Key Figures on Campus: Dr Alan J Lee, History

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 untold stories behind important figures in the University’s history, whose impact on their students has not been forgotten.

In this article a passage in a book by Andrew Marr book brings back memories of Hull for Dennis Clarke (History 1968-1971). Here he talks about Dr Alan J Lee, quoted in the Marr book, a teacher who made a lasting impression on him.

In response to this article, Alan’s family got in touch to share a bit more background on Alan’s life: Alan went to Haberdashers’ School in Elstree and he was awarded a scholarship to Downing College Cambridge where he gained a Double First in History. His PhD at the LSE was supervised by Lord Robbins. The field of study was Economics and the title of his thesis, A Study of the Social and Economic thought of J. A.Hobson, whose work for The Manchester Guardian sparked Alan’s interest in newspaper history. Apart from cricket, his greatest passion was probably for political ideas, political history and its place in modern life.

Dr Alan Lee at his graduation

If you remember Dr Alan Lee and would like to get in touch with your memories, please do so either by leaving a comment at the bottom of the article, or contacting alumni@hull.ac.uk

If you remember a teacher from your time as a student and would like to contribute an article about them, then please also get in touch, as we would love to hear from you.

Dr Alan Lee, image kindly supplied by his family.

Dennis Clarke, BA History, 1968 – 1971

Dr Lee taught two of the seven modules I studied during 1969-1971 but until recently I had heard nothing of him since I left. That was not very surprising as my career took me well off the tracks of academe into telecommunications management and Alan was not the only one among my teachers whom I thought of rarely over the years.

So imagine my surprise (and great pleasure) to find myself in a South Coast charity shop in November 2018 with a copy of media personality Andrew Marr’s book “My Trade” in my hands and the book falling open at a page that provided a reference to Alan’s book “The Origins of the Popular Press in England 1855-1914 (London: Croom. Helm, 1976). This startled me as the subject was not quite connected with my studies under Alan; it started me  wondering about Alan’s career after I left Hull (and before).

My acquaintance with Alan Lee was as one of his students of (1) “Society, the State and the Individual in Modern Times” (1969-70) and (2) “European Socialism” (1970-71). These modules introduced me and my fellows to aspects of Intellectual History, and ways of dealing them, that were uncommon at the time: an insight into how “actors” in historical (and more recent) events explained, understood and justified their roles; and introducing me to figures who were mightily influential though only on the periphery of the action. So the work was interesting and a pleasure. But it was also rigorous, and very challenging as is suggested by the prospectus Alan served up for the 1969-70 course: “… the study of intellectual history, including both content and method … the seminars will be devoted to the examination of different types of intellectual history, and to discussion of their respective merits and demerits.” (Phew!). Alan too must have had a challenging time with a tutorial group who felt and probably were a long way behind him in mental agility: I remember one of my colleagues describing Alan in a typically English way, as “rather bright” – which meant that he could beat any combination of three or four of us at a time at the intellectual arm-wrestling that made up much of our tutorials! Still, with Alan’s care and enthusiasm we survived to make good progress towards our degrees.

I also remember Alan was a particular favourite among an admirable bunch of teachers (Drs Andrews and Palmer, and Mr Kenneth A MacMahon, especially too). And, being, as I understood, fresh from his doctorate elsewhere, I imagined he was closer in age and outlook to his “disciples” than most other member of staff. He was, in fact, one of only two among my teachers who graced their charges with an invitation to their homes; Alan’s was a flat somewhere in Hull where he lived with his delightful young wife and their baby; I remember their kind welcome (although I can no longer recall the location).

Alan’s courses were very interesting and fed me with plenty of information that continues to inform my engagement with the world. And they stimulated the habit in considering so many situations of trying to find the right questions and best ways of interpreting critically (but not cynically) what people are saying.

I regret that I must end this celebration on a potentially sad note as I have the impression from a number of entries on the internet that Dr Lee died prematurely, sometime between 1976 and 1984. In the meantime he seems to have made a name for himself in the “history of the press” judging from the number of times his book I mentioned above is quoted. I would naturally like to know more – about both the man and his work – and would be pleased if anyone reading this were to contact me with information including photos.

Dennis Clarke, History, 1968-71

4 thoughts on “Key Figures on Campus: Dr Alan J Lee, History

  1. Thanks for these memories of Alan Lee. Hull was so formative for me and Alan Lee was a key part of that. In 1975/6 he was my tutor in the context of the then only compulsory course for 1st year History students, ‘Concepts and History’. In some ways, I have since then felt that he played a leading role simply in teaching me ‘how to think’ and having had a career and retired, I still feel grateful for his contribution to how I read and think today. I too enjoyed the hospitality of Dr Lee and his wife with a small group of students in 1976; alongside his intellectual prowess, there was also a respect for the efforts of lesser mortals to think – and this seemed summed up in his (and his wife’s) willingness to share their home with us. I also remember a long individual tutorial with him discussing one of my essays; I still remember the essay and our discussion, reflecting on Marx’s (?) ‘things are in the saddle and ride mankind’ and I also remember the mark he gave me – 69% which seemed rich in meaning, encouragement and challenge. I was very saddened some years ago to learn that he had died.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear John, thank you very much for your comment and for your memories about Dr Lee. I am so pleased that Dennis’s article has prompted your response. It is wonderful to hear that Dr Lee taught you ‘how to think’ as I am sure there can be no greater compliment to a teacher.

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    2. Dear John

      It’s great to see my memory and view of Alan Lee confirmed and amplified by you. In 1969-71, Alan was (I guess) still feeling his way but clearly had great potential and had evidently built well on it by your time. I didn’t say so in my piece, but If I hadn’t been so busy with my degree and subsequent working life, I could have devoured even more of what Alan had to teach.

      I’d be pleased if you were able to let me know what 2nd and 3rd year modules Alan was teaching in your time – or any other information or views you have about Alan.

      Best Regards

      Dennis Clarke

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  2. We have been both very touched and proud as Alan’s widow and family, to read about the impact he made on the education and thinking of Dennis Clarke and John Welsby. Alan enjoyed teaching and often talked about his students at home.

    I’m afraid Alan didn’t have time to write another book after The Origins of the Popular Press 1855-1914 before his death from leukaemia, aged 37 in 1981. He did, however, contribute to journals, The Dictionary of Labour Biography and several books;

    Newspaper history from the 17th century to the present day ISBN 0 09 462300
    Hosts, Immigrants and Minorities ISBN 0-312-39238.9
    Edwardian Radicalism 1900-1914 ISBN o 7100 7866 8
    New Approaches to Ruskin ISBN 0-7100-09 15-1
    He died before he could complete co-editing The Press in English Society from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries ISBN 0-8386-3272-6
    Media Occupations and Professions, published by OUP in 2001 included his essay on The Profession of Journalism in England, 1855-1914 ISBN 0-19-874246-0

    It has been rather wonderful for me to take out my collection of Alan’s writings and remind myself of the range of his intellectual interest and work. His other main passions were politics; he was secretary of Hull North Labour Party CLP when he became ill, film, family and cricket.

    It was also pleasing for me to be reminded of our student gatherings; I am impressed that we hosted one in 1976 when I was either pregnant with our third child or she was newly born.

    Alan was always stimulating company and until the year of his illness, energetic and fun. His mind remained sharp until a few days before he died. It is good to know that the contribution he made to scholarship is still remembered and recognised but, of course, I mind most that he never knew what brilliant and thoroughly decent people his children became. He would have been as proud of them as they are of him.

    Glen Lee, Hull

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