Nicholas Henshall (OS 1964, Former Member of Staff & Former Governor)
The School was deeply saddened to report the death of Mr Nicholas (Nick) Henshall, on the 16th September 2015, following a period of illness. Mr Henshall was a former pupil, member of staff, governor and supporter of Stockport Grammar School.
Mr Henshall’s funeral was held on Wednesday 30th September 2015 at St. George’s Church.
Cards and letters to be addressed to: Mrs N Foster C/O Stockport Grammar School, Buxton Road, Stockport, Cheshire SK2 7AF.
Head of Department: 1975
Head of Sixth Form: 1990
Nicholas Henshall (1944-2015): An Appreciation by David Armitage
Great teachers never die: they endure in the lives that they change. Nicholas Henshall, who lost a long struggle with cancer on 16 September, shaped countless pupils in three decades as a history master at Stockport Grammar School. In retirement, he reached even wider audiences by writing and lecturing on his passion, the culture and politics of eighteenth-century Europe.
Nick was the kind of committed, charismatic, contrarian teacher everyone should have when they are young. As a ten-year‐old, I had no idea how lucky I was. Indeed, I found Nick’s energy and eloquence more than a little frightening and certainly hard to take in: his report on my first year briskly noted, “He works sensibly and carefully but is not very enterprising”. That might have been enough to put anyone off history and to avoid “Mr Henshall” ever after. I stubbornly stuck with it and returned to his classroom for my A‐Level. By then, I had a much better idea of Nick’s talents. Thirty years of friendship only confirmed what an inspiration he was: resolute in discussion, endlessly curious and emphatically engaged until the cancer and the treatments that kept it at bay together took their toll.
Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, in 1944, Nick moved with his parents to Stockport and became a pupil at the school where he would later teach. He read History at Cambridge (where he took a First) and remained as passionately attached to his old college, Emmanuel, as he was to the Tudor century he studied with Geoffrey Elton. That must have been a memorable encounter—the irascible meeting the implacable—and it left Nick with an exhaustive knowledge of the Tudors but the urge to do research on a completely different period. He began a PhD on the possibility of revolution in late eighteenth-century Britain yet gave it up after spending too long reeling microfilm in the bowels of Manchester University library (or so he always said). For the rest of his career, his head was with the Tudors and his heart was in the Enlightenment. The Age of Reformation and the Age of Reason remained the twin poles of his teaching, but the eighteenth century was the source of his tastes and convictions.
Nick prepared all his classes, from the ascent of Henry VII to the downfall of Louis XVI, with a rigour that may have been lost on many of his pupils and a vigour none of them has forgotten. His notes—on fragrant purple cyclostyled sheets—were miracles of organisation and compression, larding apt quotations into beautifully structured summaries of the latest scholarship on economic, political, diplomatic and cultural history. (Social history always came some way behind: Nick’s was always a history from above.) Hours before an exam, he could hand out copies of a new article on the Marian Privy Council and point to what we needed for our essays. Nick’s talents—dedication, generosity, an infectious love of history—were more inspiring, and less intimidating, the longer you benefited from his teaching.
The effort Nick expended on his pupils, inside and beyond the classroom, was all‐consuming but must have had a cost. He retired very early in 1997 to pursue history through other channels but with undimmed enthusiasm. He had already published one major synthetic work, The Myth of Absolutism: Change and Continuity in Early Modern Monarchy (1992), which spanned from Britain to Russia between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. He was touchingly proud that his provocations stirred debate and that the book’s pan‐European sweep earned translations into German, Italian and Russian as well as a conference in Münster ferociously contesting its arguments: rare accolades for any historian but unique for a retired schoolteacher. He held a Schoolmaster Fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge, while writing it and later became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in recognition of his contributions to early modern history.
In retirement, Nick painstakingly, and somewhat painfully, wrote a sequel to his first book. The Zenith of European Monarchy and its Elites: The Politics of Culture, 1650–1750 (2010) showcased his ever‐expanding erudition and distilled generations of scholarship on the cultural politics of power and the political power of culture in a pivotal period. He also taught occasionally at the University of Manchester, wrote for History Today and edited History Review, its sibling magazine aimed squarely at sixth-formers. For many years, the highlight of his social calendar was the annual History Today awards party each January.
Nick taught you how to think by showing you how to write. Grab the reader’s attention. Keep sentences punchy. Avoid clichés like the plague (but never miss a good metaphor). Make every paragraph a miniature essay. And say what you mean even if you don’t always mean what you say. In short, he passed on the classical art of rhetoric—after all, he taught at a 15th‐century grammar school—combined with the Augustan virtues of Pope and Johnson, liberally laced with caustic Humean scepticism and the wit of his great intellectual hero, Voltaire.
If I can turn a proper sentence, it’s thanks to Nick. If I can make a halfway decent argument or hold my own in debate, that’s his doing, too, not least because our politics increasingly diverged so that our conversations became more hammer- and‐tongs over time. My lasting interests in early modern politics and culture are also his fault (or his achievement, given the rough material he had to work with). Nick made me a historian and showed me why history matters. He introduced me to Mozart’s operas, Fielding’s novels and the palace of Sanssouci—great gifts indeed, from a great teacher and a lifelong friend. His loss is incalculable, but then so is his legacy.
Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History and Chair, Department of History, Harvard University
† Forthcoming in History Today, 65, 11 (November 2015). My thanks to Graham Earles and Joe Bergin for sharing memories and to Paul Lay for commissioning this appreciation for a magazine close to Nick’s heart.
Nick Henshall,1944-2015, Pupil and Teacher at the School an appreciation by Mr Graham Earles (OS 1983)
Nick brightened and enriched the lives of those who knew him. Nineteenth-century Prussia, a place I had never previously heard of, suddenly became a matter of intense (and immediate) interest to me in 1980. Then, the issues multiplied; was Louis XIV’s foreign policy successful, was there a Tudor revolution in government, was Necker bound to fail? The questions just kept on coming, along with the inevitable essay tests. And all of this delivered by Nick with style, drive, total command of subject, and that wonderful, undulating, expressive voice.
What Nick brought to his teaching was the sense that both the history and you mattered. History was all about us, in Stockport with its statue of Cobden and industrial revolution architecture, in Britain, with its now ongoing parliamentary democracy and post-imperial struggles, and in Europe, with the now – but not always – presence of nations such as Germany and Italy, and the legacy of the French Revolution. But Nick also cared passionately for his pupils. Had we understood sufficiently? Had we done enough reading? Could we answer the examiner’s questions in proper essay form? What about the essay “plan”?
We enjoyed and remembered his lessons. Never one to take much notice of a bell (that is, one at the end of a history period anyway), key points or stories had to be completed before we left. It was never that wise to arrive late, if only because the examination of the reasons for such an error was conducted in the full glare of those fortunate enough to have arrived on time. Once ensconced, we were dazzled by Nick’s brilliant grasp of detail, relevant anecdote, and latest scholarship. What a combination that was.
Nick gave the History Department he led a sense of identity. Once positioned in the Woodsmoor site, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I adorned the walls as you entered, tempting you to leave behind all other concerns. The numbers taking history grew; this was a subject that took itself and its place seriously. Great appointments (for example, in my time, Tim Woffenden and Stephen Cross) complemented Nick and each other, and the whole became stronger still. Nick, and the department, anticipated the rise in the popularity of history.
For some, perhaps mainly those going on to read history or a history-related subject at University, being taught by Nick was almost certainly, however, much more still. These thoughts are always personal and here I can speak only for myself. Unquestionably, however, Nick’s teaching, confidence, and belief in me as a pupil transformed my school experience, and, from that, my future. I owe to him the love of history upon which I have in many ways built my life. Such devotion, such a sense of duty, and such enthusiasm; Nick, again and always, thank you.
Nick’s love of history continues, however, not only in the lives of all his pupils, but also, and importantly, in his own historical work. Nick read History at Cambridge (graduating with a First), and followed this later in life by writing two well-respected books, The Myth of Absolutism: Change & Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (1992), and The Zenith of European Monarch and Its elites: The Politics of Culture, 1650-1750 (2010). He published an article in History Today, as recently as November, 2013. After retirement he also did some teaching at Manchester University. He demonstrated his talent for the spoken word appearing on Newsnight.
Above all, what made Nick so loved was his daring combination of qualities. He stood out. The equal passion for the lives of monarchs and pupils. The bow tie, as contrasted with the dashing white Ford capri. The life spent studying European culture and music, together with a love of the North and its hills. The brilliant teacher, and then, after school, the engaging friend. The seriousness of great issues discussed alongside the urgency involved in simply going for a drink; getting there just before closing time, and then seeing Nick regaling the pub with several classic tales only to be irritated that everyone else was listening in. The announcement when he rang you that he only had two minutes to speak, only to find yourself still engrossed an hour later.
Stockport Grammar School has had many magnificent teachers, but without question “NGH” was one of them. It and we were lucky. The generous smile, finding the best in people, giving his all; that, and his love of history, was Nick. With him, time was always too short.
My tribute to Nick Henshall by Tim Woffenden
I have taught in five schools and five History departments: there was only one Nick Henshall. His passion for scholarship and the LATEST books was unrivalled, as was his love for his subject. His pupils lapped it all up – they had to do a lot of listening – and they loved him for his commitment to their success, his eloquence (spiced up with some choice language) and his sheer hard work. He was totally devoted to them.
I was fortunate to be part of his History department in its heyday (at least, that is what it felt like). In Steve, Jane, Sheila, Nick and me you could not have found five more different personalities, but, despite Nick’s mostly totalitarian tendencies as our leader, we felt part of a special team, probably because Nick himself was special. Examination teaching at A and O level had to be from the department script, often handwritten by Nick and reproduced on foolscap Banda sheets, and it worked. Nick’s fiercely competitive nature, supported by his hard-working team, inspired examination results which were, year after year, among the best in the school. His Oxbridge entrance machine, which, in the days of entrance examinations, involved inhuman amounts of work by both Nick and his pupils, was hugely successful and strings of candidates, some more talented than others, it has to be said, did not have the option of failure.
And then there were the departmental exhibitions on Speech Day. Every inch of every classroom wall was covered in spectacular and colourful work; there would be Steve Cross in his First World War uniform and, if you were lucky, Nick himself dressed up as an eighteeth century fop. There would be music, sometimes some history games, and parents could admire Nick’s own drawing of Louis XIV, ten feet tall, towering over them as they ascended to the top floor of the Woodsmoor building. Parents and pupils came in their droves, and could not fail to be impressed by a department which was truly vibrant.
Nick let me fly. He respected what I could bring to the department. When GCSE was introduced he let Jane Maher and me run our own course – no one could quite believe that he would permit such independence. He valued my history trips which ran all over the country before going overseas, mostly to Eastern Europe. And of course he made sure that he came along too, in his, in those days, over-tight trousers, and too-slim-fitting blouson jackets and cheap sunglasses. He loved every minute. When I went off to Haileybury to run my own department, SGS was my model as I set about revitalising the history section of the school library, making sure that standards were consistent and trying desperately to emulate that famous Oxbridge machine, with much less success.
The first five years of my teaching at Stockport, with Nick as my Head of Department and Hugh Wright as my Headmaster, were the happiest of my teaching career. I remember them, and Nick, with immense fondness. They were dynamic times as we had a talented and committed staff enormously excited by those heady early days of coeducation.
I am indebted to Nick for setting me on my way, and I thank him for his example, and the fun we had.
I will miss him.