Bob Morris obituary

Other lives: Historian whose research on 19th-century Leeds showed a ‘property cycle’ among the middle classes

My friend Bob Morris, an outstanding historian, who has died aged 79, showed through his research on 19th-century Leeds that a “property cycle” existed among the middle classes that was just as distinctive, and as important, as the “poverty cycle” that shaped the lives of the working classes. By gifting property and goods, extended family networks were able to navigate the vagaries of economic change in ways that were not available to working-class families with few assets, bouts of unemployment, and shorter life expectancy.

His books Class, Sect and Party: The Making of the British Middle Class, Leeds, 1820-50 (1990) and Men, Women and Property in England 1780-1870 (2004) also repositioned women as powerful elements in urban development. Bob’s research, through its emphasis on relationships of gender, property, and the family life cycle, revised our understanding of the historical development of cities. His interest in Irish history also brought ethnicity, language and sectarianism into sharper urban focus.

Bob was born in wartime Sheffield, the son of Barbara (nee Aston) and George Morris. His father was a teacher in Wakefield and Leeds, before moving to Middlesbrough to become a headmaster. Bob attended Acklam Hall grammar school in Middlesbrough before going to Keble College, Oxford, where he obtained a degree in politics, philosophy and economics in 1965. He stayed on in Oxford to do a PhD at Nuffield College, focusing on middle-class secular voluntary organisations in Leeds, and even before he had completed his thesis, in 1968 he was appointed to a lectureship at Edinburgh University.

By then Bob had married Barbara McConnell; they met during a summer excavation at the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire, and married in 1967. Soon with a young family, Bob made a junior lecturer’s salary go further by taking on duties as a halls of residence warden and by tending an allotment.

Students at Edinburgh, where Bob became professor of social history and head of the department of economic and social history, found his teaching engaging. He was quick to incorporate the early graphical and statistical software packages into his computing history courses, and encouraged urban walks as part of his practical approach to learning about how cities functioned.

Bob was instrumental in the reinvention in the 1980s of the Urban History Group of mainly British-based historians researching topics relating to towns and cities. Many of those involved have commented on how constructive and generous Bob was and how this helped them professionally. The same was true of his leadership as president of both the Scottish Economic and Social History Society, and the European Urban History Association.

From 2004 Bob and Barbara redeveloped a group of four farm cottages in Berwickshire to provide a home for themselves as well as Bob’s extensive, 40 tonne collection of books. They planted an orchard, dug potatoes and a few years ago completed the coastal walk between Edinburgh and Northumberland. Bob retired in 2008.

He is survived by Barbara, their children, Helen and George, and grandson, Alexander.

Richard Rodger

The GuardianTramp

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