Asa Briggs, British historian and author of a trilogy of books on Victorian life was 90 years old two years ago. To mark the occasion the IHR (which also shared its birthday with Lord Briggs) held a one day conference to celebrate the career and contributions of Asa Briggs to the British History profession. The proceedings focused on three key areas of Asa Brigg’s career: his studies of Victorian Britain; his role in media and communications; and finally his role in British universities.
David Cannadine began the proceedings with a tribute to Asa Briggs in which he states the eminent importance of Asa in establishing 20th century study of nineteenth century Britain and his pioneering work into the BBC and modern communication history. Beyond his contribution to research Asa has had an extraordinary influence on academic life: as Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds (1955-1961), as Professor of History at the University of Sussex and as Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor (1961-1976). Between 1978 and 1994 Asa Briggs became Chancellor of the Open University paving the way forward for a successful alternative to the traditional university model in Britain.
In the first session of the day ‘Victorian Studies’ Martin Hewitt (Manchester Metropolitan University) discusses the role of Asa Briggs as a specialist in Victorian Britain. The revisions to this history that occurred in the 1950s and 60s was enabled in-part through Asa’s work and still hold up today as starting points into the topic. Asa took the opinion that what matters most is not what happened, but what people said when it had happened. His emphasises on contemporary voices, especially those from below helped to revolutionise our understanding of the nineteenth century and to give it a human face and identity. Francesca Carnevali (University of Birmingham) added that Asa used the setting of the city to give Victorian’s their voice; a lens with which to observe the social, economical, and political occurrences. Carnevali focuses on Asa’s description of Birmingham as a social space and as the ‘workshop’ of the world. It is in Asa’s study of industry that he showed for the first time that research should be more than about the engine of economic progress but also about being an engine of social mobility as working men became masters.