Dr Chris Upton, reader in public history at Newman University Birmingham, historical consultant for the BBC, the National Trust and the Birmingham Conservation Trust and a central figure in the historical activities of the West Midland region, died at home on Thursday October 1 at the age of 61 after a short battle with cancer.
Chris was born in Wellington, Shropshire in 1953 and, after passing his 11 plus, went to Wolverhampton Grammar School, where he excelled. He won a place at Kings College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and English and where he met his future wife, Fiona.
He was a gifted researcher and writer and he went on to take a doctorate in Scottish Latin Poetry at St Andrews University. He moved to Birmingham in 1980 to act as research assistant to Dr John Fletcher of Aston University where they collaborated in transcribing and editing the Tudor domestic accounts of Merton College, Oxford, an edition of which was published in 1996.
From these years emerged the first fruits of his long publication career, articles on early modern Scottish education and late medieval English Universities. Chris moved to work in the Archives and Local Studies departments of the Central Library and studied for a Diploma in Librarianship and Information Studies at the University of Central England, now Birmingham City University.
He taught at Birmingham University as a visiting lecturer, became the chairman of the Birmingham Urban Studies Centre and took over the editorship of the Birmingham Historian journal, now sadly defunct, but under Chris' leadership, a vibrant centre for scholarship, both amateur and professional.
Chris' obvious talents as a researcher, a writer and a public speaker led him to be awarded a fellowship at the University of Birmingham's Institute for Advanced Research in Humanities. He began writing a regular column for the Birmingham Post , where his immense range of scholarly and archival knowledge was combined with a desire to share his love of history with as wide an audience as possible.
These articles, which appeared for the next 25 years, only ending in June this year, give the reader a true taste of Chris' character. One week he would be discussing the historical precedents of the closure of another manufacturing business in the region, the next he would be musing on the Ancient Greek approach to dental care, all done with clarity, attention to detail and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of terrible jokes and puns.
Chris' reputation as the leading scholar of region's history was cemented by the appearance of A History of Birmingham for Phillimore in 1995. The title has never been out of print since and led to A History of Wolverhampton in 1998 and A History of Lichfield in 2002.
He did consider writing a further history of Walsall, but as he confided to a colleague, he found the prospect of spending week upon week in one of the most depressed regions of the Black Country more than he could bear. Instead he collected his research on the history of housing into what is perhaps his best book, Living Back to Back (2005) which overflows with skin-crawling details of life in the slums, but which is infused with a true understanding of the lives and hopes of those who endured such conditions.
Chris, unlike almost every other contemporary historian of the poor, never patronised or condemned his subjects, familiar as he was with the world in which they lived. If his work had a theme, it was that he, like E.P. Thompson before him, wanted to rescue the ordinary people of the West Midlands from ‘the immense condescension of posterity' and he wanted to remind his audiences of the consequences of a low-tax, unregulated economy for those from humble origins.
He would never have admitted to such a political message if challenged, always understanding that the authority of the historian is damaged if he or she is openly partisan or polemic, but his public despair at Birmingham's recent association with the Channel 4 series Benefits Street and at the slashing of funding for local museums, archives and libraries was motivated by his appreciation of the opportunities that he himself had enjoyed in the post-war welfare state and which he now feared were being denied to the current generation from a similar background as himself.
His status as the city's leading historian was recognised when ITV Central named him one of the region's "living geniuses" in 2004, alongside Sir Adrian Cadbury, Sir Anthony Bamford and Noddy Holder.
Chris' reinvention as a local and public historian was eventually rewarded with two important break-throughs in the mid 1990s. In 1997, he was employed by the Ikon Gallery to investigate the history of the board school in Oozells Street to which the gallery was relocating.
This led him into contact with members of Birmingham city council, architects, archivists, planners and conservationists and began a fruitful career as an advisor on the presentation of history in almost every major historical project in the region for the next eighteen years. He helped design galleries for the Thinktank and Birmingham Museums and he carried out the archival work and oral interviews for the recreation of the Birmingham Back to Backs by the National Trust, among many other projects for national and local conservation groups.
In his proudest public moment, he was part of the team which won the 2004 BBC Restoration competition, which provided funding for the restoration of the historic buildings, the Old Grammar School and the Saracen's Head, now known as St Nicolas Place, which cluster around the church of that name in Kings Norton. By the end of the decade, Chris became a regular guest on local radio programmes and a regular face on ITV's Central News and BBC Midlands Today, even appearing two weeks ago to record an item.
He was delighted to be asked to be the historical consultant on the BBC's flagship 2013 drama, Peaky Blinders, taking huge care over the fictional depiction of historical characters such as Winston Churchill and the dress of the natty "blinders" themselves.
When the series chose to relocate to London (as gangsters invariably do), Chris sadly parted company with the production team, but he was rightly proud of his efforts in helping shine a light on a forgotten aspect of Birmingham's history.
He was just as happy sharing a pint with Martin Shaw by the canals of Gas Street Basin last year for BBC's Who do You Think You Are? Shaw was apparently not much enthused by his roots in Birmingham, so, typically, Chris chatted knowledgeably about Shaw's Shakespearean work instead, thus building the connection that came across so well when they discussed Shaw's background as the cameras rolled.
Chris' second breakthrough in the 1990s was his appointment as senior lecturer at what was then Newman College of Higher Education, a teacher training college in Bartley Green. Chris found the students, mostly local and from modest backgrounds, very much on his wavelength and he helped to establish the history joint honours programme as well as educating prospective primary teachers on the joys and terrors of local history (no textbook for them to hide behind, he used to point out).
The College began to build a reputation for excellent teaching and Chris threw himself into the life of the small, closely knit community.
He put together a collection of pictures, documents, oral history recordings and printed material which grew into the Local History Collection in the College library. He embarked on international collaborations which allowed him to indulge his love of foreign travel and to exploit his range of languages and he started to take the students on a series of field-trips, local, residential and international, which soon became a hallmark of Newman's approach to teaching. In time, a single honours degree in history was launched, and, despite the competition of every other university history department in the region,
Chris' witty, caring and inspiring teaching approach soon attracted large numbers of undergraduates who experienced his unique approach to ancient history, Anglo-Saxon England, the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and the industrialisation of the West Midlands.
He ran extra-mural courses on local history at the Central Library, was invited to major conferences on teaching history at HE and was jointly responsible for the recent international conferences on the careers of John Bright and Joseph Chamberlain. Chris was never one for titles, but he was pleased when the College achieved University status in 2008 and then full University status in 2013, even acquiescing to being made Reader in Public History in 2012 to help to raise the University's profile in the city.
Chris was a loyal, reliable and frequently irrepressible colleague for nearly two decades at Newman and the unique achievement of the history department in receiving a 100% satisfaction score in three out of the last four National Student Satisfaction surveys was largely thanks to the admiration and affection that his students had for him.
Even though he was forced by his illness to stand down from teaching in January this year, the Students Union at Newman awarded him ‘Lecturer of the Year' in 2015 by overwhelming popular vote. He was, he said, more touched by this award than any other that he received.
Chris Upton was a dear friend to many, an inspiration to amateur, student and professional historians across the country and a beloved colleague at the archives, museums, libraries and universities of the West Midlands. Those who work in his field will continue to be inspired by his passion for the history of the region and by his ability to speak with authority and insight without a script in his hand. We collectively raise a pint and, in honour of his beloved Latin, say ,‘Vale, Chris!'
By the history department, Newman University
On Wednesday October 21, following a private cremation, a warm welcome is extended to all who wish to join the university for the Celebration of Chris' Life.
This will be held at 11.15am, in St Mary's Chapel, at Newman University.
Further details and arrangements for the day will be published in due course.