The HA presents books by Asa Briggs to Keighley Library

By Trevor James, published 28th February 2018

When Professor Asa Briggs died in 2016, the Historical Association lost a very dear and loyal friend. As a result the decision was made to publish a special edition of The Historian to celebrate the life of Lord Briggs. The intention was to focus on his work and achievements as an historian, in the widest possible sense of being someone who shaped the discipline as well as inspiring others through his research, teaching and writing.

In 2010 the Historical Association gave Asa Briggs a special award at the Medlicott Award evening. In a few minutes Asa Briggs, despite being ninety, captivated us and proved why he was the most influential and perspicacious historian of the age. His award that evening was to recognise his unique role in supporting the Historical Association so strongly throughout his professional life, as well as a personal tribute to his scholarship.

Asa Briggs’s reputation as an energetic scholar and activist has produced its own mythology. Professor Donald Read has mentioned that, when Asa Briggs was professor at Leeds University, the departmental secretary was often to be found hovering on the station platform to secure signatures on letters and papers as he rushed through, always on his way somewhere. This is matched by the story that he wrote a book review half an hour before his wedding, and another that he read a book, and reviewed it, on an hour-long express train journey from London Victoria to Brighton. So busy was he that many wondered how he found time to sleep or indeed whether he did at all. Mythology and legend always follow essential truths: in this case that he was truly prodigious and creative, and, with full justification, the most celebrated historian of our time.

Our rarely used Latin motto – quidquid agunt homines – which is broadly translated as ‘whatever mankind does’ would be a ready motto to have to mind as we have paid tribute to Asa Briggs because in many ways that phrase reflected his historical range and enthusiasms.

Most historians will name a figure who has deeply influenced their work, either as teacher or writer, or indeed as mentor. The immediate response from historians to the special edition of The Historian was substantial, with many scholars wanting to explain how Asa Briggs had influenced their work. Similar responses have continued to arrive since that issue of The Historian was published in Spring 2017. It is clear that his influence was enormous and highly valued. This was what led to the decision to celebrate his profound influence in some way in Keighley, his birthplace.

The reason why the President and Trevor James, accompanied by Philip Johnston, went to Keighley Library in late November was to present a collection of over 20 books, written by Asa Briggs, to be a reference resource for the very library in which we know he studied in his formative years and which experience he is known to have valued highly. This was literally where the young Asa Briggs developed his skills to become the most extraordinary of social historians. The Bradford Library Service was delighted by our interest and what proved to be a considerable quantity of books. What we presented represented the full breadth of his interests from his very popular Social History of England; his extremely formative Victorian Things; his History of Birmingham and History of the BBC; his company histories of Marks and Spencer, Longmans and Lewis’s; and his still popular textbook – The Age of Improvement.