The death of Professor Paul Langford FBA at the end of July robs us not only of one of our best historians of the eighteenth century, but also of a formidably effective man of enormous charm and kindness who was closely connected to the History of Parliament. Despite many other commitments, he enthusiastically took on membership of the editorial board in 2004, and its chairmanship from 2008 until 2012, presiding over an enormously productive period in the history of the History, in which we published our biggest works yet, The House of Commons, 1820-32, The House of Commons, 1604-29, as well as launching the History of Parliament Online, and publishing our interim volume on the House of Lords in the 1660-1715 period, Honour, Interest and Power.
Paul Langford’s contribution to the study of British history in the 18th century was immense. The period has at times struggled to attract the same level of interest as those of the Tudors and Stuarts, or Victorian Britain. Perhaps this is because it in some ways appears particularly remote, but also because of its reputation on the one hand for complex political machinations; on the other for uninspiring ‘stability’, dare one say ‘dullness’. Paul’s great contribution was to demonstrate the extraordinary contrasts and liveliness of the period. From his early work on the first Rockingham administration (1766-67) and on the Excise Crisis (1733), he went on to produce a series of seminal studies considering the century as a whole. A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 formed the first volume of the New Oxford History of England and at once revolutionized the way in which historians thought of Georgian England. This was a period in which the enthusiasm of evangelicals rubbed shoulders with the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment, and exquisite culture was contrasted with Hogarthian detritus. Two years later, the publication of his Ford Lectures as Public Life and the Propertied Englishman 1689-1798 added to his vision of contrasts and brought to the fore the importance of the middling sort in a period otherwise best known for aristocratic excess or plebeian depravity.
Alongside of studies such as these and a number of important articles, Paul also made several contributions to more general, ‘accessible’ works. He was the general editor of a new series, ‘The Short History of the British Isles’, for which he provided the volume covering the eighteenth century, and also wrote a both scholarly and very readable entry for Kenneth Morgan’s Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Paul’s contributions to the Oxford DNB were perhaps characteristic of the things that were important to him. He wrote the article on Edmund Burke, whose writings and speeches during the period 1766-74 he had edited, and he provided the biography of Vivian Green, a former colleague at Lincoln (and also a predecessor as rector).
As well as a ground-breaking author, Paul was an inspiring teacher. He was supremely thoughtful and generous to research students in the field, whether his own or those he was examining, and took care and pleasure in encouraging new work, so much of which owes a huge debt to him. A number of present and previous staff at the History have cause to be grateful for that encouragement.
But Paul Langford will be remembered principally here along with Sir Lewis Namier and Dame Lucy Sutherland as one of a number of great historians of eighteenth-century Britain who have been intimately and very creatively associated with the History of Parliament project as a whole. We are very proud of our association with him, and will miss him deeply.