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Born John Edward Christopher Hill on February 6th 1912 in York, where his father was a solicitor, his parents were Methodists, a fact of significance to his life-long area of study. When he was 16 and at St Peter’s school in York, the two Balliol dons who marked his entrance papers, Vivien Galbraith and Kenneth Bell, awarded him 100% and personally travelled to York to secure him for Oxford, rather than Cambridge.
He was then associated with Balliol from his time as an undergraduate in 1931 to his retirement as master 47 years later. He won a prestigious academic prize – the Lothian – in 1932 and a first class degree and an All Souls Fellowship in 1934.
Seemingly, the circumstances of his adherence to Marxism are unknown and Hill never shed light on any aspects of his personal life. He was of course an undergraduate during the Depression and the rise of Nazism. Hill attended GDH Cole’s Thursday lunch club regularly and found the experience tested his own previously held conceptions. He was certainly a member of the Communist Party by the time he had graduated and he spent ten months of 1935 in the Soviet Union, being ill for some of the time he was there. For the following two years he was an assistant lecturer at University College Cardiff, before returning to Balliol as a fellow and tutor in modern history.
Much of his wartime work was a closed book until after his death. It was a subject that he always refused to talk about. But, in 1985, a historian who agreed, out of respect for Hill’s academic eminence, to suppress the details until after his death, discovered details in unclassified documents.
In 1940, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, before becoming a major in the intelligence corps. He was liaison officer with Soviet military engineers who were in Britain to inspect tanks.
He was then assigned to a small unit that was preparing to be parachuted into the Baltic States to foment rebellion. But the mission was shelved and he was seconded to Northern Department of the Foreign Office from 1943 until the end of the war. As a fluent Russian speaker, Hill soon found himself as head of the Russian desk at the Foreign Office. Here, he would have been in a position to assist Britain’s wartime ally with information that had been held back and with influence.
It is claimed that he kept his Party membership and his details were kept on a special register of secret members. But the most outrageous evidence appears to be that he knew a friend of Kim Philby from The Times and wrote briefing papers for ministers inclining towards a policy of friendship and support for Soviet concerns.
During his time at the Foreign Office, Hill wrote “The Soviets and Ourselves: Two Commonwealths”, published after the war under the name K E Holme. Much of Hill’s early historical work was anonymous and geared to drawing attention to the developed Soviet study of the English 17th Century. In 1940, he published “The English Revolution 1640”, a tercentenary essay, asserting the revolutionary nature of his period of study.
The ferment of ideas that this and other studies was producing also lead to the formation of the Communist Party Historians Group, which Hill freely admitted was a decisive influence on his subsequent work. Hill was as involved as any of the extraordinary historians associated with the journal `Past and Present’ that came out of this activity and which dominated ground breaking historiography for the next quarter of a century.
Hill wrote “Lenin and the Russian Revolution” in 1947 and edited, with Edmund Dell, “The Good Old Cause”, a collection of documents, in 1949.
In 1956, Hill was critical of the official Party position on events in Hungary. But he did no immediately leave. Rather, he was elected to the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy in 1957. However, he and two others wrote a minority report, which was not accepted and thus led to Hill leaving the Party.
It was in the period after leaving the Party that Hill produced his major work but he always insisted there was no connection. His personal life also changed much at this time, after a divorce.
His work centred upon seeking an understanding of the dynamic of the revolutionary power of religion, as in the stream of texts such as “Economic Problems of the Church” (1955) and “Puritanism and Revolution (1958), “Society and Puritanism In Pre-Revolutionary England” (1964) and “Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution” (1965 and 1986 [revised]).
In 1965, Hill was successful in the election for Master of Balliol, something of an achievement since he had not disowned Marxism and only a decade before could not even have dreamt of the possibility, given the cold war hostility there had been in academia. The two significant achievements of his administrative tenure were the opening up of Balliol to women and the provision for student representation on the governing body.
Hill had written a pamphlet on Cromwell for the Historical Association in 1958 and later produced a biography, “God’s Englishman” in 1970. But the abiding theme of his books was revolution, as with “The Century of Revolution” (1961), “Reformation to Industrial Revolution” (1967) and “The World Turned Upside Down” (1972), which was turned into a play performed at the National Theatre.
Hill gave a talk on radio marking the centenary of the publication of Marx’s “Das Kapital”. He ended it by recounting how Marx had accidentally come across some former comrades from the 1848 revolutions, may years later. They had become prosperous and one, reflecting on old times, indicated how he felt that he was becoming less radical as he aged. “Do you?” said Marx, “Well I do not.” Many thought that Hill had quoted this to reflect upon himself.
Whatever the case, unarguably, the 1970s saw Hill become increasingly more and not less radical in his interpretations, as his confidence in his subject became masterful. There was “Anti-Christ in 17th Century England” and “Milton and the English Revolution”, which particularly provoked controversy. Indeed, his work became the target of attack by a range of critics.
For a couple of years after he retired he was a visiting professor at the Open University. But the titles continued to pour out of the lifetime of study he had given to his period. There was “Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution” (1980), “The World of the Muggletonians” (1983), “The Experience of Defeat” (1984), an account of the Restoration period, a study of Bunyan in 1988, then “The English Bible in 17th Century England” in 1993 and “Liberty against the Law” (1996). Three volumes of essays also appeared in the 1980s, reflecting the abundance of articles and reviews he had written throughout.
Both the OUP and Verso published tribute collections, in the form of “Puritans and Revolutionaries” and “Reviving the English Revolution”. When he died, on February 24th 2003 aged 91, it was as the historian of the 17th century in England. Hill may not have forced a general acceptance of the Marxist interpretation of the Civil War but he certainly won by the body of his work an acceptance of the particular importance of that century to the rest of British history.
Sources: Guardian 26th February 2003; The Times March 5th 2003