The untimely death of the former OAHS President Chris Day on 3 March, after a two-month illness, marks a sad loss not only to the Society but to the wider academic and local-history community, both in Oxfordshire and elsewhere. Beginning his career with the Oxfordshire Victoria County History, Chris went on to a distinguished second career in lifelong learning at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, where he earned a well-deserved reputation as an inspiring teacher and natural communicator – a reputation which, thanks to his involvement in international programmes, extends not only beyond Oxfordshire but across ‘The Pond’ to the USA. To those who worked with him he was also a much-loved colleague, valued not only for his professional expertise but for his natural warmth and kindness and for his inimitable wit and sense of humour.
Christopher John Day, MA, FSA, was born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1946, and remained a life-long supporter of Stoke City football club. He obtained a First in history at Manchester University and embarked on a PhD, but after being disastrously denied access to crucial documents in private hands he considered instead a career in the Civil Service. Despite spectacular success in the entrance procedures he decided to persist with historical research, which brought him to Oxford in 1975 to join the staff of the Victoria County History. There he was immediately thrown into the deep end, his first task being to research the modern history (since 1771) of Oxford city, where his expertise in Tudor history was of scant use. Even so his work on Oxford (published in 1979) was an outstanding achievement, and during his 20 years with the VCH (during which he contributed to a further four volumes) he remained a much loved figure within a harmonious team, his humour and vitality enlivening the routines of co-operative research. Such was his patience and understanding that he even forgave the loss of his handwritten draft chapter on (appropriately) Oxford communications from the back of the then Oxfordshire Editor’s motorbike somewhere in the Cowley Road. He also published outside the VCH, contributing a substantial chapter to the multi-volume History of the University of Oxford, a chapter on the historiography of Warwickshire to a festschrift focused on early county histories, and book reviews in Oxoniensia and elsewhere.
Chris’s talents as a communicator were already evident during his VCH years, and in 1994 (perhaps also spurred by the experience of surviving a near fatal attack of lymphoma in the early 1980s) he decided to split his time between the VCH and Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. In 1996 he moved to the Department full-time, where he directed and taught the Undergraduate Certificate (later Diploma) in English Local History, initiated the pioneering Advanced Diploma in Local History (delivered online at third-year undergraduate level), and contributed to the MSt (later MSc) in English Local History. The Advanced Diploma in particular opened up study at Oxford to students from many countries, providing a springboard for a significant number of them to progress to master’s and doctoral work: a considerable achievement and legacy. In 2004 Chris succeeded Kate Tiller as Director of Studies in English Local History, before moving in 2006 to the Department’s International Programmes Division as Director of Academic Programmes. A Fellow of Kellogg College since 1994, he served as Admissions Tutor (2002-5), and Senior Fellow in 2007. He was elected to an Emeritus Fellowship in 2011.
Underpinning those achievements was Chris’s passion for teaching and his genuine interest in people, which is best summed up in his own words:
‘I find adult learners more rewarding, more challenging because they’ve got a lifetime of experiences that they bring to the class. There’s a virtuous circle of learning, where you start off as teacher and they are students; but at some point, they become the teachers and you start to learn from them…. That’s the beauty of teaching. No matter how many books you read at home, that interaction with the tutor and with other people in the class makes it a three-dimensional learning environment.’
Alongside all this Chris somehow found time to continue as Honorary General Editor of the Oxfordshire Record Society (serving a 25-year stint), and had a long connection with the Oxfordshire Local History Association. Retirement, of course, meant no such thing – not only did he serve as a popular and effective President of OAHS from 2012 to 2017, but he also continued as Chairman of Deddington & District History Society (having moved there with his wife Alison several years earlier), and continued to direct the Oxford Berkeley Program at Merton College, a three-week summer school partnership with The University of Berkeley California, on which he had taught for many years. From 2013 he was also editor of Cake and Cockhorse, the journal of the Banbury Historical Society. In addition he continued his own research interests, including a long-term project on Thomas Walker of Woodstock, town clerk and agent to the duke Marlborough in the late 18th century, on whom he delivered a lecture in Banbury only last November, and which he was planning to publish in Oxoniensia.
To those of us who knew him, however, Chris’s manifold professional and academic achievements are almost secondary compared with the delights of his company, and his less well-known talents as (inter alia) a brilliant cook and host. In the words of one former colleague, ‘simply one of the best people we have ever known’.
Simon Townley with contributions from Alan Crossley, Eleanor Chance, Adrienne Rosen, Trevor Rowley, and Kate Tiller
(An online recording of Chris delivering his popular lecture on the history of Oxford University – with the typically intriguing title ‘If I were you I wouldn’t start from here’ – is available here.)