Olive Checkland, Social Historian

Born: 6 June, 1920, in Newcastle upon Tyne

Died: 8 September, 2004, in Swansea, aged 84.

EDITH Olive Anthony Checkland was the only child of Robert Anthony, a sometime navy cook and Edith Philipson, a housewife. Her mother was the daughter of John Philipson, the High Chief Ruler of the Independent Order of Rechabites, from whom she derived much of her values and moral purpose in life.

Olive was a clever pupil who became head girl at her local school. After school, in 1938, she went to Birmingham University where she studied geography, and became the first in her family to gain a degree. Even in the difficult student days of the early years of the Second World War, she was active in student affairs and it was in Birmingham she met her future husband, a young Canadian, Sydney Checkland, whom she married in 1942.

Towards the end of the war, she had a long and anxious period of nursing him back to health following his injuries sustained at Falaise during the Normandy landings. The early years bringing up and supporting a young academic family saw her setting up and moving home from Birmingham to Liverpool and then to Cambridge, before arriving in Glasgow in 1957.

Her 25 years in Glasgow from 1957 to 1982, before retiring to Cambridge with Sydney, was a period of extraordinary activity, and was the foundation for her later independent scholastic career following her husband’s death in 1986.

When Olive Checkland arrived in Glasgow, she already had five young children, and had to combine family responsibilities with supporting her husband in establishing his new department of economic history. In this task she was no retiring, back-seat driver; she led from the front with purposeful determination. She arranged and managed her husband’s working day, and was more than a little influential in appointing the first departmental secretary.

She stunned the reticent Glasgow undergraduates by initiating professorial parties and gatherings at her home, variously in Bearsden, Dowanhill, and ultimately in the residence at No 5 The Square.

The parties were nervous and formidable occasions for senior students and junior staff, but broke the crust of separation between staff and students so common in Glasgow at that time. The Christmas parties were particularly notable for charades and other surprises for the unwary guest. It was not unknown for Scottish country dancing to dominate the hallway, with Olive managing the occasions with (apparently) effortless style, well supported by the drafted efforts of the Checkland daughters.

There was no aspect of Glasgow University life that did not feel the impact of Olive’s enthusiasm, whether it was the Ladies Club, or the chapel choir, or departmental field excursions to Morvern, walking the remote, deserted villages and shielings more vigorously than the students. She was also much involved in the early years of collecting and saving from destruction the business records of failing Scottish companies.

She was our driver taking us in our boiler suits to rescue the fine prints and papers of United Turkey Red, which are now part of the university’s great business archives.

Beneath this hectic activity, there was a profound sense of duty and caring which informed all that she did, and touched all she met. The Checkland household at No 5 sheltered and succoured Hungarian refugees, and later Chilean academics fleeing from the Allende regime. The basement flat was home to visitors from all parts of the world, latterly from Japan, a link that was to shape much of her independent scholarly research.

Her earliest scholarship focused on philanthropy in Victorian Scotland, her book winning a Scottish Arts Council award in 1980. That strong theme in her writing was further developed with Margaret Lamb in their joint study, Health Care and Social History, the Glasgow Case, published in 1982. It was at this time she first published with Sydney on technical transfer between Scotland and Japan, this interest reaching full expression in her distinguished book Britain’s Encounter with Meiji Japan, 1868-1912, published in 1989 and reprinted in 1991.

While Olive collaborated in research with Sydney, notably in their fine study Industry and Ethos, Scotland 1832-1914, it was her own achievement in scholarship without a formal academic appointment that was quite remarkable. Her scholarship earned her visiting professorships in the University of Alberta, and on no fewer than four occasions to Keio University, in Japan. Her contributions to Anglo-Japanese relations were recognised by the Japanese Society in 2001 when she received their annual award, and her final publication, Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend (1998), attracted much media interest both in Britain and Japan. Her expertise was universally acknowledged and brought her the responsibility of associate editor for East Asia entries in the New Dictionary of National Biography, to which she also made many contributions.

Although Olive retired to Cambridge with Sydney in 1982, she kept a firm base in Scotland, in the department of Scottish history, in Glasgow, and in her home in Cellardyke to which she returned each summer. Some will remember her as "une grande dame formidable", for she was of a generation marked by formality in relationships, and a strong sense of duty in life. But her real legacy is her distinguished scholarship, and the friendship and kindness for which she will be remembered with much affection.