Key Figures on Campus: John Saville – “No one ever missed a class, we felt we were learning from a genuine authority”

In our Key Figures on Campus series we ask alumni to share some of their memories of key members of staff who influenced them as students, and to undertake a bit of research to find out more about some of the remarkable untold stories behind important figures in the University’s history.

In this article Dr Anthony Carew (Economics 1964) remembers the socialist economic and social historian John Saville who was an academic at the University of Hull for almost forty years. Dr Carew has recently published his book ‘American Labour’s Cold War Abroad’, which he describes as his personal tribute to his former teacher.

“When I graduated, Saville encouraged me to take a research position with the Canadian labour movement. Years later, when I moved back to Britain, he gave further encouragement to my work in the academic field, first at the University of Sussex and then at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. It was a proud moment for me when I appeared on the same panel at the North American Labour History Conference in 1995. So I owe a great deal to him and to the Economics Programme at Hull, and I regard my recent book, written in retirement, as a personal tribute to Saville.

JohnSavilleHull History Centre
Photograph of John Saville in the 1970s, from the Papers of PRofessor John Saville [U DJS] held at Hull History Centre

John Saville Remembered: A Personal Tribute – Anthony Carew

“I’m John Saville”, he announced to first-year economics students in his no-nonsense way. He had been a gunnery sergeant during the War, and now in October 1961 he sounded like a sergeant addressing nervous teenage recruits.

In his mid-forties, he was of medium build, with an owl-like face and sharp eyes behind heavy-rimmed glasses. Above was a bald dome with darkish hair to the sides and rear where it tended to grow over the back of his collar. Before long hair became fashionable, it suggested a lack of interest in his personal appearance.

“I’m a mister”, he went on. “In universities there are professors, doctors and misters, and I’m a mister”. It was my first exposure to academic hierarchy and he was making an important point about parity of esteem.  What counted was competence in the lecture theatre and quality of scholarship rather than any formal title. It went hand in hand with his disdain for flummery: he neglected to wear an academic gown in days when not only lecturers but also students were supposed to wear them.

We students rated him our most interesting and engaging lecturer. No hand outs or visual aids: it was just him talking. Rarely consulting his notes, his delivery was never rushed, the tone almost conversational. Yet he never lost his thread or diverted from the main theme, which always developed clearly.

“Let me paint the background”, he would say. This polite use of the imperative was a trademark feature of his rhetorical style. “Listen carefully to me”, he seemed to be saying, “I am now going to make it all crystal clear.” It was the reassuring approach of a lecturer thoroughly on top of his subject and totally confident of his ability to reach his audience.

I was fascinated from the outset, and transferred to Saville’s economic-social-labour history special options at the first opportunity. These were less formal affairs – a mixture of seminar and impromptu lecture held in an office crammed with books on the ground floor of what is now the Venn Building. Saville sat behind his desk while eight or ten students squeezed in around the walls. No one ever missed a class: we felt we were learning from a genuine authority. Transferring to his options was the single most important academic decision I took while at Hull. Indeed, it determined the direction of my adult life.

Well-known for his “new left” radical politics, he was the object of great fascination among students. A former communist, together with E.P. Thompson he had founded the New Reasoner which later metamorphosed into the New Left Review. In my days at Hull, he was making plans for what would later become his edited annual Socialist Register and was also beginning to embark on the monumental Dictionary of Labour Biography that he edited for many years.

U DCP-1(jpeg)
A document produced by Communist Party of Great Britain on the subject of Saville and E.P. Thompson’s activities surrounding the publication of The Reasoner in 1956, held at the Hull History Centre [U DCP]
His politics informed his teaching, while on campus he was ever willing to engage in political debate. At a student union meeting addressed by Max Mosley, son of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, Saville attended and, in an atmosphere that was almost electric, weighed in and tore Mosley’s contribution to shreds. In academia more widely, Saville was well known as leader of the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Democracy, which took up the cudgels for academics (mostly junior staff) who were being victimised for their political views. In this forum, Saville could be a devastating advocate.

His historical analysis of the de-radicalising influence of the “special relationship” with America on British labour politics jibed with some of my subsequent research. Thirty years after I left Hull, I found myself speaking alongside him on this broad theme at the North American Labour History Conference in Detroit. For me that was a special moment.

A book on American Labour and the Cold War was then germinating in my mind.  Twenty-two years on it has recently been published and I’m just sorry that John Saville isn’t around to review it. But I’m clear in my mind that its origins go back way beyond our appearance together in Detroit – in fact, to that initial eye-opening contact as a fresher in October 1961. My book is my personal tribute to him.

You can find out more about Dr Carew’s book ‘American Labour’s Cold War Abroad’ here.


7 thoughts on “Key Figures on Campus: John Saville – “No one ever missed a class, we felt we were learning from a genuine authority”

  1. I studied Economics 1971-4. John Savillr was an engaging and committed lecturer and a lovely man. He was responsible for me taking as many papers as possible in social and economic history. I remember a trip to The Crucible to see The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist where he distributes chocolates to us all.


  2. I was an Economics student at Hull 1957-60. Anthony Carew’s tribute to John Saville brought back very good memories of a fine and inspiring teacher . His lectures and tutorials were the weekly highlights for me and the overwhelming majority of my fellow students. On a personal level he was an engaging and friendly man who always, despite a very busy academic and political life, had ample time for his students.


  3. Many thanks to Antony Carew for his article on John Saville. I can only confirm Antony’s views – we shared the same experience, as I attended the Saville seminars with Antony. John Saville was an inspiration… of the best teachers I have known…. who created motivation and enthusiasm amongst all his students.


  4. In 1968 as first year students studying Economics we were introduced to John Saville and his first words, that he was the Reader in Economic History and in this our first term we would be studying the industrialization of Japan. As many of others have said he, John Saville could hold his audience spell bound. He had complete command of the whole year group.

    His lectures were in one of the old lecture theatres which you entered at the bottom and where he stood. One of our number entered late and had to cross John Saville’s path to reach a seat. Without appearing to break off his lecture and in his commanding voice John Saville uttered these famous words – I am here at the start of the lecture and I expect you to be to, and then without further ado continued his lecture on Japanese industrialization as if nothing had happened. .

    No one was ever late again.

    A man who could control and have complete command. Plus held in awe by many.



  5. I took a Social Studies degree (as an aside from editing Torchlight) John Saville was a pleasure to learn from. He and Bob Chester were in different ways eloquent. Others taught me how not to teach. David Stewart-David Hull 1960-63


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