Obituary: Dr Ian Duffield, chronicler of black British lives, and self-proclaimed ‘Rogues and Nobodies historian’

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Dr Ian Duffield, historian. Born: 19 January 1937 in Halesowen, West Midlands. Died: 11 April 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 82

Ian Duffield was an historian, a socialist and an internationalist; a man of wide interests, enormous learning and many friends.

He was the second child of Walter Duffield, who worked in the motor trade, and Miriam Squires, a teacher, and was educated at Handsworth Grammar School.

The school did not expect him to succeed academically and so failed to teach him Latin, which became a problem when he was offered a provisional place at Cambridge. National Service in the RAF offered a respite. His pilot instructor would not let him near a plane, citing lack of co-ordination, and so Ian became Pilot Officer Duffield, the Station Fire Officer at RAF Locking. This meant that, if he so wished, he could ride around the base on a fire engine ringing a bell. He had a great voice for the parade ground, but he didn’t quite manage to secure the pass in Latin needed to enter Cambridge.

Instead he went, in the autumn of 1958, to University College London where, on their first day, at a pre-term Freshers Weekend at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, he met Jill Franks. They married in 1959 and their eldest son, Toby, was born soon after.

Ian set out to get a job but after two days at the Coal Board knew he would not survive. When he discovered he had been awarded a first class degree, he decided that what he wanted to do was become an academic historian. But meanwhile, a living had to be earned. Ian and Jill went to Ethiopia, where they worked at the General Wingate, a British Council School in Addis Ababa. Their second son, Daniel, was born there. In the airmail Observer they read that the University of Edinburgh was setting up a Centre for African Studies.

The four decamped to Edinburgh where Ian completed a diploma and started his PhD on Pan-Africanism under the eye of Professor George (Sam) Shepperson, and the late Christopher Fyfe, who became a lifelong friend. Ian and Jill gathered around them a group of friends from academia but also from a much wider sphere. I was lucky enough to be part of that group. Their hospitality was legendary.

In 1966 Ian went on a research trip to Nigeria for six months. When he returned he was dangerously ill and suffered badly until he was finally diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. But he recovered well and another son, Sam, was born in 1969. Ian was devastated by the death of his older sister, Shirley, an exceptional teacher and woman, in 1970. In the same year their daughter Miriam was born in their then-home on Howard Place. By this time Ian had been appointed lecturer. He devised a seminal second year course on the Rise and Demise of Empire Worldwide and became a pioneer in the study of black British history, particularly of radicalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He collaborated extensively with the late Jagdish Gundara, who went south to London and was, from its inception in 1979, director of the centre for intercultural education at the Institute of Education. The pair had a decades-long conversation which was frequently punctuated by tirades against reactionary idiocy and much laughter.

Ian’s door was always open. He was unendingly supportive of younger colleagues and would put his considerable knowledge and archive at the service of anyone who asked. He had omnivorous intellectual curiosity, welcomed new ideas and approaches and was formidably well-read. But he had not yet written up his PhD for publication. He needed to get away to write and so, in 1982, when he was given substantial leave he decided to go to NSW University College, Armidale.

In Sydney he found the Convict Archives. His PhD was never written up. Ian’s excitement at the content of the Archives and the stories they told was palpable and infectious. In 1988-1989 he returned with Jill to Australia and Tasmania for a year. He discovered evidence that Britain transported black convicts to the Australian penal colonies, and that New South Wales and Tasmania received convicts from all over the British Empire.

Ian’s interest in looking under the surface to the lives of the forgotten added a missing dimension to contemporary social histories. He was committed to giving prominence to the stories of convict women and men, some formerly enslaved. His research contributed largely to the sea-change in the teaching of British and Australian history.

His work is embodied in a stream of articles and papers which he wrote, edited and co-wrote. His legacy is the global web of former students in senior academic positions, and their work building upon his.

Somewhere along the line Ian became a Senior Lecturer. He retired in 2002 and continued to research for several years, becoming immersed in convict escapes and piracy. He never lost his curiosity and zest for the new and was always ready to comment, inform and discuss.

Ian Duffield was a generous, noisy, kind, energetic, hospitable and learned man who liked his whisky. He was not only an original member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but one of the pre-SMWS group of friends who met in our lobby in the late 1970s to drink Glenfarclas from the cask.

Ian was delighted to hold his 80th birthday party at SMWS Queen Street a few years ago. He loved parties. In honour of his 80th birthday his former students, headed up by Professor Clare Anderson, organised a scholarly workshop in Edinburgh University to celebrate his work. His was the final contribution: “Confessions of a Rogues and Nobodies Historian”. He was much admired and much loved.

Ian is survived by his wife, Jill, his children Toby, Daniel, Sam and Miriam and their partners, eight grandchildren and his brother Alan.

LESLIE HILLS