John Gurney, who died tragically young in December 2014, was an outstanding socialist historian of the revolutionary years of England's seventeenth century. He was born in Vienna the son of Joyce (née Wilkins) and Dick Gurney, who was working for the International Atomic Energy Agency. He spent his childhood there and in Geneva before coming back to school in London. He went to Sussex as an undergraduate in the late 1970s and followed this with an MA and a Doctorate under the supervision of Willie Lamont.
He was an MA student when I first encountered him, mainly though my partner, Linda Merricks, who was also doing an MA in Early Modern History. But it was on Thursdays that I got to know John well. For all my time at Sussex the Thursday evening ‘Work in Progress’ seminar was a gathering point for faculty and postgraduates. Afterwards it spilled into the Gardner Arts Centre bar and after that, for the hardier and usually younger members, it continued in Brighton, first in the ‘London Unity’ and in later years in the ‘Sir Charles Napier’. Here, as the evening went on, history moved into politics and (mostly) good-natured argument between the different factions of the Left.
This was not a homogeneous group. It included historians of most periods and many countries, but it also included some who were none of these. It was also in its way a distinguished group – at least four of the regulars held or hold Chairs – but a mixed one dominated by older students and younger faculty, as well as some like the self-taught archaeologist and Communist Con Ainsworth who was not only in his sixties but had no formal connections with university history. As I mentally list the names of those Thursday drinkers it brings back a different academic world. It is not just that few academics now drink that much, but also that our world was less troubled by intellectual and political doubts than the one that followed in the later 1980s and 90s. We knew where we stood, and when we argued, even when it involved some of the less easy-going members of the group, we argued within an agreed framework of basic beliefs in socialism and feminism as well as the central importance of the history of the poor to the present world. In this group John was ‘christened’ ‘Young John’ (by I think Mick Reed, a six-foot-eight mature student working on the English peasantry). Indeed as Maggie Andrews – another of the group – said, he was ‘young’, among so many mature students. But he quickly became hugely respected. It was not just his learning, although that went a long way, it was his constant, wry good humour which concealed a tough-minded thinker who could more than hold his own in history and politics, and his ability to sink pints – I fear an essential qualification for the group, male and female.
John's thesis was on Surrey in the revolutionary years but, perhaps inevitably, he came to concentrate more and more on the Diggers. As he later wrote, ‘I became aware when writing [my thesis] that there remained much still to be said about the Diggers’. This was the basis of his first book Brave Community: the Digger Movement and the English Revolution, published by Manchester University Press in 2007. John's arguments about the Digger movement are, like his research, dense and absorbing, but to me the work's central importance lies in its insistence on the local context of the movement. In this he prefigures a good deal of later work, not only from the seventeenth century, which sought (and seeks) to see what we think of as ‘national’ movements like Captain Swing or Luddism as partly at least local, even parochial products. In John's work, his deep knowledge of the agrarian pays of East Surrey constantly interacts with the ideas and struggles of the Diggers and their leaders. We see Winstanley as the executor of a Cobham yeoman's will, not only as the author of revolutionary pamphlets.
This is not to say John ignores Winstanley's revolutionary ideas, rather that he brings the tradition of writing about the English seventeenth-century radicals associated with Christopher Hill (whom John admired enormously) together with that peculiarly English historical form – the local study in the mould of Thirsk or even Fineberg. It is a marriage made in heaven.
John's second book was a ‘life and times’ of Winstanley, Gerrard Winstanley: the Digger's Life and Legacy, published in 2013 by Pluto Press. This is a very different book. It is still informed by the local but it sees its hero in a much bigger world and is painted with bigger brush strokes. Here we begin, not with the will of John Coulton, yeoman, but with Lenin celebrating the first year of Soviet power by including Winstanley as one of the nineteen ‘revolutionary thinkers’ listed on a recast Tsarist monument in Moscow's Alexander Gardens. We end with a thoughtful and fascinating account of Winstanley's influence in the twentieth century, especially in the areas of the counter culture and the green movement where his ideas found widespread support, besides of course a huge audience for Leon Rosselson's song about Winstanley ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. Sadly I searched in vain for a reference to John's beloved Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Which brings me back to the Gardner Centre Bar. Here, in the midst of furious debate, John and I would argue calmly and seriously about the merits of a Syndicalist programme or that of the SPGB in the industrial unrest of 1911–12. Needless to say I won – the SPGB position was completely indefensible. In this argument we were frequently hampered by Bernie Weyman, a sometime Maoist computer programmer, or Zdenek Kavan, a Czech Martovite (his description), Mick Reed, a more or less unreconstructed Stalinist, or Pete Lambert (who claimed to be the only sane one), who supported Labour Briefing. I still maintain John and I were nearer sanity.
Like so many young academics of his generation John moved around a lot as permanent university posts evaporated. He taught at Sussex and Surrey both in full-time and adult education and eventually he went to the old Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, and then the Historic Manuscripts Commission, and eventually The National Archives. Here he developed new interests and was a hugely helpful guide in finding odd collections of papers for many historians. Both institutions were then in central London and he liked to meet passing scholars and friends, often in the wonderful ‘Princess Louise’ in Holborn.
In 1999 he met Rachel Hammersley, the distinguished intellectual historian of the English and French Revolutions, at a conference on regicide and republicanism (even the Gardner mob couldn't have made that up). In 2004, now married, he moved to Newcastle when Rachel got a full-time post there. Here he settled as carer for their children and cook for all. He taught at Newcastle when he could and continued to research, write and lecture. His style, humour, and genuine enthusiasm made him a hugely popular speaker well beyond the academic world, although his work continued to be central to academic studies not only of the seventeenth century but of English radicalism in a much wider period.
Sadly I lost direct contact with John and Rachel – the way we do. Newcastle was a long way from Brighton where I lived until the 2000s and I seldom got up there – although Linda and I always intended to. He came to my inaugural lecture – called ‘From Diggers to Dongas’ – and was thanked and acknowledged by me as one of its begetters. That was true then and it is true now. I still struggle to make sense of why country people every now and then surprise their betters and history by being radical in the most unlikely ways. For one small but vital part of their story John Gurney made sense of it for ever.
Alun Howkins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a founding editor of History Workshop Journal. He retired in 2010 from the University of Sussex where he now holds an Emeritus Chair. He is currently Honorary Professor in the School of History at the University of East Anglia and is trying to work on the early history of the socialist movement in the Eastern Counties while enjoying his retirement.