Irene Hill in 1941 aged 22


My mother, Irene Mary Corfield (née Hill)1, was a remarkable woman who lived a private life but seemed, through the quiet force of her personality, to represent a veritable strand of British public identity. She was born on 18 March 1919, the second child and only daughter of a York solicitor with a strong Methodist faith. As a child, Irene was reserved and shy. Her parents were kindly but relatively aloof (they were much more fun as grand-parents). The whole family went to Methodist chapel three times a day on Sundays; the sermon was discussed seriously; and Sundays were strictly observed. Her parents were teetotal and suspicious of worldly temptations. Their large, rambling house, in a village just outside York, was an idyllic place for Irene’s children to visit, later on, for summer holidays. Yet she was often lonely there and sought companionship with the housemaid. When the teenage Irene was sent as a weekly border to York’s Mount School for Girls, she revelled in its relaxed and companionable atmosphere – and imbibed a strong dose of liberal Quaker egalitarianism.

Her background was thus steeped in Nonconformist values, matched with a permanent element of ‘plain Yorkshire’. To the end of her days, her personal mantra was ‘no fuss’ – and she meant it.

When young, she always felt over-shadowed by her brilliant older brother and only sibling: Christopher Hill (1912-2003), who became a celebrated historian and later Master of Balliol.2  He was seven years older than Irene and seemed, to her at least, to be the family favourite. They were not particularly close as youngsters. Nonetheless, they not only looked alike but had strong affinities in character and world-views. Christopher Hill’s break with Methodism greatly shocked and distressed his parents. There was an unprecedented Hill family drama when Christopher took Irene to see a show at York’s Theatre Royal. Their father was so upset that he took to his bed in silent horror for two days. Nonetheless, the taboo was broken.

Christopher Hill had thus paved the way for Irene to announce quietly, at the age of 21, that she no longer intended to go to chapel. Her parents accepted the news with sad resignation. And they had no hesitation in encouraging their talented daughter to follow in Christopher’s footsteps by studying at Oxford.

Irene went up to St Anne’s College in 1938, studying French and German. She had strong literary gifts, and remained a fluent reader in both languages all her life. University life brought further liberation. She loved her studies; made long-lasting friendships; added an optimistic strand of socialism to her secularised Quaker values; and joined Oxford’s Labour Club. Halfway through her first year, she met Alan Corfield (1919-2011), a History undergraduate at Keble College, who was always known as Tony. She had noticed him noticing her, as she told her children later. Without a word, they manoeuvred during a Paul Jones ‘mixer’ dance at a Labour Club social to become partners. And so they remained.
Irene Hill in 1941 aged 22The joint simplicity and commitment of Tony and Irene was heart-warming. As was their jollity and droll humour. They began to live together and then, after Tony had volunteered for the army in 1940, decided to get married. Wives were allowed conjugal visits to soldiers, while partners were not. Of the two personalities, Tony Corfield was the more outgoing, teasing his shy wife as ‘Bumptious’. Their children, struggling with the difficult word, renamed her as Bumper, which became her name within the family. But, while she remained quiet in company, people quickly recognised both her rock-like steadfastness and her intelligent sympathy with others. She organised Tony as well as their six children. They shared a modest lifestyle of ‘plain living and high thinking’, to borrow an apt expression from Wordsworth. Incidentally, Irene could recite many of his poems by heart and still did so in her last illness, at the age of 94.

In another era, she would have sought her own career. She said so herself but, in the 1940s and 1950s, it was much more common for mothers to stay at home. Irene did not fuss about making that choice and, while she later empathised with her daughters’ careers, she did not particularly envy them.

During the war, her languages were put to use when she was employed in the censor’s office (Ministry of Information) at Whitehall, monitoring letters from Germany. But, after that, she did casual jobs, to fit around her domestic timetable, whilst providing tireless backup for Tony throughout his career in trade unionism and adult education.3  At Oxford in the 1940s, Irene marked essays for Ruskin College. In Sidcup, where the family moved in 1950, she taught long-stay sick children in hospital; and lectured for the Workers’ Educational Association on social issues, like feminism and drugs. Later, when Tony’s job took him to Birmingham’s Fircroft College from 1971-6, she taught remedial English; and then acted as Tony’s assistant at the Birmingham Environmental Health & Safety Association. In her own eighties, she became firstly the secretary and then the active chair of the Residents’ Association at Dulwich Mead, the warden-assisted housing complex, where she and Tony lived in serene retirement after 2000.

Irene was also for thirty-seven years an active JP in both Sidcup and Birmingham. As a magistrate, she was initially told that ladies on the bench must wear a hat. But, after a tussle, she presided hatless, with calm authority.

In her chosen metier as a parent, she excelled. She was warm and loving, without ever shedding good discipline. It was rare to see her angry or even disconcerted. While she was always busy, she was never fussed. She stood by her children like a strong but gentle lion. If we quarrelled amongst ourselves, she became unhappy, with the result that we rarely did. In all, she was the quintessence of loving motherhood. I remember once as a ten-year-old fainting while walking up a steep hill on a hot summer day and recovering in her arms, to hear her saying tenderly: ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you’. The flood of reassurance remains with me today.

Irene/Bumper’s success as a parent was particularly creditable since she broke the pattern of what she considered to be her inadequate upbringing. I have heard many people declare their intentions of avoiding their own parents’ mistakes in child-rearing – and then seen them fail. Needless to say, Irene/Bumper never gushed. But she broke from the Hill family pattern, among the older generation, of rearing children with good principles but lacking physical warmth. She cuddled her own children and effortlessly conveyed love.

How to assess the wider impact of such a private person? In many ways Irene fell into the category analysed by George Eliot at the end of Middlemarch (1871/2).4  Hers was one of those ‘hidden’ lives which have significance beyond their immediate circles. Irene impressed those she met with her mix of intelligence, wisdom, humour, and steadfastness. In a wider sense, she represented a form of secularised Dissent as it merged into a steady support for the Labour Party, the United Nations Association, and the Co-operative movement. She was a truly good woman, who believed that there was good in everyone.

Bolstered by her strong beliefs and a supremely loving marriage, she lived a long and deeply fulfilled life, surrounded by books, flowers, the Guardian cross-word, Labour Party leaflets, and children. Minor irritants, such as her dislike of cooking, were taken in her stride. And her major sorrows were met with her characteristic stoicism in grief: the death of her oldest son Adrian from lymphoma at the age of 44 in 1990; and the slow physical and mental decline of Tony Corfield, in the very last years before his death in 2011.

Could such a paragon be obstinate? Yes, Irene/Bumper could. When she set her Hill jaw and said ‘Now then’, it was a sign that she had dug in her heels. Yet it was no doubt to counterbalance the risk of undue obstinacy that she had married the more unpredictable, though equally dedicated, Tony Corfield.

 Irene Corfield in 2001 aged 82Lastly, it’s worth recording Irene’s forte as a letter-writer. She wrote regularly to friends and absent family. They were letters to be savoured, with an amusing text crammed onto every page and often ending with a whimsical PS from Tony Corfield. On serious occasions, she wrote powerfully from the heart. A shy, gentle, and much younger friend named Liz had a failed marriage and, after a very bitter divorce, was (most unusually) not awarded custody of her three young daughters or even granted visiting rights. The distraught Liz received a consoling letter from Irene. It reassured her that Liz’s daughters would come and find her as soon as they were old enough to choose for themselves. Years passed. We gradually lost touch. Then we heard that Liz was tragically killed in a cycling accident. In her handbag was Irene’s letter.

Irene Mary Corfield (née Hill) was born on 18 March 1919, the only daughter of Edward Harold Hill and Janet Augusta Hill (née Dickinson); and died on 6 April 2013. She married Alan ‘Tony’ Corfield on 30 December 1941. They had six children: Penelope Jane (b. 1944); Adrian (1946-90); Julian (b. 1948); Alison (b. 1950); Christopher (b. 1956); Rebecca (b. 1959). They have four grand-children: Melissa (b. 1973); Sherena (b. 1990); Victoria (b. 1997); Jeremy (b. 1999). And one great-grand-daughter: Scarlett Claire (b. 2012).

1 A short version of this account is available on The Guardian website, 13 May 2013: read here.

2 See Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, on-line; plus obituary in The Guardian, 26 Feb. 2003; further appreciation by P.J. Corfield, The Guardian, 6 March 2003; and P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27 – also reprinted in PJC website What is History? pdf/5.

3 P.J. Corfield, Short obituary of Tony Corfield in The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2011; and longer account of Tony Corfield and the T&G, on website of UnitetheUnion, Sept. 2011 – both reprinted in PJC website see Career pdf/18.

4 G. Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871/2; in Penguin edn., 1969), p. 896.

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 If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Two fascinating questions, to which my response to the first is: No – History is bigger than any specific branch of knowledge – it covers everything that humans have done, which includes lots besides Politics. Needless to say, such a subject lends itself to healthy arguments, including debates about ideologically-freighted religious and political issues.

But it would be dangerous if the study of History were to be forced into a strait-jacket by the adherents of particular viewpoints, buttressed by power of the state. (See my April 2013 BLOG). By the way, the first question can also be differently interpreted to ask whether all knowledge is really political? I return to that subtly different issue below.*

Meanwhile, in response to the second question: I agree that politicians could do with saying and knowing more about History. Indeed, there’s always more to learn. History is an open-ended subject, and all the better for it. Because it deals with humans in ever-unfolding Time, there is always more basic data to incorporate. And perspectives upon the past can gain significant new dimensions when reconsidered in the light of changing circumstances.

Yet the case for an improved public understanding of History is completely different from arguing that each incoming Education Secretary should re-write the Schools’ History syllabus. Politicians are elected to represent their constituents and to take legislative and executive decisions on their behalf – a noble calling. In democracies, they are also charged to preserve freedom of speech. Hence space for public and peaceful dissent is supposed to be safeguarded, whether the protesters be many or few.

The principled reason for opposing attempts at political control of the History syllabus is based upon the need for pluralism in democratic societies. No one ‘side’ or other should exercise control. There is a practical reason too. Large political parties are always, whether visibly or otherwise, based upon coalitions of people and ideas. They do not have one ‘standard’ view of the past. In effect, to hand control to one senior politician means endorsing one particular strand within one political party: a sort of internal warfare, not only against the wider culture but the wider reaches of his or her own political movement.

When I first began teaching, I encountered a disapproving professor of markedly conservative views. When I told him that the subject for my next class was Oliver Cromwell, he expressed double discontent. He didn’t like either my gender or my politics. He thought it deplorable that a young female member of the Labour party, and an elected councillor to boot, should be indoctrinating impressionable students with the ‘Labour line on Cromwell’. I was staggered. And laughed immoderately. Actually, I should have rebuked him but his view of the Labour movement was so awry that it didn’t seem worth pursuing. Not only do the comrades constantly disagree (at that point I was deep within the 1971 Housing Finance Act disputes) but too many Labour activists show a distressing lack of interest in History.

Moreover, Oliver Cromwell is hard to assimilate into a simplistic narrative of Labour populism. On the one hand, he was the ‘goodie’ who led the soldiers of the New Model Army against an oppressive king. On the other hand, he was the ‘baddie’ who suppressed the embryonic democrats known as the Levellers and whose record in Ireland was deeply controversial. Conservative history, incidentally, has the reverse problem. Cromwell was damned by the royalists as a Regicide – but simultaneously admired as a successful leader who consolidated British control in Ireland, expanded the overseas empire, and generally stood up to foreign powers.1

Interestingly, the statue of Oliver Cromwell, prominently sited in Westminster outside the Houses of Parliament, was proposed in 1895 by a Liberal prime minister (Lord Rosebery), unveiled in 1899 under a Conservative administration, and renovated in 2008 by a Labour government, despite a serious proposal in 2004 from a Labour backbencher (Tony Banks) that the statue be destroyed. As it stands, it highlights Cromwell the warrior, rather than (say) Cromwell the Puritan or Cromwell the man who brought domestic order after civil war. And, at his feet, there is a vigilant lion, whose British symbolism is hard to miss.2

Cromwell statue with lion
Or take the very much more recent case of Margaret Thatcher’s reputation. That is now beginning its long transition from political immediacy into the slow ruminations of History. Officially, the Conservative line is one of high approval, even, in some quarters, of untrammelled adulation. On the other hand, she was toppled in 1990 not by the opposition party but by her own Tory cabinet, in a famous act of ‘matricide’. There is a not-very concealed Conservative strand that rejects Thatcher outright. Her policies are charged with destroying the social cohesion that ‘true’ conservatism is supposed to nurture; and with strengthening the centralised state, which ‘true’ conservatism is supposed to resist.3 Labour’s responses are also variable, all the way from moral outrage to political admiration.

Either way, a straightforward narrative that Thatcher ‘saved’ Britain is looking questionable in 2013, when the national economy is obstinately ‘unsaved’. It may be that, in the long term, she will feature more prominently in the narrative of Britain’s conflicted relationship with Europe. Or, indeed, as a janus-figure within the slow story of the political emergence of women. Emmeline Pankhurst (below L) would have disagreed with Thatcher’s policies but would have cheered her arrival in Downing Street. Thatcher, meanwhile, was never enthusiastic about the suffragettes but never doubted that a woman could lead.4

Emmeline Pankhurst and Thatcher statue parliament
Such meditations are a constituent part of the historians’ debates, as instant journalism moves into long-term analysis, and as partisan heat subsides into cooler judgment. All schoolchildren should know the history of their country and how to discuss its meanings. They should not, however, be pressurised into accepting one particular set of conclusions.

I often meet people who tell me that, in their school History classes, they were taught something doctrinaire – only to discover years later that there were reasonable alternatives to discuss. To that, my reply is always: well, bad luck, you weren’t well taught; but congratulations on discovering that there is a debate and deciding for yourself.

Even in the relatively technical social-scientific areas of History (such as demography) there are always arguments. And even more so in political, social, cultural, and intellectual history. But the arguments are never along simple party-political lines, because, as argued above, democratic political parties don’t have agreed ‘lines’ about the entirety of the past, let alone about the complexities of the present and recent-past.

Lastly * how about broadening the opening question? Is all knowledge, including the study of History, really ‘political’ – not in the party-political sense – but as expressing an engaged worldview? Again, the answer is No. That extended definition of ‘political’ takes the term, which usefully refers to government and civics, too far.

Human knowledge, which does stem from, reflect and inform human worldviews, is hard gained not from dogma but from research and debate, followed by more research and debate. It’s human, not just political. It’s shared down the generations. And between cultures. That’s why it’s vital that knowledge acquisition be not dictated by any temporary power-holders, of any political-ideological or religious hue.

1 Christopher Hill has a good chapter on Cromwell’s Janus-faced reputation over time, in God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970), pp. 251-76.

2 Statue of Cromwell (1599-1658), erected outside Parliament in 1899 at the tercentenary of his birth: see, kev747’s photostream, photo taken Dec. 2007.

3 Contrast the favourable but not uncritical account by C. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, the Authorised Biography, Vol. 1: Not for Turning (2013) with tough critiques from Christopher Hitchens and Karl Naylor: see, entry for 23 April 2013.

4 Illustrations (L) photo of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), suffragette leader, orating in Trafalgar Square; (R) statue of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979-90), orating in the Commons: see

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