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Analysis
Humane and erudite scholar

Humane and erudite scholar

Dick Roberts remembered

by David Marsh in London

Tue 19 Dec 2017

Richard 'Dick' Roberts, Professor of Contemporary History at King's College London, was a byword for academic excellence, but was also universally admired for his benevolence and good humour. A long-standing member of the OMFIF advisory board, he was author of two well-received OMFIF Press books. The latest, Six Days in September, the story of Britain's 1992 departure from the European exchange rate mechanism, co-written with myself and William Keegan, was published only three months ago. The previous book, When Britain Went Bust, an account of the 1976 sterling crisis, was launched in December 2016 at the UK Treasury in the presence of Johannes Witteveen, the former IMF managing director who played a leading role in the episode.

Dick's untimely death on 16 December was all the more poignant since he attended the OMFIF Christmas party in London the previous evening, made a characteristically witty and generous speech and joined in some individualistically boisterous singing. He was due to become the placement scheme coordinator for King's College students and OMFIF. We were discussing, just a few days before, another book project.

Lord (Nick) Macpherson, former permanent secretary at the Treasury, summed up his prowess: 'Dick was a brilliant economic historian. He had an uncanny ability to make the past come alive, providing many a lesson to modern policymakers. His work on the 1914 banking crisis and on the Geddes Axe of the early 1920s [an austerity drive under Sir Eric Geddes] was essential reading for Treasury officials.'

Sarah Butler from OMFIF's development team, who worked closely with Dick on his last two books, said, 'Dick was an intrinsically kind man who always entered the office with a smile on his face. Dick has left a tremendous legacy, not only for his work in financial history but with his constant encouragement towards others to be the best that they could be.'

David Kynaston, another well-known economic historian and author, said, 'On and off, Dick and I collaborated on books and projects for almost a quarter of a century, culminating in our major history of HSBC. Professionally, I valued his analytical skills, his calm judgement and his ability to work his way patiently through to the resolution of almost any historical problem; personally, we enjoyed each other's sense of humour, and I am going to miss badly his thoughtfulness, generosity and wonderful flair for making the very most of life.'

'Dick was an enthusiastic member of the Political Economy Club,' said City economist Charles Dumas, the club's secretary. 'His deep knowledge of past financial crises has been a revelation at our meetings.' He had been due to apply his historical expertise to the commemoration of the club's bicentenary in 2021.

William Keegan remembers Dick as 'the perfect co-author. There were no disputes, no crossed lines. My younger daughters, both undergraduates, relished the way that, after the launch of the 1992 book at the British Academy, they met Dick over a drink and he gave them mischievous advice on how to handle academics.'

Dick graduated from University College London with first class honours in history and then wrote his doctorate in economic history at Cambridge and held research fellowships at Downing College, Cambridge and Princeton University. He worked for oil company BP for several years before joining the faculty at Sussex University. In 2003 he held the Houblon-Norman-George visitor fellowship at the Bank of England. He joined the then Centre for Contemporary British History as Director in 2007, located at the Institute of Historical Research, prior to its move to King's.

Dick's achievements as one of Britain’s foremost economic historians are demonstrated by his range of publications. His history of City investment bank Schroders was published in 1992 and of consortium bank Orion in 2001. His contemporary books include Wall Street (2002) and The City (2008) Other collaborations with Kynaston included conferences and publications to mark the 300th anniversary of the Bank of England (1994), the abolition of UK exchange controls (1999) and the co-authored book City State (2003). Other publications include Did Anyone Learn Anything from Equitable Life? Lessons and learning from financial crises (2012), Saving the City: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 (2013), and The Media and Financial Crises: Comparative and Historical Perspectives (2014). Dick was co-convenor of the Monetary History Group and the University of London research seminar in Contemporary British History. He was a trustee of the Baring Archive and an advisory panel member pf the Calouste Gulbenkian Biography Project at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.

This most erudite and humane man will be badly missed by many. All of us offer our deepest condolences to his widow Sarah and his two young daughters Lily and Nancy.

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