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Asa Briggs, The Last Victorian Improver

Tristram Hunt MP explores the exhaustingly energetic life of one of his heroes – the historian Asa Briggs, who was instrumental in the founding of the University of Sussex and The Open University.

  • Updated Wednesday 4th January 2017
  • Posted under Radio, History
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Tristram Hunt MP tracks the life's work of the historian Asa Briggs, who was instrumental in the founding of the University of Sussex and The Open University.

By the time of his death in March 2016, Asa Briggs had come a long way.

From a childhood helping run his dad's struggling shop in Depression-era West Yorkshire, he began his career at amazing speed.  At 16, he arrived at Cambridge University from his grammar school on a scholarship.  Not content with that, he did a second degree at the same time.  At 21, he was cracking codes at Bletchley Park.  In 1945, he turned down the offer of a safe Labour seat.  In his late twenties, he had a fellowship at Oxford.  In 1951, he went on a road trip round Syria and Turkey with a young student of his - Rupert Murdoch.

Briggs became the official historian of the BBC, where he learned to run institutions - and then grabbed the chance to build one himself.  First as a Dean, then as Vice-Chancellor, at the new University of Sussex, he was there from the start - building up the institution from a port-a-cabin office at first.  He made Sussex the most glamorous of the new universities of the 1960s, appearing on chat shows with David Frost and James Baldwin and being interviewed by Vogue.  And then he played a major role in shaping a much bigger, more radical institution: The Open University.

Asa Briggs, The Last Victorian Improver is broadcast at 8pm on Saturday 7 January 2017 on BBC Radio 4. See below for more details, or head over to the BBC site for a link to the iPlayer.

More about Asa Briggs

We also produced a short reading list when Briggs sadly passed away.

Asa Briggs, The Last Victorian Improver

Tristram Hunt explores the exhaustingly energetic life of one of his heroes.  He argues that Briggs was steeped in the Victorian era in three ways:

  • First, through his benevolent Victorian grandfather, who talked to him, took him seriously, and took him on tours of the architectural glories of the industrial North of England.
  • Second, Briggs was a leading historian of the Victorian era, and played a huge role in rescuing it from the calumnies of the Bloomsbury Group and giving the Victorians' drive to improve 'ordinary' lives their due. 
  • But third, Hunt argues, Asa Briggs was a Victorian himself - in the sense that he wanted to sustain their great effort to improve life right through the twentieth century.  His great mission to open up access to education - which drove him to build Sussex and The Open University - was both a mission to modernise and to build on the Victorians' legacy.

Hunt explores how Briggs achieved all this, how he was at odds with both communist and conservative historians - and how he coped when the optimism of the postwar era soured in the 1970s.

And he argues that Briggs' Victorian heritage, particularly through the apostle of 'self-help', Samuel Smiles, allowed him to engage with Britain's Thatcherite turn in the 1980s.

With: Dan Briggs, Jean Seaton, David Kynaston, Miles Taylor, Bill Cash MP.