where he was holding a class lightened the darkest of moods, such was the noise of laughter and discussion. He would frequently regale colleagues with insightful points students had made in class or tell of how they had responded to one of his teaching exercises. He wanted to learn from his students and was genuinely interested in their thinking, and the response to Justin’s death on social media has demonstrated the affection he was held in by former students as well as colleagues.

Listening to his voice again has made me deeply sad at his loss, but personally and profoundly grateful that we spent time together in long discussions that ranged from memories of music and politics, to food and sport, to College governance and union business. Listening to his voice reminded me that he excelled as a storyteller. He was so much more than a partial obituary can cover. The love for his daughter Alice and his partner Sylvia. The pride he took from managing Abbey Rangers Football Club Ladies team, a resilient and robust football team that was a personal passion for him. The loyalty to his friends, even when they did something stupid. If Justin had been asked if he had a role model, he might have said Joe Strummer or Stormzy, rather than an eminent historian, and we are greatly diminished by the loss of his cool rage against the ‘filth’, as he described it, of racism, inequality and inhumanity.

Graham Smith is Professor of Oral History at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the Historians for History site.

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