Posted on 17 July 2017
Learning of the death of Harry Wilson brings back vivid memories of his contribution to the History department at York. A wise, humorous, and perceptive commentator on colleagues and students, and on life in general, he was also a committed and involved scholar and teacher of African history and of the history of empire more generally. This was the more interesting as it sat alongside his strong sense of his own roots in North-east England. Harry grew up in Ashington, Northumberland, where his father, a dental mechanic, was centrally involved with the “Pitman Painters”, miners who took up painting and were a successful group of artists in the 1930s and 1940s. He was educated King’s College Newcastle (later Newcastle University) and did graduate work at Oxford.
Having taught at Fourah Bay College (later the University of Sierra Leone) and at Aberystwyth University , he joined the History Department at York in 1964, shaping the energetic and innovative development of new kinds of university history teaching which were characteristic of the early years of the department. Harry’s own contribution included developing courses on non-European history, then rare in UK history departments, and his role in the inter-disciplinary Centre for Southern African Studies, another creative initiative combining historical, literary and social scientific approaches to that region. Professor Tom Lodge, a former student, speaks of his notable skills in prompting students to participate, with “plenty of encouraging responses [to] induce each member of the group to add a fresh element” to the argument. A Special Subject on West African nationalism drew on Harry’s contacts with nationalist activists made while at Fourah Bey as well as his scholarly knowledge, combining cultural and political approaches to nationalism in innovative ways. My own memories include exciting work with Harry, Peter Rycraft, and Dwyryd Jones to design and teach a comparative history course (another York innovation) on The imperial experience which dealt with experiences on four continents from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. Harry brought deep knowledge of southern and western African history and a flair for comparative thinking to that course, as when he riffed eloquently on European romanticisation of the Khoi and San peoples of southern Africa and its counterpoint with indigenous peoples in North America. His openness and flexibility was manifest in another comparative course on Christian missions where he cheerfully and reflectively explored alternatives to his own uncongenial memories of the Church Missionary Society. Perhaps this experience contributed to his active membership of the Ecumenical Centre at St Bede’s, Blossom Street in retirement, despite his claims to be interested mainly in the food provided there. Harry’s shrewd, dryly witty and supportive approach to colleagues, always saying more by saying less, was a pleasurable feature of departmental meetings as well as teaching, enhancing our departmental life
Harry’s encouragement of students with interests in African and other non-European histories was significant both for them and for the fields in which they worked. Tom Lodge describes him as a “key mentor” whose intellectual engagement with his PhD subject helped to ensure its successful completion, as well as stimulating its argument. Whether supporting young academics like Tom, or maintaining an interest in the work of students who took their commitment to cultural diversity into fields like the theatre, he made a personal contribution to the (all too slow) opening up of UK cultural and scholarly life to plural influences. A period as Acting Head of History in Roma in Botswana revealed talents not used in York as well as commitment to African colleagues. Harry’s writing on West Africa and on decolonisation, still used today, was another important contribution to greater pluralism, placing the latter process in both its indigenous context and the wider world of American diplomacy and cultural influences. Such influences were also part of his own life through his long and happy marriage to Ellen, who predeceased him, and whose background as a journalist meshed with his own lively and ironic interest in current affairs, which continued long into his retirement. In a world where academic and scholarly ability is not always linked to personal insight or emotional intelligence, Harry’s well-lived life will be affectionately remembered as an impressive combination of professional achievement, personal warmth and goodness, and commitment to both the public good and the individual fulfilment of others.
Joanna de Groot [with thanks to Peter Rycraft and Tom Lodge]