Profile: Professor Jerry White
In the inaugural Penny Lecture for our 125 year anniversary Professor Jerry White will discuss the impact the First World War had on London, and the effects still felt today. But what leads to this fascination with London? Find out in this profile.
Jerry White has had an unusual career for a professional historian. After leaving grammar school in Dorset in 1967 he pursued a career in local government until 2009. From 1970 he worked in London, first as a public health inspector at Islington and then in senior positions in the housing and health departments of Haringey and Hackney. From 1989 to 1995 he was chief executive of the London Borough of Hackney, and from 1995 to 2009 one of the three local government ombudsmen for England (with responsibility for South London among other areas). He didn’t realise it at the beginning, but it was all a good grounding for a historian of modern London, especially in understanding its housing problem and the mechanics of local government and politics.
In November 1971 he stumbled across Rothschild Buildings, Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields, and an interest in London history – especially the lives of working-class Londoners – almost immediately turned into a passion. His 'foolhardy' decision to write an oral history entitled Rothschild Buildings led him to meet Raphael Samuel, tutor in social history at Ruskin College, Oxford, who singlehandedly gave him the university training as a historian that he had never had.
Rothschild Buildings was followed by an Islington study of a slum street demolished long before Jerry worked nearby, The Worst Street in North London: Campbell Bunk, Islington, Between the Wars (1986). There was then a pretty long silence as his local government career left little time for reflection, even peace of mind. But he never stopped reading about London and collecting books about it. And when Jerry was appointed ombudsman in 1995 he felt he was ready to start writing once more.
From 1997 Jerry wrote his acclaimed trilogy on the history of modern London from 1700 to 2000. In early 2012, the final volume London in the Eighteenth Century. A Great and Monstrous Thing was published, completing almost fifteen years spent on the project.
In 2014 Jerry released his latest book Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War and will be speaking on the same topic at the Penny Lecture on Thursday 18 September.