William Lamont obituary

Other lives: Inspiring historian who was a visionary teacher

My friend and colleague William Lamont, who has died aged 84, was an inspiring historian, a visionary teacher and a wonderful human being.

Born in Harrow, Middlesex (now in the London borough of Harrow), Willie was the eldest child of a Hebridean, Hector Lamont, and his wife, Hughina (née MacFadyen). Hector had been a purser on the MacBrayne ferries serving Scotland’s west coast, but the couple had moved to London, where he became a bank clerk.

Willie attended Priestmead primary school (interrupted by evacuation to Oban in 1941) and then Harrow Weald grammar school. After graduating with a degree in history from Queen Mary College, University of London (now Queen Mary University of London), he combined school teaching with doctoral research at the Institute of Historical Research.

His thesis topic was the unattractive and combative, but important William Prynne (1600-69), a Puritan lawyer and polemicist. William discovered that the received image of early modern Puritans as cloaking their secular interests in religious language would not do. An unbeliever himself, he insisted that their faith, what they said and wrote, should be taken seriously, however eccentric to modern eyes, a theme expounded in perhaps his best- known work, Godly Rule (1969).

In studies of Richard Baxter (1979) and the remarkable sect of the Muggletonians (2006), as well as numerous essays and reviews, William further developed these insights into Puritan ideologues – and illustrated the sophisticated Biblicism and subtlety of thought underpinning their ideas.

His work led to re-evaluations of what Puritans and Puritanism had been held, in part at least, to be responsible for: the English revolution, the rise of capitalism and the middle class, parliamentary government, the scientific revolution and, eventually, the rise of secular individualism.

In 1966, after a lectureship in history at the Aberdeen College of Education, he was appointed to a lectureship in the School of Educational Studies at the newly founded University of Sussex. He was to remain there for the rest of his career, from 1970 as reader and from 1980 as professor.

Sussex was one of the most successful of the Robbins universities established as the British university system expanded in the late 20th century – and William was one of its great practitioners, committed to teaching and research across disciplinary boundaries.

An enemy of bureaucracy in higher education, he was also an energetic proponent of keeping the academy’s doors open to all-comers, what today would be called “outreach”.

Many who knew him will fondly recall his gift for friendship: ever ready with a fund of stories.

Devoted to Arsenal FC, the Labour party and, above all, his family, he is survived by his wife of almost 58 years, Linda (nee Murphy), three daughters, Catriona, Ailsa and Tara, and nine grandchildren.

Colin Davis

The GuardianTramp

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