Joan Thirsk

Joan Thirsk
Irene Joan Watkins

(1922-06-19)19 June 1922
Died3 October 2013(2013-10-03) (aged 91)[1]
Other namesIrene Joan Thirsk
Alma materOxford University
OccupationAuthor, historian, academic, cryptologist

Irene Joan Thirsk, CBE, FBA, FRHistS (née Watkins; 19 June 1922 – 3 October 2013[1]) was a British economic and social historian, specialising in the history of agriculture.[2] She was one of the leading economic and social historians of the 20th century, greatly influencing the methodology and direction of research. Her most prominent contribution was to pioneer the use of local manuscripts as a source.


During the Second World War Joan Watkins worked as an intelligence analyst at Bletchley Park, providing information that assisted Hut 6 in the breaking of the Enigma ciphers and added substantially to the substance of the subsequent intelligence reports. She worked in the Sixta traffic analysis group alongside her future husband Jimmy (30 May 1914 - 2 June 2018).[3][4] Jimmy and Joan married in September 1945 and moved to London, where Jimmy returned to his job as a librarian, initially in Hornsey, north London, and Joan resumed her studies. When Jimmy retired in 1974, they moved first to Oxford, and then, on her retirement, to Hadlow in Kent.[3]

Her academic career began with assistant lectureship in sociology at the London School of Economics. She was later senior research fellow at the University of Leicester from 1951 to 1965, and reader in economic history at Oxford University between 1965 and 1983. She was the editor of The Agrarian History of England and Wales (for volumes 4–6) from 1964 to 1972 and in 1974 was appointed general editor of the series.[5]

She sat on the editorial board of Past & Present from 1957 to 1992. She was appointed a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 1974 and made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1993.[6]

In 2017, she featured in a conference, London's Women Historians, held at the Institute of Historical Research.[7]

Food history[edit]

Although best known for her agrarian history, Joan Thirsk also had a strong interest in food history, especially in her later years. In 1995 she gave a paper on preserving food to the Leeds Symposium on the History of Food which was subsequently published.[8] She advised on the curation of an exhibition: Fooles and Fricasees: Food in Shakespeare’s England at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1999,[9] contributing an essay: Food in Shakespeare’s England to the catalogue. Her thought- provoking book Alternative Agriculture (1997)[10] considered the demand for food in England but her fully-fledged ideas on food history formed the subject of her last major work Food in Early Modern England Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760.[11] In this book Thirsk surveys the history of English food chronologically, taking information from scientific writers, cookery books, household accounts, and the food of the poor, followed by thematic sections looking closer at regional diets and individual foods. Throughout she tries to consider the diet of all social classes and is intent on dispelling the myth that the food of the bulk of the population at this time was dull and monotonous. Indeed, she argues the opposite- the range of plants and animals eaten at this time was much greater than commonly available today. The poor were diligent in gathering wild herbs and plants and at all levels of society food was discussed and appreciated.

Her interest in food history was long evident at a personal level. She baked her own bread and a colleague recalls going to dinner with her in the 1970s and being served barley rolls with the soup- she wanted to see how palatable was pure barley bread (the stable food of many in sixteenth-century Southern England). All at dinner agreed that it was hard and difficult to eat!


  • The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Volume IV: 1500-1640 (editor); volume V: 1640-1750 (editor). In 1974 she was appointed general editor of the series.[5]
  • Economic Policy and Projects: Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (1978) Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Hadlow Castle, a Short History. Hadlow: Hadlow Historical Society. 1985. ISBN 0-9510425-0-5.
  • Hadlow: Life, Land and People in a Wealden Parish 1460 ~ 1600. Maidstone: Kent Archaeological Society. 2007. ISBN 978 0 906746 70 7.
  • Bibliography

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Joan THIRSK Obituary: View Joan THIRSK's Obituary by The Times". 3 October 2013. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  2. ^ Dyer, Christopher (15 October 2013). "Joan Thirsk obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 June 2017.
  3. ^ a b James Thirsk, Bletchley Park: An Inmate's Story, M & M Baldwin, Cleobury Mortimer, 2012
  4. ^ "Obituary of Jimmy Thirsk". The Guardian. 11 June 2018.
  5. ^ a b Christine S. Hallas, bio entry in Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (edited by Kelly Boyd) pp. 1184-85
  6. ^ Reisz, Matthew (17 October 2013). "Joan Thirsk, 1922-2013". THE.
  7. ^ London's Women Historians. Laura Carter & Alana Harris, Institute of Historical Research, 2017. Retrieved 28 September 2019.
  8. ^ Wilson, C. Anne (1997). The Country House Kitchen Garden. Sutton/National Trust.
  9. ^ Fooles and Fricasees: Food in Shakespeare’s England. Folger Library. 1999.
  10. ^ Thirsk, Joan (1997). Alternative Agriculture. OUP.
  11. ^ Thirsk, Joan (2007). Food in Early Modern England Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760. Continuum.


External links[edit]