Obituary: Emeritus Professor Barry Coward

Professor of History, Birkbeck Fellow and president of the Historical Association

Barry Coward, one of the leading historians of 17th century Britain and a much-loved and respected teacher at Birkbeck for some 40 years, has died. He was 70 and had been suffering from ill health for several years.

Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, Barry Coward joined Birkbeck in 1966 as an assistant lecturer, having gained his PhD at Sheffield University. His early research included a study of the Stanley family, earls of Derby, and he went on to produce a series of books that have become standards in their field, including The Stuart Age and several studies of Oliver Cromwell.

Over the next four decades, he successively became a senior lecturer, reader and then professor in history, during which time Birkbeck became one of the country's leading centres of historical research. An enthusiastic advocate of public history, he was president of the Historical Association from 2005 to 2008, helping to steer that institution through a difficult period to celebrate its centenary.

Barry's official retirement did little to slow his active life as a historian, teacher and vigorous proselytiser for his subject and abiding passion. In 2008, as Emeritus Professor of History, he became a Birkbeck Fellow. "I feel honoured ... and it will be great to be back at the College for the ceremony," he said at the time. "When I applied for a job at Birkbeck I knew very little about the place. I was just finishing my PhD and wanted a job. I never imagined for one moment that I would remain in this job for any length of time. The idea that I'd stay for 40 years never entered my head."

Asked why he stayed so long, he recalled: "I soon discovered that Birkbeck was so special that I rarely thought of leaving it. I never ceased to be amazed by the students' ability to combine full-time employment with part-time study and gain degrees as good as, and often better than, those who studied full time. It was enormously rewarding to watch Birkbeck students - especially those who had not done formal study for some time - develop academically, and then use Birkbeck as a launch pad for life-changing experiences."

Celebratory event

In June 2011, Birkbeck held an event to celebrate the life of Professor Barry Coward, a highly valued member of Birkbeck’s academic community for over 40 years. The event was attended by representatives from a huge number of learned societies and professional associations, who had had the pleasure of working with Barry over the years. Professor Julian Swann, who organised the event, and who worked with Barry for over 20 years at Birkbeck, said: “The number of people who came is testimony to the impact that Barry had, not just here at Birkbeck, but across the wider historical academic community.”

One of Barry’s former students has made a generous donation to provide financial support for history students at Birkbeck. The Historical Association, of which Barry was president, is also raising funds in Barry’s honour to support history students. Julian concluded: “Barry’s enthusiasm and passion for history have inspired many students over the years, and it is wonderful that these funds, set up in his memory, will continue to open up the joy of studying history to future students”.