Obituary for Roland Thorne
We were sorry to hear of the death of Roland Thorne at the age of 79. Roland was the Editor of our House of Commons 1790-1820 volumes, which were published in 1986 and described in The Economist on publication as part of ‘a monumental project of devoted scholarship’, not only an apt description of the publication but also of Roland’s dedication to it.
Roland was born and raised at Thornton, just outside Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, where his family had long been dairy farmers. Given this background, it is unsurprising that he retained a life-long interest in the history of his native county; and equally unsurprising that he was more at home in the culture of his district, often called ‘little England beyond Wales’, than in that of the Welsh-speaking north part of Pembrokeshire. He was educated at Milford Haven Grammar School and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he took a First in History. His degree was said, on the record, to have been among the top two or three in History achieved in Cambridge since 1945; and equally on the record, his Cambridge career was described as that of a ‘prodigy’, not least because of his very wide knowledge of languages. In the light of Roland’s life’s work at the History of Parliament, his tutor’s comment that in historical topics ‘he tended to neglect … political matters’, reads as deliciously ironic.
Roland came to the History of Parliament in 1963 after a couple of false starts in teaching and academic research. He was appointed research assistant on the House of Commons 1790-1820 Section, then edited by a remote overseer editor, Arthur Aspinall, professor of history at Reading University. Because of funding difficulties at the History, Roland left a year later to teach at South London College, Norwood; but after Aspinall retired, in 1967 he returned, to become Editor in 1970. He was then only 31. With the exception of John Brooke, appointed in 1960 as co-editor of Commons 1754-90 after the sudden death of Sir Lewis Namier, all previous appointments to the post of Editor had been of external senior academics, who held editorships in tandem with full-time employment elsewhere. He then edited the Commons 1790-1820 volumes through to publication. His was the first Section to explore the provincial press for accounts of elections, and his own elegant prose was noted by the reviewers.
In 1981 Roland was made Deputy Editor of the History of Parliament overall, at a time when the chief executive of the organisation was called General Editor and Secretary. This was a proper acknowledgement of his willingness to work cheerfully across the Sections, regardless of period: he proof-read the 1509-58 Commons volumes, and contributed biographies and constituency articles on Welsh subjects to the fledgling Commons 1640-60 Section. After publication of Commons 1790-1820, Roland had chosen to work only part-time for the History of Parliament, but he returned to full-time employment in 1989 as Editor of the 1820-32 Commons Section, during the illness of Dave Fisher. He finally retired from the History in May 1991.
Outside the History of Parliament, Roland contributed 44 articles to the Oxford DNB. He contributed to the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, and wrote chapters and articles for the Pembrokeshire County History, National Library of Wales Journal and The Pembrokeshire Historian. He is remembered at the History as a very hard-working and genial colleague, whose diffident manner concealed leadership skills of a high order. He was a great raconteur, with a keen sense of humour – revelling in the absurdities of life and the follies and pomposity of those in authority. The History of Parliament was fortunate to have benefited from his dedication over such a long period.