Pioneer Labour Historian
John Saville, the British economic and social historian, has died aged 93. He was born John Stamatopoulos near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire in 1916 to Edith Vessey and Orestes Stamatopolous, a Greek engineer. He attended Royal Liberty School where he excelled on the sporting field and became school captain. He won a scholarship to the London School of Economics (LSE) from which he graduated with first class honours in 1937.
Within two months of his arrival at the LSE (in 1934) and after attending a number of leftwing meetings, Saville joined the Communist Party. He worked for the Party on various campaigns including support for the Spanish Republic and opposition to appeasement. He served in the royal artillery during the Second World War. Disregarding Communist Party advice, Saville resolutely refused to accept offers of a commission and finished the War with the rank of Warrant Officer. During his service he continued to engage in political work for the Party wherever he was posted, including the three years he spent in India between 1943 and 1947 where he met Nehru and leaders of the Communist party of India.
Back in the United Kingdom in 1947, Saville returned to the academic world and taught economic history at the (then) University College at Hull. He was politically active in community and trade union circles and was a member of the Communist Party history group along with such luminaries as Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson. Following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Saville, along with Edward Thompson and others established the New Reasoner to provide an oppositional socialist voice to the loyalist line run by the intransigent British Communist Party. Both Saville and Thompson were suspended by the Party and later both resigned from it. The New Reasoner continued until 1959 when it entered into an amalgamation which spawned the New Left Review.
By the 1960s, Saville had developed the subject area of economic and social history to the stage where it had become a separate department at Hull and its research and postgraduate programs attracted many international scholars. Saville also took a keen interest in the emerging field of oral history and in the library and publications department of the University. He remained at the University of Hull, where he held the chair of economic and social history, until his retirement in 1982.
Saville also helped found the Society for the Study of Labour History (1958) which inspired both his Essays in Labour History and the Dictionary of Labour Biography. The latter work was recently described by Eric Hobsbawm as being the best of its kind anywhere in the world and a lasting monument to the work of Saville who served as editor for the first ten volumes. Saville also researched in the areas of Chartism, agricultural change and rural migration and the role of the state in the judiciary and in politics. With Ralph Miliband, Saville launched the annual Socialist Register in 1964 for which he was co-editor for a number of years and a keen contributor of political writing. The Register continues in publication today.
Saville died 13 June 2009. His wife and lifelong partner, Constance, whom he married in 1943, died in 2007. They had three sons and a daughter.
John Saville spent a lifetime staunchly committed to socialist ideas and he will be remembered as one of the most influential labour and social historians of the post-war generation.
Sources: Eric Hobsbawm, John Saville Obituary, The Guardian, Tuesday 16 June 2009 John Saville: a short biography, http:www.lipman-miliband.org.uk/John Saville, accessed 6 July 2009
Published 9 July 2009.