Alan Harding - A Tribute

9th December 2019

The Society is very sorry to report the recent death of Professor Alan Harding. Professor Harding was President of the Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire between 1981 and 1998: the second longest Presidential term in our 141-year history. During his years of distinguished service, he oversaw the publication of 15 RSLC volumes, covering topics from the middle ages to the twentieth century. The tribute below was written by Elizabeth Danbury, a former colleague of Professor Harding at the University of Liverpool.

Alan Harding (1932–2019), Professor of Medieval History, University of Liverpool, 1980–96.

Alan Harding was born in Guildford in Surrey, where he spent his childhood. He was the second youngest of seven children and the first in his family to go to grammar school. From Guildford Grammar School he was awarded a scholarship to University College, Oxford, one of the first generation of children from less privileged backgrounds to gain a place at Oxford.

He took a degree in Medieval and Modern History and followed his undergraduate course with a B. Litt., specialising in medieval legal history. He was employed in short-term posts at Manchester and London before being appointed to a junior lectureship at Edinburgh in 1961. Outside his academic life as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, he became a member of SCM (Student Christian Movement) and also developed a love of walking in mountain country including North Wales and North-West Scotland. Most important of all, he met his wife at Oxford. Dr Marjorie Harding (née Aitken) was – and is – a gifted crystallographer and an important pupil of Dorothy Hodgkin OM, a Nobel Prize-winner. Alan and Marjorie were married in 1958.

Alan stayed at Edinburgh University from 1961–80, being promoted first as Director of Studies, then Associate Dean and ultimately as Reader in the Department of Medieval History, while Marjorie had a post in the Chemistry Department. Their children Andrew and Kathey spent their early childhood in the family homes in Thirlestane Road and later in Tantallon Place.

In 1980 Alan moved to the University of Liverpool as Professor of Medieval History. The timing was, to say the least, difficult for the whole family. Both university and city were experiencing great problems during the early 1980s. The Toxteth riots took place in 1981, severely hampering travel between the Harding’s home and the University precinct; the University’s funding was much reduced, which seriously affected Marjorie’s prospects of work there; and the city council went bankrupt, which disrupted the schools. Alan’s colleagues in the History Department were almost astonished that the family did not turn tail and flee back to Scotland – no-one would have blamed them if they had!

But to do this would have been against Alan and Marjorie’s principles: both of them put work, colleagues and students first, and did not consider their own comfort and convenience. At Liverpool, as at Edinburgh, Alan took teaching and the support of students very seriously. No student with a worrying illness, or a family emergency at the other end of the country or a major work panic, ever sought his advice and assistance in vain. He listened patiently and carefully to issues raised and provided practical, positive and thoughtful help and solutions. He taught both on the undergraduate degrees and on the postgraduate degrees offered within the Department of History and was meticulous in marking and providing feedback. His attitude was that students and staff were all part of a family and that family members should be encouraged and supported – and nourished physically as well as mentally. Every one of the students taking the MA in Archive Administration during Alan’s time at Liverpool who were consulted during the preparation of this memorial commented on the annual party held in the Harding’s house in Woodlands Road. On these occasions, generations of archivists improved their ability to play croquet and table tennis and were royally fed and watered by Marjorie and Alan, ably supported by Andrew and Kathey.

As Head of Department, Alan had very little time for writing at Liverpool – hardly surprising, since Heads of Department in all British universities, both then and now, are overwhelmed with administrative duties. His publications on law and lawmakers in medieval England were largely published – or at least completed – either before he went to Liverpool or after he retired to Edinburgh. But he taught English political and administrative history to undergraduates and postgraduates and had strong views on the importance of teaching in the development of a student’s thought, expression and communication in its widest sense. He encouraged the highest of standards in academic research and teaching, fostered the introduction of computers into the History Department, did a great deal to support new MA degrees and promoted a variety of new developments in the MA in Archive Administration. As Head of Department, he sat on perhaps more than his fair share of University committees – and that at a time (1980s and 1990s) when the Higher Education budget was rapidly shrinking and forward planning was almost impossible. The damage to the budget of the University Library and the resulting loss of library posts, as well as the reduction in the ability to acquire new books or replace damaged or worn texts, was a source of great sadness to him, for he firmly believed in access to knowledge for students at all levels.

Outside the university Alan worked with colleagues in historical and other learned societies and associations, libraries, museums and archives in the North-West of England to encourage publication of historical material, discussion of archaeological and historical topics, professional development for heritage professionals and outreach to members of the public interested in family, regional, national or international history. He himself read widely and voraciously and acquired an impressive and well-used private library. In vacations, travel was important. The whole family journeyed widely within the UK and Europe – and much further afield, touring parts of the USA and China. Hill-walking remained a favoured leisure pursuit: Alan and Marjorie walked in the Cairngorms, the Highlands and the North-West of Scotland, as well as in Snowdonia. Another major interest was music. Although Alan never had the opportunity when young to learn to read music or to play a musical instrument, he grew to know and love classical music and concert-going, both in Liverpool and in Edinburgh.

However, Alan’s most important commitments were, from first to last, his family and the church. He kept in contact with his elder sisters in Guildford for all of their lives, visiting them whenever he could. His daily life focussed on his wife and children. Those who met him and Marjorie at home, both in Liverpool and after their retirement in Edinburgh, could be in no doubt about the closeness of their relationship. They were a wonderful team. Both were active members of St Columba’s church in the centre of Edinburgh. Alan served as churchwarden there between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s: he and Marjorie returned to worship at St Columba’s after his return to Edinburgh in 1997. He also undertook a great deal of outreach work, maintained ecumenical links with neighbouring churches, was a regular helper at ‘parish meals’ at Greyfriars church and, for many years, sorted books and organised the History section of the Christian Aid Book Sale in Edinburgh. An unshowy, self-contained man, he made no aggressive public display of his beliefs – but he acted on them. A thoughtful scholar and a Christian gentleman – to combine both attributes was an achievement of no small distinction.

Elizabeth Danbury, School of Advanced Study, University of London

(This informal tribute owes a great deal to Marjorie Harding’s notes on her husband’s life and to conversations and communications with former colleagues, students and friends. Particular thanks are due to Professor Christopher Allmand, Professor Judith Green, Dr Dorothy Clayton and Dr Jenny Kermode for their help and advice.)