Students Staff

05 August 2009

Tribute to founding professor

Colchester Campus

Peter Townsend

The University is sad to report the death over the summer of one of its founding Professors. Peter Townsend was appointed to establish the new sociology department in 1963. As Professor of Sociology between 1963 and 1981, he chaired the department for seven years, was Pro Vice Chancellor Social between 1975-8; and became a key figure of dialogue in the early years of student trouble. 

He became a Doctor of the University in 1993, and received at least eight similar distinctions from other universities around the world. In his later years, after his retirement from Bristol, he returned to the London School of Economics where he was involved in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

Peter Townsend had a wide ranging vision of sociology, displayed in the appointments he made to sociology in fields like mathematics, social history, philosophy and social psychology. He also taught widely: for example, he included slavery in his introductory social policy course.

With Dennis Marsden and Adrian Sinfield, he later pioneered a major course in MA Social Service Planning. He worked assiduously to lay the foundations of one the United Kingdom’s most successful sociology departments. But all the time he was doing this, he was also researching, writing, campaigning, and establishing pressure groups. His activities are breathtaking.

At the heart of his work was a humanist socialism, a hatred of inequality and a passion and plea for both redistribution and the recognition of devalued and stigmatized groups. Peter always brought a first rate critical sociological mind to everything he did, but he also always wanted to take it further into the practical affairs of the world.

He saw social structures – not people- as lying at the heart of universal inequalities of all kinds. But his passion indeed was for the real living and struggling people who suffered the difficulties of unequal lives, especially the poor, the disabled, the children and the aged.

His early work had a focus primarily on the UK and can be found in such studies as The Last Refuge (1962) and The Family Life of Old People (1963) and The Poor and the Poorest (1965); work in his later years becomes more international (in books like The International Analysis of Poverty (1993), and World Poverty (2002). He was a prolific writer, producing hundreds and hundreds of pieces over the years, but probably towering over them all was his magisterial Poverty in the UK, published in 1979, a little before he left Essex. This alone must bequeath his name to history – as one of the great researchers into poverty, joining the ranks of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree. His work turned the idea of relative poverty into an idea that is now almost universally accepted.

Peter was always driven by a concern with action and policy, he was not an ivory tower academic. In his earlier years he was active in the Fabian Society. He was founder member and chair of the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965 (becoming Life President in 1989) and the Disabilty Alliance in 1973. He served on many sub committees of the Labour Party, both in and out of office. In his later years he worked with UNSECO, WHO, ILO and the United Nations.

Peter last visited Essex in 2004 to present a paper on the early history of the department, and this is available online at:

His life and work was a testament to pragmatism, equality and the decent treatment of all people: he has left a massive legacy behind him – in so many ways, he made the world we live in a better place to be.

Professor Ken Plummer
July 2009

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