Peter Gordon obituary

Other lives: Author and a professorof history and humanities at the Institute of Education, London

My father, Peter Gordon, who has died aged 90, left school at 16 but became an author and a professor of history and humanities at the Institute of Education, UCL. A popular head of department in his nearly 30 years at the IOE, he pursued his twin fields of expertise, political history and the history of education, and wrote or edited more than 30 books as well as numerous papers.

He was a meticulous researcher, and his biographical work was also characterised by narrative talent. Written with warmth and respect, his monographs on the 5th Earl Spencer (The Red Earl), the Wake family (tracing 30 generations of the Northamptonshire family), and his history of royal education reached popular as well as academic readerships. Co-authoring one of his later works, Musical Visitors to Britain (2005), I had first-hand experience of his outstanding skills as teacher and mentor.

Born in Hull, Peter was the younger son of Louis Gordon, who owned a chemist shop, and his wife Annie (nee Schultz), a hairdresser. After she died during the second world war, Louis struggled to look after his teenage sons, who had to fend for themselves. Peter left school without A-levels and, having failed his 11-plus, had only been allowed to sit O-levels by the intervention of a far-sighted schoolteacher. In India during partition for his national service, he nearly died of typhus.

He became a teacher, first at a primary school and then at Chandos boys’ school in Stanmore, north London, teaching history, remarkably gaining bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in his own time. After working as a schools inspector from 1965 to 1973 he joined the IOE as a lecturer in curriculum studies.

A devotee of Nikolaus Pevsner, and himself a walking encyclopedia of architectural history, Peter spent his holidays exploring the countryside, Pevsner’s Buildings of England in hand. On a day trip to Lincolnshire he visited 22 churches.

He was a keen flautist and singer, and in the 1960s gave concerts with friends at London venues including the Purcell Room and All Souls, Langham Place. He was also an inveterate concert-goer (hearing the pianist Solomon during the war was a formative experience; and he met his future wife, Tessa Leton, at a harpsichord concert at the Victoria and Albert museum), and lieder, chamber music, opera and ballet were part of the fabric of his life. The informal musical education his children received from him unwittingly helped me pursue my career as a musician.

Rugby league and cricket were lifelong interests; every week a rolled-up of copy of the “green ’un”, the Hull Daily Mail sport section, would arrive in the post. He was a devoted family man, with a group of friends who shared his interests, humour and love of life.

He is survived by Tessa, whom he married in 1958, my sister, Pauline, and me, and by his grandson, Daniel.

David Gordon

The GuardianTramp

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