Michael Sanderson: Professor wrote UEA’s official history

Writer Michael Sanderson  with his new book about the University of East Anglia. Writer Michael Sanderson with his new book about the University of East Anglia.

Monday, October 7, 2013
8:26 AM

An official history of the first five decades of the University of East Anglia was written by Prof Michael Sanderson, who has died peacefully, aged 74, at his south Norfolk home.

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A specialist in educational history at the UEA, it made him the obvious choice to chronicle the university’s origins and rapid growth.

The history had a long gestation as he revealed in June 2002 when the 500-page book was published. It was the result of more than six years’ study as Dr Sanderson, then a reader in history, disclosed.

The project, mooted in June 1978 by the first vice-chancellor, Frank Thistlethwaite, lay dormant until 1994 when vice-chancellor Prof Derek Burke felt that the matter should be revised.

He had emerged as the most obvious author having been at the university since 1964 and had published an earlier book, Universities and British Industry 1850 to 1870.

In the acknowledgement to The History of University of East Anglia, Norwich, he described another qualification – he had the longest service and arguably the longest memory of any member of the university.

He had the support of academics and many of the political elite for the book. Frank Thistlethwaite, who had been appointed in 1961, provided five filing cabinets of his papers for the project. He had access to papers from the driving forces behind the university project, including Sir Arthur South, Sir Lincoln Ralphs, Lord Mackintosh, Raymond Frosdick and Lord Zuckerman.

His book revealed that Mr Thistlethwaite was not originally going to be the first vice-chancellor, but Prof CH Waddington, of Edinburgh, refused the post.

The university had first been proposed in 1918 by a committee led by the Lord Mayor of Norwich, George Chamberlin, who was knighted the following year. He had proposed it should be founded and endowed as a War Memorial College.

Support, subscriptions and promises amounted to £60,000, but when a formal request was made to the Board of Education in July 1919 for £100,000 funding – to be matched by local contributions – it was turned down the next year. It was another 40 years before a strong lobby made the case for a new university at Earlham on the 165 acres of land given by Norwich City Council.

Although he was born in Glasgow, he spent his childhood at Blackpool and then went up to Cambridge where he did his two degrees. After graduation, he spent his first year at Strathclyde as a lecturer. There he shared rooms with (Prof) Richard Wilson, who also came to the UEA’s department of economic and social history, and they were friends for half a century. He taught French and Russian history and was given a personal chair in history in 2003 and on retirement the next year was made emeritus professor.

Patricia Hollis, who became Dean of English and American Studies and was a 19th century historian, said that he was a much respected colleague. “His work on the history of education was very influential and important and highly valued. He was scrupulous and erudite as well as writing in a very attractive and accessible way. He was a major historian of education,” said Baroness Hollis, who had joined the UEA in 1967.

Vice-Chancellor Prof Edward Acton said: “It was especially poignant for the university that we should hear the news of Michael’s passing on the eve of our anniversary weekend. He will be much missed by us all.”

He also wrote a book on the acting profession – From Irving to Olivier, published in 1984. It showed how the professional world of the actor had changed in the days from Sir Henry Irving to Sir Laurence Olivier.

He married on September 25, 1976, having met his future wife, Anne, who was a lecturer also serving with him on a university committee. Their relationship really developed when, independently, they travelled by bus to London for a union lobby of MPs for higher salaries. He died on their 37th wedding anniversary.

He had enjoyed theatre, ballet, concerts and exhibitions, cultural holidays and recreational walking.

He leaves a widow, Anne, and is survived by a brother Nigel.

Requiem Mass will take place at Our Lady of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church, Poringland, on Tuesday, October 8 at 12.30pm.

Michael Pollitt

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