John Prest obituary

Other lives:

My friend John Prest, who has died aged 89, was a historian, dedicated tutor at Balliol College, Oxford, gardener and family man of quiet distinction. He will be admired by future historians for his scholarship, humanity and intellectual independence.

His meticulously researched studies of 19th-century reform included The Industrial Revolution in Coventry (1960), Lord John Russell (1972) and Liberty and Locality (1990), as well as The Illustrated History of Oxford University (1993).

Born in Tadworth, Surrey, to the watercolourist Dorothy Martin and civil servant Thomas Prest, John attended Bradfield college in Berkshire, where John Moulsdale fostered his historical interests.

Nearly killed by a fire bomb during the second world war, he kept its tail-fin for the rest of his life. After national service with the RAF, teaching radar, John followed his godfather the historian William Reddaway to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1949. He flew Tiger Moths with the University Air Squadron and graduated with a first. In 1954, he was made a fellow of Balliol.

In 1961 John married Susan Davies, a trainee nurse he met at Oxford University’s Scottish dancing club. They moved to Walled Cottage, Wheatley, east of Oxford, in 1963, where John’s horticultural interests bore fruit in a beautiful garden and an influential monograph, The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-creation of Paradise (1981), which brought him new friends in Japan, trusteeship of Oxford Botanic Garden and a founding role in the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

At Balliol, John advocated women’s admission, state-school candidates and new technology. He developed close friendships with college employees and, as senior fellow, oversaw elections for the college master.

After retirement in 1996, Wheatley took a larger share in his life. Latterly, he withstood severe trials with remarkable fortitude – a near-fatal fall from a tree; Susan’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010; his own with lymphoma in 2011; and, when things became impossible, leaving Walled Cottage after 53 years.

He moved to Burley in Wharfedale, west Yorkshire, home of his son, Charles, and daughter-in-law Fiona. John maintained his outward composure, continuing to read and correspond with friends, and published a final book, The Lucky Martins (2015), a compelling account of the stoicism and mutual loyalty of his uncles during the first world war.

John will be remembered for his kindness, courage, integrity and inimitable humour.

He is survived by Susan, their children, Charles, Jonathan and Julia, and his grandchildren.

Jeremy Burchardt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Norman Stone obituary
Historian and controversial media commentator who taught at Cambridge, Oxford and in Turkey

Richard J Evans

25, Jun, 2019 @10:32 AM

Article image
Ljubica Erickson obituary
Other lives: Social worker and indispensable help to her husband in his academic work on the Soviet military archives

Sara Bragg

21, Apr, 2022 @2:57 PM

Article image
Antonia Gransden obituary
Other lives: One of the foremost medievalists of her generation

James Clark

16, Feb, 2020 @5:23 PM

Article image
Gordon Leff obituary
Other Lives: Historian who specialised in a study of the thinking of medieval times

Peter Biller

05, Jun, 2020 @9:46 AM

Article image
Mark Ormrod obituary
Other lives: Expert in Britain’s long history of immigration who helped to change the school curriculum

Sarah Rees Jones

16, Aug, 2020 @11:53 AM

Article image
Bill Liddell obituary
Other lives: Expert on the history of Essex

Sue Liddell

19, Sep, 2019 @1:56 PM

Article image
Polly Corrigan obituary
Other lives: Historian fascinated by the Soviet era

Jane Feinmann

31, Dec, 2019 @11:36 AM

Article image
Peter Kidson obituary
Other lives: Outstanding historian of medieval architecture

Nicola Coldstream

11, Mar, 2019 @5:35 PM

Article image
Neville Masterman obituary
Other lives: Translator at Bletchley Park during the second world war and later an academic historian

Richard Pepper

06, Mar, 2019 @5:18 PM

Article image
Eric Richards obituary
Other lives: Eminent historian of the Highland clearances and of emigration

Callum McCarthy

25, Oct, 2018 @4:59 PM