Asa Briggs

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The Right Honourable
The Lord Briggs
File:Asa Briggs.jpg
Asa Briggs
Born (1921-05-07)7 May 1921[1]
Keighley, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died 15 March 2016(2016-03-15) (aged 94)
Lewes, East Sussex, England
Nationality British
Occupation Historian
Spouse(s) Susan Anne Banwell (1955–2016, his death)
Military career
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Corps of Signals Intelligence Corps
Years of service 1942–1945
Rank Warrant Officer
Battles/wars Second World War

Asa Briggs, Baron Briggs (7 May 1921 – 15 March 2016) was an English historian. He was a leading specialist on the Victorian era, and the foremost historian of broadcasting in Britain. Briggs achieved international recognition during his long and prolific career for examining various aspects of modern British history.[2] He was made a life peer in 1976.

Early life

Asa Briggs was born in Keighley, West Riding of Yorkshire in 1921 to William Briggs, an engineer, and his wife Jane.[3] He was educated at Keighley Boys' Grammar School and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA (first class) in 1941, and a BSc in Economics (first class) from the University of London External Programme, also in 1941.[4]

Military service

From 1942 to 1945 during the Second World War, Briggs served in the Intelligence Corps and worked at the British wartime codebreaking station, Bletchley Park. He was a member of "the Watch" in Hut 6, the section deciphering Enigma machine messages from the German Army and Luftwaffe.[5] This posting had arisen because at college Briggs had played chess with Cambridge mathematician Howard Smith (who was to become the Director General of MI5 in 1979) and Smith had written to the head of Hut 6, Gordon Welchman, who was also a Cambridge mathematician, recommending Briggs to him.[3]

Academic career

After the war, he was elected a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford (1945–55), and was subsequently appointed University Reader in Recent Social and Economic History (1950–55). Whilst a young Fellow, Briggs proofread Winston Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.[3] He was later Faculty Fellow of Nuffield College (1953–55) and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, United States (1953–54).

From 1955 until 1961 he was Professor of Modern History in Leeds University and between 1961 and 1976 he was Professor of History in Sussex University, whilst also serving as Dean of the School of Social Studies (1961–65), Pro Vice-Chancellor (1961–67) and Vice-Chancellor (1967–76). On 4 June 2008 the University of Sussex Arts A1 and A2 lecture theatres, designed by Basil Spence, were renamed in his honour.

In 1976 he returned to Oxford to become Provost of Worcester College, retiring from the post in 1991.

He was Chancellor of the Open University (1978–94) and in May 1979 was awarded an honorary degree as Doctor of the University. He was an Honorary Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge from 1968, Worcester College, Oxford from 1969 and St Catharine's College, Cambridge, from 1977. He held a visiting appointment at the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University in the late 1980s and again at the renamed Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia in 1995–96. Announced in the 1976 Birthday Honours,[6] he was created a life peer as Baron Briggs, of Lewes in the County of East Sussex on 19 July 1976.[7]

Between 1961 and 1995, Briggs wrote a five-volume text on the history of broadcasting in the UK from 1922 to 1974 – essentially the history of the BBC, who commissioned the work.[3] Briggs' other works ranged from an account of the period that Karl Marx spent in London to the corporate history of British retailer Marks and Spencer.[3] In 1987, Lord Briggs was invited to be President of the Brontë Society, a literary society established in 1893 in Haworth, near Keighley, Yorkshire. He presided over the Society's centenary celebrations in 1993 and continued as President until he retired from the position in 1996.[8] He was also President of the William Morris Society from 1978 to 1991 and President of the Victorian Society (UK) from 1986 until his death.[9]

He died at home in Lewes at the age of 94 on 15 March 2016.[10]

Personal life

He married Susan Anne Banwell of Keevil, Wiltshire in 1955[11] and they had two sons and two daughters.

Select bibliography

  • The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, 5 volumes (Oxford University Press)
  1. The Birth of Broadcasting – 1961
  2. The Golden Age of Wireless (1927–1939) – 1965
  3. The War of Words (1939–1945) – 1970
  4. Sound and Vision (1945–1955) – 1979
  5. Competition (1955–1974) – 1995
  • The Age of Improvement, 1783–1867 (Harlow: Pearson, 1959, 2nd edn 2000)
  • The Channel Islands, Occupation and Liberation 1940–1945, Batsford Books, London, ISBN 0-7134-7822-5
  • A Social History of England
  • Victorian People
  • Victorian Cities
  • Toynbee Hall: The First Hundred Years (London: Routledge, 1984, ISBN 0-7102-0283-0)
  • Victorian Things
  • Marks & Spencer Ltd: A Centenary History, Marks & Spencer 1884–1984
  • The Franchise Affair, 1986 (with Joanna Spicer)[12]
  • Marx in London: An Illustrated Guide
  • A Social History of the Media, 2002 (together with Peter Burke)
  • Secret Days: Codebreaking in Bletchley Park: A Memoir of Hut Six and the Enigma Machine (Frontline Books, ISBN 978-1-84832-615-6, May 2011)
  • Special Relationships: People and Places, 2012
  • History of Birmingham, three volumes


  1. "The Rt Hon the Lord Briggs, FBA". Debretts. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 55.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Jones, Nigel (15 March 2016). "Asa Briggs obituary". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 15 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Bridges, Sophie. "The Papers of Asa Briggs". Janus. Retrieved 11 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Asa Briggs, foreword to Gwen Watkins, Cracking the Luftwaffe Codes, 2006, Greenhill Books, p. 12, ISBN 978-1-85367-687-1
  6. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 46919. p. . 4 June 1976.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 46970. p. . 23 July 1976.
  8. Lemon, Charles (1993). "A Centenary History of The Brontë Society, 1893–1993". Brontë Society Transactions. Supplement to Volume 20: 105.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Martin Crick, The History of the William Morris Society 1955–2005 (London, 2011); Paul Thompson, 'Asa Briggs 1921–2016', The Victorian: The Magazine of the Victorian Society, 52 (July 2016), p. 5.
  10. "Asa Briggs, Lord Briggs of Lewes, passes: 07 May 1921 – 15 March 2016". University of Sussex. Retrieved 7 January 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Wedding photograph". Wiltshire Times. 10 September 1955.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Briggs, Asa; Spicer, Joanna (1986). The Franchise Affair: Creating Fortunes and Failures in Independent Television. Century. ISBN 978-0-7126-1201-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

Academic offices
Preceded by
Harold Clay
President of the Workers' Educational Association
1958 – 1967
Succeeded by
Ellen McCullough
Preceded by
The Lord Gardiner
Chancellor of the Open University
Succeeded by
The Baroness Boothroyd
Preceded by
Oliver Franks, Baron Franks
Provost of Worcester College, Oxford
Succeeded by
Richard Smethurst