Obituary: John Gurney (1960-2014)

It was with great sadness that we learned earlier this year of the death of John Gurney, early-modern historian and author of the Revolutionary Lives biography Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy (Pluto, 2013).

The following obituary, written by John’s father-in-law Martyn Hammersley, was first published in the Guardian.

John Gurney‘My son-in-law, John Gurney, who has died aged 54 of cancer, was an early modern historian and leading expert on Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, a radical agrarian movement of the late 1640s.

The son of Joyce (nee Wilkins) and Dick Gurney, who was working for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, John spent his childhood there, and in Geneva, before attending Highgate school in London. He studied history as an undergraduate at the University of Sussex in the late 1970s, and later went on to do a PhD there. That institution was then in its early prime, offering a stimulating interdisciplinary environment, with many inspiring teachers – Willie Lamont and Stephen Yeo were particularly important for John.

In these years, the history of the civil war period was being rejuvenated through detailed investigation of local communities. John’s PhD work focused on Surrey, including the area around Cobham where the Diggers set up an encampment. He examined the ideas of Gerrard Winstanley, their leader, the nature of the movement and how it drew on the local community, the story of their brief stand for land justice, and the events that followed.

After many years of meticulous investigation, this work was published as Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution (2007). It was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers. He then wrote a life of Winstanley, in which he also examined the influence of Digger ideas on later generations, in both political and cultural terms (2013).

These were very well-received by academic historians: one review of Brave Community declared that so much of it was new that historians could not fail to recognise their debt to him. His work was also much appreciated by those on the left inspired by the Digger movement, and he was invited to speak at the Wigan Diggers’ festival in 2013.

John was initially a lecturer at the University of Sussex, later working for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and then for the Historical Manuscripts Commission, now part of the National Archives. He wrote articles for journals on a variety of topics relating to the political, social and intellectual history of early modern Britain, covering literature, radical movements, architectural history, regional history and archives.

In 2004 he moved to Newcastle, when his wife, Rachel, a fellow historian, obtained a university lectureship there. The couple had met at a regicide and republicanism conference in March 1999 at Keele University and were married in 2002. He taught at the university too.

John was a quiet and unassuming man who delighted in sharing his knowledge. He was also a talented photographer and an excellent cook. He is survived by Joyce and Dick, by Rachel and their children, Thomas and Anna, and by his sisters, Janet and Helen.’

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