About the University of Leicester

David Johnson

We have learned, with sadness, of the death of Mr David Thomas Johnson, a former Dean of Arts and more recently Honorary Fellow in History. David passed away on 17 November 2023, aged 83.

Graham Shipley writes:

David, the son of a railway clerk, grew up in Headington, Oxford, attending Magdalen College School on a state scholarship. There he was active in many societies, sport, the Combined Cadet Force, and music. In 1959, he made the arduous ascent up the High Street to matriculate at Lincoln College as an Exhibitioner in Modern History. After graduating in 1962 with a Second (this Honours Class was undivided until the 1980s; presumably David earned what we now call an Upper Second), and earning high praise from his tutor, he researched the career of Charles James Fox (1749–1806) under the supervision of JB Owen and Lucy Sutherland before joining the Department of History at Leicester in 1965 as Assistant Lecturer, just eight years after the University received its Charter. His Lectureship was confirmed two years later. He converted his Oxford BA into the MA in 1995.

Colleagues recall that in those early days David taught, among other things, early modern British history in a curriculum still largely modelled on that of the University of London’s external degree; at one time co-teaching with Aubrey Newman a special subject on ‘The Opposition to Government 1727–1784’. Teaching appears to have been a higher priority for David than publication, though he wrote on the history of Holland House in Kensington and his pieces in the departmental magazine Clio were followed up in retirement by articles and reviews in History Today. In the early 1980s, he played a leading role in the creation of a flexible new History syllabus, introducing optional papers and a dissertation. He was a kindly teacher, well liked by his pupils. In the late 1980s, when he was Sub-dean for the then-highly-popular BA degree in Combined Studies (‘Combined Arts’), which had recently been reorganised, we cooperated closely to devise a new assessment scheme; David was easy to work with, always in good humour, and always placed the highest priority on the experience and needs of students.

His ethos of service to the then Faculty of Arts led to his appointment as Dean in 1988—unusual for someone still holding the title of Lecturer. Increased responsibility earned him promotion to Senior Lecturer, and he continued as Dean for eight years. The initial years were difficult, following the controversial closures in the late 1980s of the departments of Philosophy, Classics, Religious Studies, and Music as well as of the History of Science department in the Faculty of Science (whose staff joined History). The need to revisit the structure of Combined Arts again in the run-up to modularisation (implemented in 1994) led David to collaborate with staff across many departments, as well as the Faculty of Social Sciences. His judicious leadership led to the creation of a workable scheme for the combinations of subjects still available, as well as a fairer assessment scheme that had the welcome result of increasing (justifiably) the number of Firsts awarded in this demanding degree, in which students had to take three or four different subjects but were assessed within each to the same standard as those specialising more narrowly.

David retired as Senior Lecturer in 2000 and held an Associate contract for a further three years, followed by a University Fellowship and later an Honorary Visiting Fellowship. In retirement, he continued to devote much of his energy to the community of Market Harborough, as he had for many years before. Among his successes was rescuing the town’s Museum from closure, as a partnership between the county and district councils together with the Market Harborough Historical Society, of which he was Chair and to whose magazine The Historian he contributed many articles and reviews. He was proud to have been instrumental in the installation of a Leicestershire County Council ‘green plaque’ to commemorate Sir William Bragg, who grew up in Market Harborough and later (with his son) won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics.

At the University, David had played a leading role in musical life by producing and conducting annual Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, as well as often leading the chorus. Outside the University, he led the Market Harborough Choral Society as Musical Director from 1975 to 1993, and served as the talented and inspirational organist at St Dionysius Church in Market Harborough for forty years—the longest-serving in the church’s history—as well as co-authoring a history of the church published in 2012. His retirement as organist was marked by a service at St Dionysius in January 2022 attended by the choir, clergy, and Dean of Leicester Cathedral.

The University extends its deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Compiled by Graham Shipley, with acknowledgements to Barbara Johnson; to Lindsay McCormack (Archivist) and other staff at Lincoln College, Oxford; and to University of Leicester colleagues including Stuart Ball, John Coffey, Paul Jenkins, Ather Mirza, Aubrey Newman, and Joanne Shattock, as well as those in Archives & Special Collections (Eleanor Bloomfield, Ian Swirles), External Relations (Chris Fidler, Mike Simpson), Human Resources (Ellie Adams), the Library (Vicky Holmes), and the President and Vice-chancellor’s Office (Jack Willoughby, Public Affairs Officer).


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