The passing of a local history giant

Lionel Munby

We have just learnt that Lionel Munby, one of local history's giants of the 20th century, died in April 2009, aged 90. We met him only once, back in the very early days of Local History Magazine, and spent a good hour together talking about his take on local history and current affairs. At the time I felt that I was in the company of a kindred spirit. He wrote for us just once (an article about 'Early visitors to the Hertfordshire Record Office, LHM No.49, May/June 1995), but he was always generous in his support for what we were trying to do, such as in his contribution, 'Local Studies in England', to Local History since 1945: England, Wales and Ireland, a Socialist History Society Occasional Paper (No.21) published in 2005.

Lionel Munby was one of a generation of local historians who, despite their academic credentials, spent much of their time working with and encouraging ordinary people to explore and discover for themselves the local history of their own communities. We hold him in the same esteem as we hold the likes of Alan Rogers and Rex Russell.

It was David Short's appreciation of Lionel's life in The Guardian (24 July 2009) which alerted us to the fact that he had died in April 2009. David has kindly sent us the full version of that appreciation (which was not actually published). It is a wonderful tribute from a friend and colleague:

'Lionel Munby, a man who taught and fostered the study of local history in Hertfordshire, edited The Local Historian and played a leading role in developing local history in England, died peacefully on Sunday 19 April 2009.

'Born in Leeds, Lionel developed his interest in social history and politics in the 1930s. After leaving school in Oxford and Clifton College, Bristol, he entered Hertford College where, in 1939, he took a first in modern history. It was during this time that he, like many intellectuals of his generation, joined the Communist Party.

'With the war came military service, mainly in Italy. Initially, promotion eluded him, but on being called into the office he was told that it was silly that he was not being promoted just because he was a communist. The offending pages of his service record were then burnt. Promotion followed and he finished the war as Adjutant of Milan.

'In 1946 he was appointed to teach at the University of Cambridge’s Board of Extra-Mural Studies. He soon started teaching local history in Hertfordshire as well. From the start, he got students actively involved in their learning, an approach being taken up by other historians, many with communist credentials, who looked at history from below, at the lives of ordinary people. This involved reading documents, deciphering strange handwriting, studying maps and walking fields, all of which led to writing local history. Many Hertfordshire local history publications in the 1960s, 70s and 80s owe their inspiration and editing to Lionel. Some classes led to the founding of local history societies.

'He was on the committee The Hertfordshire Association for Local History from 1955 to 1987, serving as Chairman and President. He also provided the inspiration for the founding of the Hertfordshire Record Society and became its first secretary.

'For 20 years he was the editor of The Amateur Historian, later The Local Historian. The change of title is indicative of Lionel’s thinking; local historians were not professional or amateur ― just local historians. He was also involved in the British Association for Local History, in later years as President.

'Lionel wrote a number of books. His The Hertfordshire Landscape (1977) is considered a classic, and many of his other works are indispensable items on any local historian's bookshelves.

'For years, Lionel’s wife Diana accompanied him to his classes. A tribute was paid by a young student who, when asked who the lady at the back of the class was, replied: 'Oh that is Mr Munby's wife, she is there to see that he gets it right'.

David Short

David has been an active local historian for many years, particularly in Hertfordshire. He runs an education consultancy, Ashwell Education Services.

24 July 2009

Top of page