John H. Plumb  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Sir John Harold Plumb (20 August 1911 – 21 October 2001), known as Jack, was a British historian, known for his books on British eighteenth century history. He authored over thirty books.


He was born in Leicester and educated at Alderman Newton's Grammar School, University College, Leicester and then Christ's College, Cambridge. His doctorate (1936) was supervised by G. M. Trevelyan; this was the unique occasion when Trevelyan accepted a student. He had a research fellowship at King's College, Cambridge just before World War II, during which he was at Bletchley Park where he headed a section working on a German Naval hand cipher, Reservehandverfahren.

He became a Fellow of Christ's College in 1946, remaining there. He was Master of the college from 1978 to 1982. He became Professor of Modern English History in the University in 1966. He was knighted in 1982.

In the 1960s he branched out as an editor, notably of The History of Human Society series. Contributors to his books included other well known historians like Morris Bishop, Jacob Bronowski and Maria Bellonci. Later Plumb worked on a television series about the British Royal family and the royal collections (Royal Heritage BBC 1977).


He is seen as mentor to a school of historians, having in common a wish to write accessible, broad-based work for the public: a generation of scholars that includes Roy Porter, Simon Schama, Linda Colley, David Cannadine and others, who came to prominence in the 1990s. He was champion of a 'social history' in a wide sense; he backed this up with a connoisseur's knowledge of some fields of the fine arts, such as Flemish painting and porcelain. This approach rubbed off on those he influenced, while he clashed unrepentantly with other historians (notably Cambridge colleague Geoffrey Elton) with a perspective from constitutional history whose emphasis was on more traditional scholarship.

Friends from his early life, C. P. Snow and William Cooper, portrayed him in novels; he also is known to be the model for a character in an Angus Wilson short story, The Wrong Set.


  • England in the Eighteenth Century (1950), Pelican Books, London, ISBN 0-14-020231-5
  • Chatham (1953)
  • Studies In Social History (1955)
  • The First Four Georges (1956)
  • Sir Robert Walpole (1956, 1960) in two volumes, sub-titled The Making of a Statesman and The King's Minister
  • The Italian Renaissance (1961, 1987, 2001), American Heritage, New York, ISBN 0-618-12738-0
  • Men And Places (1963)
  • Crisis in the Humanities (Ed., 1964) Penguin, Harmondsworth & Baltimore (responses to Snow's Two Cultures)
  • The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725 (1967)
  • The Death Of The Past (1969)
  • In The Light Of History (1972)
  • The Commercialization of Leisure (1974)
  • Royal Heritage: The Treasure of the British Crown (1977)
  • New Light on the Tyrant George III: The Second George Rogers Clark Lecture (1978)
  • The Making of a Historian (1988) essays
  • The American Experience (1989) essays.

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