Professor Jose Harris, FBA, historian

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Jose Harris FBA was the foremost historian of the welfare state in Britain and the biographer of its architect, William Beveridge. She brought to the study of social policy not only a deep appreciation of British social history and institutions, but also an interest in intellectual history. ‘Welfare’ was an idea as well as a reality, and Harris explained how that idea had developed from the Victorian era to the present by linking together social policies with changing social philosophies. 

Jose Ferial Harris was born in Bedford on 23 January 1941, the daughter of Leonard and Freda Chambers. Her father had been an insurance clerk in peacetime, but at the time of her birth he was serving in the East Yorkshire regiment. A dangerous bout of whooping cough that almost killed the young Jose perhaps saved her father’s life: he was granted compassionate leave to be at her hospital bedside and so did not participate in the D-Day Normandy landings, though he later took part in the Allied advance across Europe. Educated initially at a primary school in Hull, where Jose and her mother had been evacuated, she returned to Bedford after the war and attended there the Dame Alice Harper School, where she both feared and respected the then headmistress, the formidable Miss Lawson Brown. Jose wanted to study science at university but ‘girls did not do that’ from Dame Alice’s in those days, and History was deemed a more suitable subject for her. She went up to Newnham College, Cambridge in 1959. Among those who lectured and supervised her, she was much influenced by Peter Laslett, the historian of both political thought and demography.

She was awarded the Helen Gladstone Scholarship and Ethel Williams Prize in the year of her graduation,1962, and the Gamble Studentship in the following year. This allowed her to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. A short-term teaching post at University College, London was followed by a research fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford in 1966. Three years later she took up a lectureship at the London School of Economics. By then she had married the legal scholar, James (Jim) Harris. They had met on a Christian retreat. Jim was blind and for this reason, Jose’s parents tried to prevent the marriage. They refused to attend the wedding in St. Bride’s Church, London on 26 October 1968. But over the coming years, Leonard and Freda came to love Jim dearly and were utterly remorseful for their initial prejudices.

In their early years together Jose and Jim lived in Highbury, opposite the Arsenal football ground. Then Jim was appointed Fellow and Tutor in Law at Keble College, Oxford, and Jose followed him to Oxford two years later, taking up a fellowship at St. Catherine’s College in 1978. They were a notable and distinguished couple in the university and both were elected Fellows of the British Academy. Jim Harris’s achievements, despite blindness, were widely and greatly admired. Jose’s role as his support and guide, while also attaining the highest academic distinction herself, was remarkable. They shared a deep, private Christian faith, which initially brought them together and which sustained them through their married life. They had a son, Hugh, now a Commander in the Royal Navy.

Jose’s doctoral research, and her first book, published in 1972, were on the problem of unemployment in the generation before the First World War (Unemployment and Politics: A Study in English Social Policy, 1886-1914). For the post-Second World war generation the level of unemployment was a key indicator of national well-being, and Harris went back in time to examine the emergence of the concept of unemployment as an economic pathology in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras.

William Beveridge had published an important analysis of unemployment in 1909 and it was natural for Jose to move on to write the definitive biography. But what emerged in 1977, William Beveridge: A Biography, was more than just the study of a great life. Through Beveridge is was possible to trace the history of welfare from its Edwardian foundations in the Liberal governments before 1914 through to the realization of a welfare state during and after the Second World War. Harris showed that Beveridge remained throughout this period an Edwardian ‘progressive’. In tracing his different roles, and their interconnections, in government, academia and social work over half a century, she also demonstrated how Beveridge had set a pattern for thousands of careers that followed, all of them linking intellectual and practical contributions in the development of social policy.

Harris’s contribution to the Penguin History of Britain, published in 1993, covered the period 1870-1914 and was entitled Private Lives, Public Spirit. It captured the essence of her view of modern British History: a struggle for social progress and institutional improvement that depended on the contributions of a public-minded elite and the sacrifices and hard work of the many, for whom she had the greatest respect. The book’s title also captured something about Jose Harris herself, a private and also a virtuous person, generous to students and colleagues alike.

At almost the same time, 1992, she also published an essay in the historical journal Past & Present on the intellectual origins of the Welfare State which was, among academic historians rather than general readers, perhaps even more influential. Here, Jose established the roots of the idea of welfare among late-Victorian philosophical idealists, followers of the Oxford philosopher T. H. Green who died in 1882. She showed how idealist ethics, and also philosophical idealists working in practice, laid down key concepts and examples on which later generations drew in forming the welfare state in the 1940s.

Many historians have written about the social institutions that formed the welfare state; many have written biographies of key contributors to public welfare. But very few have understood and explained the intellectual history of modern social policy, and none did it so fluently and with such a sure grasp of modern philosophy (in which Jose Harris was always very interested).

In association with these scholarly achievements, in the Oxford History Faculty Jose was notable for her teaching of undergraduate courses on Edwardian social policy, wartime ‘Reconstruction’ after 1941, and a course which she largely designed on the intellectual and cultural history of Victorian Britain. Among her many articles and essays are three sparkling  entries on the philosophers John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, and the social investigator Charles Booth, for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in addition to her short biography there of Beveridge.

Jose was admired for her kindness and loyalty but there was steel, also. In academic debate in the Modern British History research seminar, which used to meet in All Souls, she was always formidable. She invariably asked speakers the key question, and, in a more understanding tone, interrogated postgraduates not altogether sure of their subject. There are many in the Oxford History Faculty who have reason to be grateful that they were questioned about their work by Jose Harris.

She was appointed Reader and then Professor of Modern History in Oxford in 1990 and 1996 respectively. She was Vice-Master of St. Catherine’s College from 2003-5. It was a cause of very great sadness not only to Jose but to the whole university that Jim Harris died in 2004. She retired in 2008 but continued to publish and advise other scholars.

The intellectual development of British social policy, and the idea of ‘welfare’, formed the theme of the festschrift published in her honour in 2019, Welfare and Social Policy in Modern Britain, including contributions from two generations of Oxford historians: those who had worked alongside Jose, and those who had been taught by her.


- Lawrence Goldman