Patrick McGurk obituary

Other lives: Leading palaeographer and historian of the early medieval English period

My friend and colleague Patrick McGurk, who has died aged 88, was one of the country’s leading palaeographers and historians of the early medieval English period. His special field was early pocket gospel books, small enough to fit into a monk’s satchel as he travelled on his Christian mission.

Research took Patrick to libraries in France, Germany and Italy, including the monastery of Monte Cassino. Some of his articles were published as a collection in the Variorum Collected Studies Series.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of Bertha (nee Cumbo), who was Maltese, and Thomas McGurk, a British diplomat, Patrick was a pupil and then a teacher at the English school there. In 1948, he enrolled as an external student in history at the University of London and in only three terms achieved the best first in history in his year.

He began his academic career at Birkbeck College in London (now Birkbeck, University of London) in 1953 and remained there until early retirement in 1988, as did I. Appointed an assistant lecturer in history by the then head of the history department, Professor RR Darlington, as a temporary replacement for a colonial historian, his brief was to teach British colonial and commonwealth history from the maritime discoveries of the 16th century to the statute of Westminster in 1931, a far cry from gospel books.

Patrick had remarkable energy and stamina and a capacity to work late into the night. At the time of his appointment at Birkbeck, and for several years after, he was a tenant of the historian and socialist RH Tawney and his wife, Jeanette, at their home in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury.

With the return of the department’s regular colonial historian, Patrick returned to medieval history, rising to lecturer and finally to reader. Once retired, he continued a major work begun by Darlington, who died in 1977, The Chronicle of John of Worcester, a tangled, difficult and laborious task. Two volumes appeared in 1995 and 1999 in the Oxford Medieval Texts series, only for Patrick to be forced to abandon the third and final volume because of his fading powers of concentration.

Retirement allowed Patrick to enjoy a rich hinterland of interests, pleasures and friends. He loved cities and their cultural treasures and had a passion for the theatre, art and historic houses, travelling widely with Betty O’Connor, a New Englander and art historian, who became his second wife in 1996.

A great reader, with a particular love of Yeats and French classical theatre, during his last illness he reread Corneille and Racine. He bore his increasing frailties with stoical good humour.

He is survived by Betty, by his daughters, Susan and Marianne, from his first marriage in 1961 to Ann Dunbabin, which ended in divorce, and three grandchildren.

Graham Gibbs

The GuardianTramp

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