Leading historian and adult education pioneer Lord Briggs dies aged 94


Lord Asa Briggs, one of Britain's leading historians and a pioneer of adult education, has died.

Lord Briggs of Lewes, 94, worked at the Second World War code-breaking station Bletchley Park before embarking on a glittering academic career as a leading specialist on the Victorian era.

He took a leading role in the extension of higher education, helping to set up the University of Sussex and the Open University, and becoming president of the Workers Educational Association.

Lord Briggs, a life peer who sat as a crossbencher, died peacefully at his home in Lewes, Sussex, on Tuesday.

His wife Lady (Susan) Briggs told the Press Association: "He really was dearly loved, and not just by his family - there has been a real outpouring of love and admiration for him."

Born in Keighley, West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1921, Lord Briggs won a scholarship to Keighley Grammar School and later joined Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, aged just 17.

In an interview with History Today, Lord Briggs recalled being interviewed for university and said: "The history fellow who interviewed me in December 1937 - I was only 16 then - said: 'Briggs, you are only a baby, but there is going to be war and I would like you to take your degree before you go into uniform'."

These words proved prescient, and when the Second World War came Lord Briggs signed up to the intelligence corps. He received the call to join Bletchley Park in 1943, where he joined the top secret team who cracked the Enigma cipher code.

Lady Briggs said that she was married to her husband for 20 years before he revealed his wartime work helping to crack the Enigma cipher to reveal the secret communications of the Axis powers.

She said: "He kept the oath of secrecy until the mid 1970s, when people began to spill the beans, and eventually he did himself and he wrote about it himself, although not until around five or six years ago.

"I was fascinated by it. Back then I didn't know quite what he had done and contributed to the war; I was more fascinated and amazed as time went on and I heard more about it.

"Nobody spilt the beans at the time. By the end of the war 10,000 people were working at Bletchley Park and nobody said anything - I think that is just wonderful. I wonder if that would happen today."

After the war, Lord Briggs returned to his passion for history, and his career as an academic took him first to Worcester College, Oxford, where he was elected fellow, and on to Princeton in the United States, Leeds University and then Sussex University, which appointed him as their second vice chancellor.

He was a made a life peer in 1976, and in 1978 he was made chancellor of the Open University, playing a leading role in its development, and he became president of the Workers' Educational Association.

His main fields of interest were the social and cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries and the history of broadcasting in Britain.

His academic career took him back to Worcester College, Oxford, where he was provost until his retirement in 1991.

After he left, Lord Briggs and his wife bought part of Tyninghame House, a 19th century stately home set in stunning grounds in East Lothian in Scotland.

Lady Briggs said the family fell in love with the sheer beauty of the countryside, and started a whole new chapter of their life which saw the couple split their time between Lewes and Scotland.

She said: "We made a huge number of friends; it was a whole new life. When Oxford closed down for us, instead of retiring quietly we started an absolutely new aspect of life in a new place in a new country.

"Despite neither of us having a drop of Scottish blood we took to it, and I think people took to us too. We just adored it. It was a whole new dimension to our lives."

Lord Briggs could stroll to the sea from their home, and was a regular at the Edinburgh festival, the local art galleries, and the Lammermuir Festival.

His academic output did not diminish with age, and he wrote four books since his 90th birthday, including a collection of poetry which is due to be published next month.

He leaves his wife, Susan, two sons, two daughters, and 14 grandchildren.