Peter Mathias interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 4th September 2008

0:09:07 Born 1928 in Freshford, Somerset; father in the Navy and did not see him until over two years old; mother had gone back to live with her parents for my birth; father was a Petty Officer Writer then and was on a goodwill visit to the east coast of the United States on HMS Capetown; when he returned in 1930 my mother rented a flat in Plymouth, close to Devonport where he was based; he was retired  in 1932 aged forty in the worst year of the slump; Plymouth was a small town and the closest he could find a job was in Bristol; he became a clerk in the Bristol and West Building Society where we moved; I went to Bishop Road Elementary School; my father had been transferred to the Naval Reserve and was called up again after Munich in 1938; I had just won a scholarship to Colston's Hospital, a local charity school and at that time a direct grant grammar school;  this was at no charge to my parents, so made a big difference; I went off to school in 1938 when my father left; my mother did not want to live alone so she went back to live with her parents again for the duration of the War, until 1946; I was boarding at school and spent the holidays with her

4:41:01 It was surprising that my mother and father ever met because my mother was the sixth child of a family of nine living in a small village, Wingfield [near Trowbridge, Wiltshire]; I am much involved at present, arranging to have a plaque to my parents put in the churchyard there; she was the daughter of a family of long-standing, living in Wingfield for at least four generations, called Love, and they lived appropriately in Loves Lane as it is still called; they were servants in Wingfield House; my great-grandfather was coachman; when the head of the family became a County Court Judge my grandfather became Court Usher, the personal servant of the Judge, as well as a court official arranging things when the Judge was on Circuit; of his nine children, they all reached maturity but not all lived that long, two boys and a girl died of TB, thought to be milk related; I identified with Wingfield and the Love family very much more than with my father's family; he had been brought up a Catholic as of Irish Catholic descent; his mother kept a boarding house for seamen opposite the Royal Marine Barracks in Plymouth; my father was never within the faith in a dedicated sense; he met my mother when there was a Navy Day in Weymouth and he showed parties around his warship; my father was absorbed into my mother's family, and they were traditional village Anglicans; grandfather was a pillar of the village and churchwarden; father had travelled extensively and had an interest in Eastern religions; my mother was faithful to the Anglican faith; the family had their own burial plot in the churchyard

11:12:15 Colston's was an Anglican school with chapel every morning, prayers every evening and church on Sunday; it had all the disadvantages of the English Public School tradition with few of the advantages; I was never able to tell to what extent the inadequacies of the school were based on wartime emergencies or just long-standing tradition; it was a very poor school, both financially and in other ways too; it was a good teaching organization up to matriculation but after that it was not a serious educational establishment, and more particularly so in wartime; for a year there was no one teaching history in the sixth form and I had to go for an hour a week to Bristol Grammar School for a tutorial; I was interested in history, although my results were equally good for the sciences; I spent an inordinate length of time in the sixth form as there was nothing else to do until one was called up at eighteen; in December 1945 I came to take a scholarship here, at King's, which I failed to get; I was advised by Christopher Morris at my interview in King's that I should try for Jesus College; I tried again at Easter and got an Exhibition at Jesus; stayed on at school until I was called up in Summer 1946; as was common then, Jesus demanded that those coming up from school should have done military service before they arrived; I spent two years in the army as a conscript before coming up; my father was away from 1938 to 1946 and when he was demobilized he returned to the Bristol and West Building Society; meanwhile he had become a Warrant Officer Writer; he was too old for sea service in World War II and was at various shore stations, known in the Navy as stone frigates; my mother and I would spend part of each holiday following him around the country; he was first in Devonport but then went to one of the greatest Naval Bases of the War, HMS Lucifer in Swansea which came under the authority of an even greater Naval Base,  Rear Admiral Cardiff; their remit was to sweep the Bristol Channel of magnetic mines; he then went to Western Approaches Command, Liverpool in 1942 and was there for the rest of the War; after the defeat of Germany he spent a few winter months 1945-46 in Germany, in Kiel and Hamburg particularly, with a party collecting documentation of the Battle of the Atlantic campaign from the U-Boat side; it was then sent to the Admiralty and is now in the National Archives; it was a terrible winter to be travelling round Europe and he caught tuberculosis and was never the same again; he died in 1960

20:03:03 As a conscript, after preliminary training I had opted to join the Intelligence Corp; we did all the initial training and then in 1947 the Control Commission took over in Germany from the military establishment and there were several hundred Intelligence Corps officers who were suddenly without a job; they came back to Aldershot and those of us who were in training were told to get out; the softest option was to transfer to the Army Educational Corps which I did; I was about to go to Germany in September 1948 but my release came through just in time for me to go to Cambridge for the October term; at school I had been interested in everything; I was head prefect, junior head of the Corp, captain of rugby, cricket etc.; music was the biggest absence all the way through; I laboured at piano lessons before boarding school but there was no continuity, so without any regrets at the time, but a pity in retrospect; I do listen to music and go to concerts regularly; we have a minute place in Norfolk and every parish church on the north coast has a music festival in the Summer and we are regular attenders at the Burnham Market Festival; I have always been fond of the Baroque composers, Scarlatti in particular; I do not write to music, and prefer silence; I can only write in longhand, correcting as I go; once done, someone else types it; my technical evolution stopped in the early 1950's, also I had the deadly asset of a secretary

28:25:16 In Jesus, my main mentor was Charles Wilson because I identified with him and his work as an economic historian; by that time I was really committed to economic history within the syllabus; Vivien Fisher was my tutor who was a mediaeval historian; he had one boss eye and could fix you with it which was highly intimidating; I was interested in rowing although there was none at Colston's, but my father was interested and we used to row quite at lot in the holidays; I came up eager to join the boat club in Jesus; met Fisher a couple of days after joining and he told me to resign immediately as no Exhibitioner at Jesus could join the boat club; I was young and obedient and did what he asked, though wish that I had not; in the Faculty, I ran through the tripos in the standard way; the person whom I identified with in the Faculty was Edward Welbourne, who was then Senior Tutor of Emmanuel; he later became Master; he had been at Market Rasen Grammar School where Charles Wilson had also been a pupil; they were devoted allies; Wilson told me to go to Welbourne's lectures which I duly did; his lectures were whatever came into his mind though under the heading of “some technological factors in English economic history”; he was a Johnsonian figure; he wrote almost nothing except a little book on the Northumberland and Durham miners; however, he read voraciously, [was the scourge of the Fabians] and had an extraordinary memory; he had a small but devoted band of undergraduates, but he was written off as a clown by the History Faculty; I was also lectured by John Saltmarsh and Christopher Morris; in 1955 when I became an Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty I inherited the second half of John Saltmarsh's lecture course; Sir John Clapham, when he was Professor, lectured on the whole of British economic history; when he died, no one could do the whole thing; it was taken over by John Saltmarsh doing the first half and Charles Wilson, the second half, the break coming in the seventeenth century; as soon as I was appointed Wilson decided to move on; it was the middle of the summer and Wilson said that I should give them in the Michaelmas Term; I never worked so hard in my life to try and keep up; I remember going to Saltmarsh's rooms so he could instruct me on where he stopped and where I had to begin; I knocked on the door and a high-pitched voice told me to come in; he was sitting on top of a very tall step-ladder; his dining table had been fully extended and was full of little bits of paper; he was Vice Provost and was planning the seating of a King's feast; as an undergraduate I went to Christopher Morris's lecture on the history of political thought in my second year; he was a good lecturer who could link the topics to current politics; I also went to Frank Salter's lectures on English economic history; I went to Postan's lectures and subsequently had a great deal to do with him when I became an Assistant Lecturer; when I was an undergraduate, Charles Wilson had fallen out with Postan whom he thought was a jumped-up refugee and too clever by half; he tried to deter me from going to Postan's lectures; I did go but concealed it from Wilson; they subsequently were reconciled

41:06:01 Jesus was an isolated College away from the main line of Cambridge colleges; it existed in rural conservatism in its own grounds and was more inward looking than many other colleges; it had its own very specific Anglican tradition; I understood it perfectly well from Wingfield; I used to go to the Chapel; although I think that technically chapel was not compulsory it was assumed by most of the undergraduates that it was, and by the Scholars and Exhibitioners in particular; Gardner-Smith who was the great orthodox Dean of Chapel, a highly conservative figure about whom there are innumerable stories, quite illegally in 1948 would get the Head Porter to note all those who were in Chapel so he'd know who had been there, and, even more, who had not; I was in the choir then; I would describe myself as a traditional Anglican, though not as devout as my wife

44:00:10 I did not do a doctorate as I was in the generation before it was either mandatory, or, indeed, advantageous; I now wish I had done; my absence of a doctorate is concealed as I now have a higher doctorate; having got a Research Fellowship at Jesus in the Autumn of 1952, Charles Wilson said, having got my knees under a high table, I should resign from the register of graduate students; I obeyed him, but wish I hadn't now; I had already started on research on the brewing industry in the eighteenth century after I graduated in 1951; it was not recognised as an appropriate academic subject at that time; the reputation of the industry was totally polarised between those people, probably from brewing families or connected with the industry directly, and those people who viewed it as the incarnation of the Devil; when I told people what I was working on there would either be silence or people would find it amusing; the advantage was that there had been no serious academic historical work at all [The Loves had second cousins, the Fussells, who owned a small brewery in Rode, a few miles away from Wingfield. The Fussells gave me useful introductions]; that was doubly fortunate as at that time all the brewing firms were still owned by the family, if not run by it; family firms tend not to throw away their records and I found eighteenth century records in every major brewery in London; one of the possible advantages of not tailoring the research to the terms of a doctoral thesis was that I had time; I was able to get an Assistant Lectureship in 1955 which gave me continuity of employment because my Research Fellowship had run out then; I was not under any pressure to publish and I did not do so until 1959; by then the book was too long to read and too expensive for anyone to buy; however, it stood me in good stead as a launching pad for an academic career

49:20:04 Brian Harrison came over from Oxford to be supervised by me; Alan Barker, the only historian in Queens, resigned in 1955; Queens elected me and I was expected then to organize the whole of their teaching, and do quite a lot of it myself, from the Michaelmas Term; at the same time I was doing Charles Wilson's lectures; I was not married then and that made all the difference; I was at Queens from 1955 until 1968 and it was during that time that Brian Harrison came over; he was tremendously hard-working, knew exactly what he wanted to do and how he was going to do it, and was only looking for a very occasional piece of advice from a supervisor; in 1951 after I graduated I joined T.S. Ashton's seminar at the LSE and went every week to the Institute of Historical Research where he ran it; I met Donald Coleman and Jack Fisher, and all the LSE historians there; T.S. Ashton was extremely kind to me and I learnt a great deal from him in 1951-52; Donald was a tiger when he was at LSE, quite unforgiving, knew exactly what he believed in and what he was hostile to; he was able to end a friendship more abruptly than many of the other people I have known; clearly he had a very powerful brain; he ran an informal group and we used to meet in his flat in the Charring Cross Road about twice a term; he would always cook the supper and we would supply the wine; that was very enlightening, particularly coming from Cambridge into the big world of the LSE and the London colleges; I have never been a fellow member of a faculty with him; I did meet R.H. Tawney in 1950; I should say that when I came up to Cambridge I had one supporter, Teddy Rich, who was then Master of St Catharine's; by chance he had been a pupil at Colston's, one of the very few to reach Cambridge, and his younger brother was the gym and German master at Colston's until he was called up; Ivor Rich told Teddy that I had got a scholarship and Teddy Rich welcomed me and invited me to tea when I got to Cambridge; in 1950 Teddy Rich was treasurer of the Economic History Society and he told me I should join although undergraduates did not do so; he invited me to the next conference which was at Worcester; to my surprise we started driving to Oxford and I thought this was not the way to Worcester; of course, it was at Worcester College; I was an innocent abroad in those days, with very limited horizons; Tawney was at the conference; he made an immense impression; he was very kind to me; as President of the Society, he took the chair; on this occasion, Tawney did not set himself on fire but someone was lighting a pipe and a spark went into a matchbox and an acrid smell drifted out; Tawney always went to sleep and when the puff of smoke reached him he woke up, gently stopped the speaker, and asked if somebody was burning prematurely; I never knew Eileen Power as she died in 1940 but learnt a lot about her from Postan and Cynthia; got to know Postan quite well from 1955 when everything happened to me except marriage, including becoming Assistant Editor of the 'Economic History Review' of which Postan was the Editor; he was then in the process of initiating the International Economic History Society with Braudel, and I became the informal secretary of the association and Kenneth Berrill, then professor here, became the informal treasurer of the incipient society

1:03:26:13 During the academic year 1952-53 I went to Harvard and M.I.T.; Charles Wilson thought I should learn some economics which had not been possible within the history tripos; that was the only time that I left Cambridge, apart from sabbatical leave, until 1968 when I went to Oxford; I was in Oxford for twenty years; I succeeded Habakkuk who had been appointed Master of Jesus, Oxford; this meant that he could not hold the Chair and resigned; I applied for the Chair; David Joslin took Postan's Chair when he retired; he was two years older than I was and that meant the Cambridge Chair was blocked for me; when Habakkuk vacated the Chair in Oxford I was induced to apply; ironically, within a year David Joslin had a heart attack and died; all our friends and colleagues were in Cambridge and encouraged me to return; it was an attractive supposition but the more I thought about it the more impossible it became; I had just taken up the Chair, the children were at school, and we had bought a house; Postan was even sent to try and persuade me to apply; I was acutely aware that I would look a fool in both towns if I applied for the Cambridge chair and I was not appointed; I did stay in Oxford for twenty years; was a Fellow of All Souls which had funded the Chichele chair in 1931; they had offered it to Tawney at that time but he declined to leave London; W.G. Hoskins was a Fellow of All Souls at that time but seldom appeared as he was reluctant to leave Exeter; Habakkuk was the person whom I saw most

1:10:03:08 Consider that my more important work centred on the general issues of  industrialization; almost all my work has been based upon British primary sources, but it would be the process of industrialization more generally and in a comparative sense in the European context; also in business history - I wrote a history of all the multiple retailing companies which came together when Unilever was formed in 1931; each of the production companies had acquired a trail of dependant and wholly owned retailing companies; a lynch pin of the business was margarine which had induced very large scale organisations in production; as it was a perishable commodity, to ensure quality and to capture downstream profits, they all integrated forwards to control their own retailing outlets; when Unilever was formed, which was essentially an amalgamation of the production companies, there was this trail of retailers which had been brought in their wake; they were amalgamated and grouped as a holding company called Allied Suppliers; Charles Wilson was then finishing his influential business history of Unilever; I had then finished the work on brewing, which was yet to be published; Charles persuaded me to write the history of the retailing companies formed under the umbrella of Unilever which I did; it was published by Longmans in 1967; they had wanted to call it 'Counter Revolution' but were persuaded by the marketing people that it would bemuse potential readers; this work gave me an entree into business history and I have been interested in it since then

1:14:49:03 From the late 1950s when the international association was formed I began to have an international horizon; I became the British representative on the junta at the International Institute in Prato which was then getting into its stride; I had an annual commitment there and met a lot of the Italian economic historians; through one of them, Luigi de Rosa from Naples, an academically powerful man, I acquired various commitments, one of which has been  the 'Journal of European Economic History' founded by Luigi in 1971; I am not technically a member of the editorial board but nothing much happened that I did not know about; it is published by the Bank of Rome; also Luigi was a determinant economic historian in the Italian Institute of Philosophical Studies in Naples; for the last ten years I have been giving a course of lectures every year there; Luigi died three years ago but his commitments lived on after him and they have wanted me to continue; this is a different commitment every year and they have a general theme of the Institute which I try to fit in with; they have published two little books of the lectures and there are two more in the press in Naples; that has been an attractive commitment for me and I owe much to Luigi which I am happy to try to repay

1:19:56:22 I have never done any research using Japanese data I went to international meetings there and had three or four Japanese scholars who were sent by their professors to take doctorates in Oxford; thus I became known to Japanese economic historians and that link continues; also when the present Crown Prince came to Oxford I became his research supervisor; he had bucked the trend of the family as his father etc. were all marine biologists, but he was an economic historian; when his family and the Imperial Household Agency wanted him to spend two years in the West, Britain was chosen; I had been much involved with one of his senior academic advisors in Japan so he came to Oxford in 1983 for two years; that commitment has continued and I shall see him again in November; that was one link that consolidated my nexus with Japan and meant very much more than I had realized it would; when I came to Downing College in 1987 I found that there was a link with Keio University and that has consolidated; [Keio gave me an honorary degree in November. My main continuing commitment with Japan is as President of the Great Britain - Sasakawa Foundation whose remit is promoting links between this country and Japan.]