Laslett family history

Peter and Janet Laslett of Cambridge

Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett was born on 18 December 1915 at Bedford, the first born son of the Reverand Ruffell Laslett and his wife Eveline Laslett née Alden (page 145). Peter is perhaps the most highly academically qualified of all the Lasletts and has established himself with a worldwide reputation as an Historian and innovative thinker.

In 1947 Peter married Janet Crockett Clark and they have two children.

Probably Peter's academic achievements can be best summed up by extracting and expanding his entry in the London edition of Who's Who. He was educated at Watford Grammar School and St John's College, Cambridge. From 1940 to 1945 he served as a Lieutenant (RNVR) in the Japanese Naval Intelligence section of the Royal Navy. After the war he joined the BBC as a producer of 3rd Programme Talks. He became a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge in 1948(-51); Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 1958; Fellow of the Folger Library, 1959; co-founder of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, 1964; member of the Working Party on Foundation of the Open University, 1965; Visiting Professor - Johns Hopkins University, 1972 - Collège de France, Paris, 1976 - Yale University, 1977......etc

Perhaps Peter's best known achievement is his book The World we have Lost. First published in 1965, and currently going through its 15th English language impression, this book revolutionised the study of history by showing that many of the assumptions taken for granted by historians just did not stand up to the evidence of statistical data painstakingly collected from surviving records. The book is now a standard text at most universities around the world.

Beverly Workman of Ohio University writes of Peter: "Before a conference in September 1969, held in Cambridge, England, and organized by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, Peter Laslett summarized and analyzed the size and structure of families in past times. His presentation was to make him famous for the history of household and family. His research and writings are still cited by other historians. Laslett and the Cambridge Group's studies are supported by their extensive application of demographic research.

"Laslett's primary belief was that the modern nuclear family was not born out of industrialization, and that in England and other nations, the nuclear family was the dominate form for several centuries prior to industrialization. It has been pointed out that one of the reasons that Laslett did not find more three?generation stem families in England may be because the data used by the Cambridge Group did not, for the most part, take the family life cycle into consideration. Research on nineteenth?century British and American cities has revealed that boarders, roomers, and lodgers, some of whom may have been extended kin, were present in homes to a much greater degree than today. Yet, Laslett's basic argument goes unchallenged: there is definitely more continuity than discontinuity in the structure of preindustrial and industrial families.

"In Laslett's survey, The World We Have Lost, he concludes that in England the nuclear family has always predominated and that there is so little evidence of extended or stem families in the past that theories claiming a shift to a nuclear pattern in modern times cannot be empirically validated. It was the form in which most people were socialized as children and which they were thereby led to reproduce as adults. Laslett saw the continuing prevalence of the nuclear family household as the result of learned behavior on the part of its members.

"Unlike Lawrence Stone, who set forth historical family types such as "open lineage family," "restricted patriarchal nuclear family," and the "closed, domesticated nuclear family" of the modern era, the Cambridge Group divided households in the early modern era into three categories: simple (nuclear or conjugal), extended (a conjugal unit plus widowed parent, or other relatives) and multiple (two or more related conjugal units).

"In the early 1970s, Laslett's Cambridge Group published a book, Household and Family in Past Time, containing a series of articles announcing their results of a comparative study of the family and household from the sixteenth century to the present.

"Two other important essays by Laslett are: Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations and Bastardy and Its Comparative History which study the history of illegitimacy over time and between cultures and marital non?conformism in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, North America, Jamaica, and Japan."

Recently Peter has been instrumental in setting up the University ofvthe Third Age (U3A) He has published A Fresh Map of Life, subtitled The Emergence of the Third Age. He is now Emeritus Reader in Politics and the History of Social Structure, University of Cambridge, Director, Ageing Unit, Cambridge Group of Population and Social Structure and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Some press reports on the book follow:

'What Laslett has done in A Fresh Map of to give the first clear, full and authoritative statement about a set of changes that are making the modern world utterly different from what has gone before.' ? Peter Willmott, Times Literary Supplement

'Laslett writes with an attractive mix of realism and idealism, and offers more grounds for hope.' ? Galen Strawson, Observer

'The reasoning of Peter Laslett's argument in A Fresh Map of Life is that the crown of life should be sought at the time when work is left and children are grown. It is an absorbing and scholarly mingling of social history and philosophy, written in superb prose.' ? Barbara Neil, Daily Telegraph

'... are we really happy with the prospect of spending maybe half our adult lives in enforced directionless and low?status idleness? Laslett does not pretend to have more than the glimmerings of an alternative. But he certainly puts a powerful case for the rest of us to start thinking.' ? Peter Wilsher, Sunday Times

'Changing demography has made the Third Age a major part of the life cycle for most people. There seems little question in this context that the issues raised by Peter Laslett will require and will receive very serious attention. This is an important book for all of us but especially for those in or approaching the Third Age.' ? Peter McDonald, Family Matters, Australian Institute of Family Studies

'Today as never before, most people in the developed world at least, can expect to live to old age. How has society reacted to this shift of mortality? Much of the accepted account of ageing is simply the persistence into our own time of past perceptions. Laslett argues that the Third Age ? beyond the breadwinning and child?rearing years ? is that of greatest personal fulfilment, the apogee of life. Combining social history, sociology and philosophy, this book provokes new thinking on one of the crucial changes in the modern world.

Peter was awarded a CBE in 1997 New Year’s Honours.

The Daily Telegraph. London November 13th 2001. Laslett.-Peter, Social Historian and political philosopher, died November 8th 2001, aged 85. Funeral Service in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, Friday November 16th, 2.30pm. No flowers please. Donations to "The Third Age Trust", c/o Harry Williams &Co, 7 Victoria Park, Cambridge.

On 15 November 2001 The Daily Telegraph published the following obituary:

“PETER LASLETT, the historian and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who has died aged 85, co-founded, in 1962, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, and built it into the pre-eminent international centre for the study of the history of the family.

“A lifelong socialist with a belief in the liberating power of knowledge, Laslett also became a leading figure in the movement to widen access to education. He inspired the foundation of the Open University in 1969 and in 1982 established the University of the Third Age (U3A), an educational movement for people over the age of retirement.

“When Laslett first began to apply sociological techniques to the study of history, such was the hostility from the crustier members of the Cambridge History faculty that his fledgling research group came close to being killed off at birth. Such luminaries as the political historians Geoffrey Elton and Kitson Clark, Laslett recalled, regarded family history as "parochial, for lower level historical interests - for amateurs". Moreover they did not believe that statistical techniques had any place in the historian's armoury.

“But Laslett and his collaborator and pupil Anthony (now Sir Anthony) Wrigley refused to give up and with the help of a grant from the philanthropist Paul Mellon, and grants from their respective colleges, the Cambridge Group was established with Laslett as director.

“Laslett and Wrigley immediately set to work to assemble detailed records of births, marriages and deaths from hundreds of English parishes. After appealing for help through the BBC Third Programme, they assembled an army of volunteers and soon obtained a list of parishes that had continuous registration from the 1540s to the 1870s.

“The outcome of years of research was a series of studies which have transformed our knowledge of the English family. Laslett's first book, The World We Have Lost (1965), explored family and social structure in pre-industrial England. This was followed by Household and Family in Past Time (1972, co-written with R Wall), Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (1977 with R Smith and others), Bastardy and its Comparative History (1980) and Family Forms in Historic Europe (1983). In 1981, the weighty The Population History of England, 1541-1871 was published by Laslett's colleagues Anthony Wrigley and Roger Schofield.

“Laslett and his colleagues challenged the myth that a pre-industrial rural society of extended family groups had been supplanted by smaller, more rootless families in the Industrial Revolution. Instead, they found, nuclear families of four or five persons were always and everywhere the norm.

“In England such families were universal by the 1540s when parish records began to be kept, and there was plenty of earlier evidence to suggest that, outside noble households with their armies of retainers, human beings had lived in this way for many centuries before.

“In The World We Have Lost, Laslett showed how life in pre-industrial society was no rural idyll. Most people lived in misery, frequently ravaged by plague and smallpox and permanently undernourished, if not starving. Lives were so marginal that celibacy had to be enforced up to the middle or late 20s to prevent unwanted births. Those who survived into old age were surprisingly often left to live and die alone.
“ Characteristic too, Laslett revealed, was the presence in all but the poorest households of servants; before the industrial revolution, about one eighth of the population consisted of servants, a shifting labour force of young people used to working away from home that provided a ready pool of employees as England began to industrialise.

“Laslett argued that the main changes that had occurred in the 20th century - marriage breakdown and the growth of illegitimacy - resulted not from industrial change, but from people living longer (and thus being married longer) and from changing moral values.

“Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett was born on December 18 1915 at Watford, the son of a clergyman. He was educated at Watford Grammar School and at St John's College, Cambridge, where he read History.

“After spending the war in the Navy, working on Japanese Naval intelligence, he joined the BBC as a talks producer for its Third Programme. He returned to Cambridge in 1953 with a fellowship at Trinity, and took up the study of the 17th-century philosopher John Locke.

“By a stroke of luck, he discovered Locke's library, consisting of 11 manuscripts and more than 800 printed books. Sold at auction soon afterwards, the library was bought by Paul Mellon, who employed Laslett to prepare a catalogue of Locke's works. In 1960, Laslett published a new edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government.

“The Treatises had first been published in 1689, some eight months after the Glorious Revolution which, it had been assumed, it had been Locke's intention to justify. In his introduction, however, Laslett drew on his knowledge of Locke's life to suggest that Locke had written the second treatise as early as 1679-80 and the first in 1680. These were years of constitutional crisis and Locke had been friendly at the time with the first Earl of Shaftesbury, the leader of the opposition to Charles II. Locke, he suggested, had written the works to justify the case for a limited monarchy at a time when the outcome of the debate was in doubt.

“In the late 1950s, Laslett became involved in campaigns to improve educational programming on the BBC and in 1957, when the Corporation was floating the idea of merging the Third Programme with the Home Service, he became chairman of the Third Programme Defence Society and later of the Viewers and Listeners Association.

“From the early 1960s he led calls for a new television network dedicated to education. Working with Michael Young, chairman of the Economic and Social Science Research Council, Laslett drew up a blueprint for an "open" university and successfully sold the idea to Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, the Under-Secretary of State for Education. The Open University went on air in 1969.

“As he himself grew older, Laslett turned his attention to the problems faced by people in what he called the "Third Age" - retired people over the age of 55 who, he felt, tended to be regarded as a burden by a society which had not adapted to the increase in life expectancy that had taken place in the 20th century. In France, a Universite du Troisieme Age had been founded in 1972 to cater for this age group and Laslett suggested that something similar might be tried in Britain. His vision differed from the French in that while in France the groups were tied to existing universities, he envisaged a looser structure with branches being founded and run by their own members with no financial assistance from the state.

“Since its foundation in 1982, the University of the Third Age has established around 400 branches with a total membership of 25,000. Laslett, however, remained disappointed that the movement had not developed into a forum for original research, ruefully observing that "the naive academic view that the U3A should be adding to the sum of knowledge does not seem to appeal to elderly secondary schoolmistresses".

“In 1989 Laslett produced A Fresh Map of Life: the Emergence of the Third Age, part account of 20th-century demographic change and part polemic against "ageism". He published two further works on ageing: Justice between Age Groups and Generations (1992, with D Kertzer) and Ageing in the Past (1995).

“Peter Laslett was appointed CBE in 1997. He married, in 1947, Janet Crockett Clark. They had two sons.”

The Times, London Wednesday 14 November 2001:

Peter Laslett

“Historian who studied family life over the centuries and demonstrated its remarkable resilience in the face of social change.

“The social historian Peter Laslett was an intellectual impresario and provocateur who long occupied a niche in the affections or demonology of many academics. He was a voluble and dedicated champion of the marriage of history and sociology, and a student of the history of marriage, the family and its dysfunctions. He was also, coincidentally, a Cambridge mentor of the Prince of Wales.

“Laslett’s most important research was into the size and shape of families over the centuries. By gathering huge amounts of statistical evidence, he worked to demolish what he regarded as a romantic myth among historians: the idea that before the industrial revolution many or most people lived in extended, multi-generational families, which could accommodate the weak, the old and unmarried siblings. "In reality, the family hasn’t changed a great deal; it shows an amazing resilience to change," he said. Nuclear families, he argued, were already the norm by the time parish records began in the 1540s.

“Born during the First World War, the son of a Baptist minister in Watford, Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett went in 1935 from Watford Grammar School to St John’s College, Cambridge, to read history, and took a double first. During the Second World War, he was plucked from the ranks of the Navy because of his evident brilliance, and taken to work at the codebreaking organisation at Bletchley Park, where he worked on Japanese naval intelligence.

“In the years after the war he did research work into the history of political thought while also working at the BBC. As a talks producer throughout the 1950s, he played an important part in helping to found that unique cultural institution, the Third Programme, and in the early 1960s, when its unashamedly esoteric character brought it under fire, he sprang vigorously to its defence.

“He was a natural libertarian and radical, but as the beneficiary of a grammar school education he believed passionately in public education and the improvement of taste. In 1962 he became chairman of the Viewers and Listeners Association of Great Britain. Together with his friend Michael Young, he also conceived the idea of an on-air university open to all through. A Cambridge caucus then prepared a series of lectures which were broadcast by Anglia Television before breakfast in the autumn of 1963. When Harold Wilson took up the idea of the Open University, Laslett served on the implementing committee.

“Laslett’s broadcasting experiences and contacts were influential in steering him towards that mixture of history and sociology with a dash of journalism which became typical of him. But it was research at Cambridge that provided the formal pattern of his career.”

“After teaching at Peterhouse and St John’s, he settled at Trinity in 1953. research into 17th-century political thought led to an edition of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha in 1949, and he was the founding and chief editor for many years of a series on philosophy, politics and society.

“In the meantime, he was working on John Locke’s library, half of which was bought by Paul Mellon (and then given to the Bodleian). Laslett had privileged access to the manuscripts, and his literary detective work was embodied in 1960 in hiscritical edition of the Two Treatises of Government. In 1965 he and John Harrison published Locke’s own catalogue of his library (with a characteristic statistical analysis: only 7.4 per cent philosophy).

“By then, however, Laslett was increasingly attracted to a sort of history then more common in France than in England, which gives less weight to the formal examination of ideas and more to the structure and development of population and society. In 1963 he published an essay on the composition of families in two villages during the 17th century, which showed that the nuclear family was already the norm. Much of his work in future years was a re-iteration of this point, with evidence from more and more places, at home and then internationally, over longer and longer periods.

“The following year Laslett and E.A.Wrigley (later Master of Corpus Christi College and President of the British Academy) secured funding from Paul Mellon and the Gulbenkian Foundation to found the ponderously named Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure — more affectionately known as the Pop Group.

“Senior members of the Cambridge history faculty such as Geoffrey Elton were contemptuous about upon this new kind of study, but the group became a vital stimulus for work in British social and demographic history. After an appeal on the Third Programme, the group enjoyed the help of hundreds of amateur genealogists and local historians, who by studying parish registers compiled statistics about family size and premarital conceptions. Statistics, Laslett believed, are the vital "scientific" tool of "social structural history".
In 1965 Laslett published The World We Have Lost (1965), an original but perhaps too sweeping survey of English pre-industrial society. The book blew its own trumpet with gusto, announced the arrival of a new way of looking at the past, and attracted a long and virulent anonymous notice in The Times Literary Supplement. Now known to be by E. P. Thompson, the review accused Laslett of making large assertions that he could not support, and of attacking fallacious beliefs without attributing them to any named historians. But Laslett had described his book as "a first brash attempt, an essay in a suggestive hypothesis", and as such it spurred much new work.

“The Cambridge group went from strength to strength, with new financing from the Social Science Research Council, and several of its members themselves became internationally known. It was, Laslett mused recently, not a bad record "for a loose-ish association around a coffee party which meets each day".
Laslett became Reader in politics and the history of social structure in 1966, and worked on the collaborative publications Introduction to English Historical Demography (1966) and Household and Family in Past Time (1972) — a collection of conference papers which was criticised for "squeezing every possible quantitative ounce out of unreliable enumerations".

“His later studies included Family Forms in Historic Europe (1983) and Ageing in the Past (1995). If the preferred family pattern had been constant for half a millennium, the 20th century had seen great changes in domestic arrangements. Firstly, "marriage ceased to be regarded as a permanent bond"; secondly, life expectancy in the West approximately doubled; and thirdly the birthrate plummeted. "Now the challenge is to keep a quarter or more of the population leading a purposive and satisfying life," said Laslett. "People are at leisure to develop themselves intellectually, aesthetically and emotionally." To help them, he and Young devised the University of the Third Age during the 1970s, and in 1989 Laslett published A Fresh Map of Life, about what he hoped would prove a "new civilisation".

“Peter Laslett was a man of immense energy, with many enthusiasms. At any one time he believed passionately in his current preoccupation, be it Filmer, Locke, historical demography or the family in history. He had in some respects the instincts of a showman — though it all had to be in the best possible taste. Sir Keith Thomas once lamented that a graph of long-term bastardy in England is "all one gets of the ‘illicit love’ promised by the title" of Laslett’s Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations. In 1984 Laslett wrote to The Times to protest at the "content and the tone" of press discussions of the mastership of Trinity, objecting to its becoming a silly season story, and to the mastership being "talked about as if it were a peculiarly appropriate consolation prize for a highly accomplished but finally unfortunate political personality".

“A Fellow of the British Academy from 1979, he was appointed CBE in 1997.

“He married Janet Clark in 1947. She survives him, along with their two sons.

“Peter Laslett, CBE, historian, was born on December 18, 1915. He died on November 8, 2001, aged 85.”

The Guardian Saturday 17 November 2001

Peter Laslett

“He shattered myths about preindustrial social structures and helped to establish the Open University

Quentin Skinner and Tony Wrigley

“From 1966 to 1983, Peter Laslett, who has died aged 85, was reader in politics and the history of social structure at Cambridge University. He was also, with Michael Young, one of the instigators of the Open University in the 1960s, and of the University of the Third Age in the 1970s. In 1964 he was co-founder - and director - of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Laslett acquired a worldwide reputation, but his university never awarded him a professorship. He went his own way, far more gifted than many who attained professorial rank, an original thinker, and a trenchant, elegant writer.

“A clergyman's son, he was educated at Watford Grammar School and St John's College, Cambridge. From 1940 to 1945 he was in naval intelligence. He then became a BBC Third Programme producer.
In 1948 he was elected to a fellowship at St John's and began pathbreaking research on the social and political theories associated with the constitutional upheavals of 17th-century England. Laslett recognised that critical commentary on the philosophies of this climacteric period - especially on the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke - rested on absurdly shaky foundations. There were no reliable modern editions of the relevant texts.

“Laslett began rectifying this in 1949 with his edition of Sir Robert Filmer's political writings. In 1960 came his definitive, critical edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1960), which established the standard for the editing of such works.

“During the 1950s Laslett was no less interested in contemporary political philosophy than in the history of political thought. He lectured at Cambridge with panache and originality - when he remembered to turn up - and in 1956 initiated Philosophy, Politics and Society, a series of collections of essays that has flourished under his general editorship ever since.

“His early studies in intellectual history continue to be widely influential. Perhaps his most significant achievement was to place the theories of Filmer, Locke and their contemporaries within their political contexts. This approach was brilliantly developed by a number of Laslett's students, and still flourishes at Cambridge.

“In the 1960s Laslett's research took a different turn. Social structures, he decided, mattered far more than individual thinkers. Statistical analysis, not textual interpretation, was the future. It was an exciting time for those interested in the history of population and social structure. Fundamental to clearer insights into the differences between the pre- and post-industrial worlds was Laslett's questioning of assumptions about the nature of the family and household in early modern western Europe.

“Laslett wished to discover how far English social and familial practice reflected Filmer's prescriptive patriarchalism. What he discovered shattered many beliefs about pre-industrial society. Families were predominantly nuclear, a married couple and their children. Households were small. Three-generation households, and households in which kin such as uncles, cousins or married siblings were present, were rare. Only one non-nuclear element was commonly found in early modern English households: living-in servants. These were not servants in the Victorian domestic sense, but chiefly servants in husbandry, young people learning skills and acquiring resources which might in time enable them to marry. Children left their parents' household in their mid-teens and spent much of the next decade of their lives in service. Servants were unmarried and both sexes married in their middle or later 20s. The "Juliet" syndrome, confined to the elite, was largely disappearing even there before the end of the 17th century.

“The widely held view that the small, nuclear family was a product of industrialisation and urbanisation became untenable in the light of Laslett's work. He also showed conclusively that early modern English society was highly mobile: only a relatively small minority of each rising generation lived lifelong in the same parish.

“His commitment to broad issues of historical interpretation did not preclude taking an interest both in methodology and in an immensely important area of technical advance, using modern computing to simulate the behaviour of populations, to study both demographic and social structural issues, and the interaction between the two.

“In the later 1980s Laslett became interested in aspects of the ageing process. He explored the distinction between the "third" and "fourth" ages and argued vigorously against the tendency to push those above working age to the periphery. A Fresh Map of Life (1989) provided a new vision of a topic encrusted with platitudes.

“Laslett had a remarkable gift for commanding an audience beyond academia - a reflection perhaps of his Third Programme days. A veteran Workers' Educational Association teacher observed that no other book recommended to his classes had ever been so welcomed and praised as The World We Have Lost (1965), which reported what Laslett had learned about English social structure, foreshadowed much that was to come during the next 25 years, and provided, in an accessible form, the concepts that gave meaning to the facts he described.

“Laslett never lost his curiosity and passionate commitment to the life of the mind. Nor did he ever seem to age. This year he took part in a Cambridge symposium (shortly to be published) on the current state of political philosophy, astonishing everyone with his energies and his quirky and challenging judgments.

“He married Janet Crockett Clark in 1947. She survives him, as do their two sons.

• Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett, academic, born December 18 1915; died November 8 2001

“Michael Young writes: The story in his family is that, at the start of his lectures, Peter Laslett would take off his coat, take off his gown, take off his jacket, unbutton his shirt sleeves and roll them up, while the audience sat frozen in anticipation that, this time, he would take off all his clothes. Perhaps it was his wartime Japanese naval intelligence codebreaking at Bletchley Park that gave him a taste for action.

“In the late 1950s Peter, as much in search of equity and the expansion of higher education as me, published a proposal in the the BBC's Listener magazine for a university of Great Britain. He wanted to divorce the academic success of Oxford and Cambridge from their social esteem by making them postgraduate institutions. The staff of all other universities would be considered as staff of Oxbridge as well.

“That did not get far. But from my own arrival in Cambridge in 1958, as a lecturer in sociology and fellow of Churchill College, I fell into league with him as a reformer. He and the classicist John Morrison were the only Cambridge supporters of my proposal to found a second university on the same site, which would be in session when members of the existent university were on vacation. "Vacations?" came the response."That's when we do our real work, when our students have gone away."

“I then decided, with Peter's agreement, that an open university should not be grafted on to an existing university. With Brian Jackson, we eventually started the National Extension College, which now flourishes long after it fulfilled its first role as a pilot project for the Open University. Peter remained trustee of the NEC until 1990.

“In Humphrey Carpenter's The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, Peter explained his espousal of the OU: "Michael Young and I became friends. He and I agreed about breaking the monopolies of universities, and broadcasting was clearly the manner of doing so. A submission, signed by distinguished names, persuaded Harold Wilson that the University of the Air was not only practicable but an obvious Labour party policy. We knew even then that it had to be a mixture of television, open-circuit sound broadcasting, closed-circuit recording, correspondence and teaching. We wanted broadcasting because it would be an immediately, completely transparently available source of instruction to every citizen with a wireless or television set."

“For the new project, Peter visited the United States in 1961, on a Dartington Hall grant, to look at educational television. He was the leading organiser of a 1963 week of early-morning television launched by Fred Hoyle, Plumian professor of astronomy at Cambridge, and seen by 200,000 people. It almost certainly influenced the OU's later use of broadcasting. He also led a project on sharing teaching and research between universities through the new technologies.

“Peter was a member of one of the committees advising Harold Wilson's arts minister Jennie Lee on the OU's shape. The story is that he told Jennie that he assumed the committee members came with an open mind. He would not have been invited, she replied, if she had known he would ask such a question.

“In 1982, we joined up again, as founders - with Eric Midwinter - of the University of the Third Age, the only more or less self-financing university almost anywhere for people over 50 who largely teach each other. Faculty keeps changing into students. It has 472 branches and more than 112,000 members. Peter was that too-rare bird, an academic of high standing and also an entrepreneur in that world, who was intensely interested in the people who do not get to their universities. If only there were more like him. “

In his book The Emperor’s Codes – Bletchley Park and the Breaking of Japan’s Secret Ciphers Michael Smith writes of Peter’s wartime code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park and later in Washington. He starts in 1943 when Peter first went to Bletchley Park:

“By late 1943, with the Battle of the Atlantic over and OP-20-G bearing the brunt of the attacks on the German Navy's Enigma ciphers, Hut 7 started to get time on Bletchley Park's large bank of Hollerith tabulating machines, drastically improving its ability to break JN25 messages. Hut 7 began to expand rapidly, with new sections being added. As the Allies gained the upper hand and the dislocation of Japanese forces increased, Peter Laslett was put in charge of a group looking for and recording all references in the Japanese messages to changes of codes and ciphers. Laslett, who had gained a first in history at St John's, Cambridge, had joined the Fleet Air Arm. But in mid-1942 he was 'press-ganged' by the navy into learning Japanese.

“They sent me to the School of Oriental and African Studies and told us that if we couldn't read Japanese within a year we would be sent back to our ships. I had been on the Murmansk route, which was extremely dangerous, so I learned Japanese under sentence of being drowned. There were one or two of us billeted near Harley Street and we used to walk each morning to SOAS or to the British Museum where we did most of our studying. I had quite a time of it at large in London in bell-bottom trousers.

“He was then commissioned and sent to Bletchley Park, where he was put in Hut 7, initially simply concentrating on decoding JN25.

“The Japanese codes being book codes, breaking them was no kid's job. We had to look for repeated messages and tried to figure out the sentence structure to work out what the code groups meant. The greatest advantage was just occasionally when the Japanese repeated a message which the Germans had previously passed on a system which our colleagues at Bletchley Park had already broken. But in general it was rather tough and rather unsatisfactory, although it was interesting because the Pacific War was rather active. My great asset, I suppose, was that I was one of the very few people there who had actually served at sea, so I knew the type of terminology that might come up in any given situation. This, of course, was extremely useful in predicting what code groups might be expected to come next.

“Isobel Sandison, a Foreign Office civilian who had passed one of the six-month Bedford courses in Japanese, worked in Laslett's section recording the radio references to various codes and ciphers. She was recruited in 1943 from Aberdeen University, where she had studied German.

“When I arrived at Bletchley in September I was informed that the end of the German war was in sight and asked if eventually I would be willing to learn Japanese. The first few weeks we spent on general filing, scanning call signs, etc. in the department run by Jack Plumb - 'Dr Plumb's Party' on the door. Eventually the Japanese class began. There were about sixteen, all students or graduates in languages - classics or modern, a mix of naval officers, Wrens and civilians. Our teacher was John Lloyd, ex-Vice-Consul in Tokyo. The language was so different from anything we had encountered before that to begin with it seemed impossible. Working in pairs to help each other, we learned only to read the language - there was no need to be able to speak it convincingly. We practised on captured Japanese documents.

“At the end of six months' study we were split up among the different naval intelligence sections. Peter Laslett - my new boss - was a real enthusiast. We were reading, translating and interpreting very specific interceptions to do with codes, codebooks, keeping track of who held them, when they were used and changed. We passed on to the relevant people the information gleaned in what Peter christened `Japanese Cryptographic References'.

“The remarkable atmosphere at Bletchley Park, where rank had very little meaning and people from all walks of life worked together as a close team, made a deep and lasting impression on all the code-breakers. But it was often more like a university campus than a top-secret wartime establishment, Laslett recalled.

“Bletchley was a very informal place. It had the atmosphere of a mixture of Oxford and Cambridge High Table. We all had passes but the guards on the gate all knew us, so - although we did show our passes, as a matter of form - they would just wave us in because they knew who we were. Being a careless sort of a fellow, at one point I lost my pass. One of the girls working for me forged me a pass in the name of Rosie Smarty-Pants and for the rest of my time at Bletchley I went past the security gate each day as Rosie Smarty-Pants. It was all informal security. We trusted each other completely. The fact that it worked and the secret was kept for so long is, I think, one of the most remarkable things about Bletchley Park.

“Peter Laslett was posted to Washington, where he worked in the OP-20-G Communication Annex on Michigan Avenue and saw no sign of the disagreements over co-operation that had soured relations at senior levels.

“The American effort was much more substantial and much better supported. But they hadn't the same experience of codebreaking as some of the people at Bletchley Park so their facility of breaking it was not really commensurate with the effort they were putting in. My main job was to explain to the Americans how we did it. I heard rumours of bad relations at a higher level, but my relationships with the people actually attacking the codes were good. I was conscious that the Americans thought the British had made a right balls of the war and, of course, conversely, we thought the Americans had. But the use of our material was of less importance to us. We were only interested in rebuilding the book. If we could get a third of the code groups in a book recovered before it was changed that was what gave us satisfaction. A half was virtually impossible, but a third was good.

“Lacking any assurances over the future of their Emperor, the Japanese were never likely to surrender. At 8.15 on the morning of 6 August 1945, a B-29 bomber of the USAAF's 509th Composite Group dropped an atomic bomb on the south-western Japanese port of Hiroshima, flattening two-thirds of the city. Three days later a second bomb exploded over the port of Nagasaki, destroying the bulk of the city. Although the Allies put the number killed in the two attacks at around 120,000, Japanese sources have argued convincingly that it was double that number. Whatever the figure for those killed immediately, the appalling long-term effects of radiation on successive generations make it impossible to come to a final death toll. Peter Laslett recalled the events of August 1945:

“My most vivid memory of the whole war was sitting in the Annex on a hot Washington night and decoding this Japanese naval message reporting that the gensbi bakudan, the atomic bomb, had been dropped on Hiroshima. The Japanese had not referred to an atomic bomb in traffic before so I believe I was the first person to decode and translate the words that night. It was a terrible shock. As far as I recall, it didn't give any casualty figure but it must have given me some sort of evidence of the devastation. The sense of disaster was very clear.

“Even before the news that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima was officially announced, the messages arriving in Bletchley Park provided a frightening vision of what had happened, recalled Rosemary Calder. `I was on a day watch by myself and all this stuff came in and it was total gibberish,' she said. `I didn't know the bomb had been dropped but you could tell from the disruption of all the messages that something terrible had happened. You could just feel the people standing there screaming their heads off.'”

Family of Peter and Janet Laslett


GEORGE - born 12 October 1951, aviation engineer with British Aerospace.
ROBERT ALDEN - born 30 June 1954. Economist with the World Bank, Washington. In September 1987 he married Carol Bradford in the USA.