Peter Laslett

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Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett
Born(1915-12-18)December 18, 1915
DiedNovember 8, 2001(2001-11-08) (aged 85)
Resting placeWolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, Great Britain
Known forCo-founder of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure with Tony Wrigley (1964)
The World We Have Lost (1965)
A Fresh Map of Life (1989)
Scientific career
FieldsPolitical science, Political history, Social history, Anthropology
InstitutionsTrinity College, University of Cambridge

Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett CBE FBA (18 December 1915 – 8 November 2001) was an English historian.


Educated at the Watford Grammar School for Boys, Laslett studied history at St John's College, Cambridge in 1935 and graduated with a double first in 1938. During World War II he learned Japanese and worked at Bletchley Park and Washington decoding Japanese naval intelligence. It was at Bletchley Park that he met his future wife, Janet Crockett Clark, whom he married in 1947.

Returning to Cambridge in 1948 with a research fellowship at St John's College, Laslett edited Robert Filmer's political writings (Patriarcha and Other Political Writings, 1949). According to noted historian J.G.A. Pocock, it was with this work that Laslett provided the initial inspiration for the 'Cambridge School' of the history of political thought, the methods of which are now widely practised throughout the profession. Laslett combined such academic activity with a lifelong concern to engage a wider audience. He worked simultaneously as a BBC radio producer for the Third Programme. One product of this desire to reach a wider audience was his pathbreaking and highly-popular book The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age (1965; US edition, 1966), issued in a second edition in 1971 and in a retitled third revised edition, The World We Have Lost: Further Explored (1983; US edition, 1984). Simon Mitton credits Laslett with having launched in 1948 the radio broadcasting career of the astronomer Fred Hoyle.[1]

In 1953, Laslett was appointed a university lecturer in history at Cambridge, and was elected a fellow Trinity College in the same year. He continued work in the history of political theory, discovering Locke's library and demonstrating (against the accepted account) that John Locke's Two Treatises of Government had been written prior to the English "Glorious Revolution" of 1688–9, remarking that the "Two Treatises is an Exclusion Tract, not a Revolution Pamphlet."[2] Laslett published an edition of the treatises in 1960, subsequently reprinted many times, which is now recognised as the definitive account of these pillars of modern liberal democracy. From 1957 he founded and co-edited Philosophy, Politics and Society, a series of collections on political philosophy.

Laslett took up an entirely different line of historical research from the early 1960s. Trying to understand 17th-century listings of the inhabitants of Clayworth and Cogenhoe, Northamptonshire, he became persuaded of the need to pursue historical demography more systematically. In 1964, Laslett and Tony Wrigley co-founded the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. With funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Cambridge Group worked alongside amateur volunteers on local records, and established the journal Local Population Studies.

Laslett's practical reformism found an outlet from the 1960s in his efforts, together with Michael Young, to develop the Open University. In 1963 he ran a series of 5 programmes on Anglia Television, the "Dawn University", which attracted a great deal of attention although the funding had to wait two more years until Harold Wilson took up the idea.[3]

When told of his family history of Kent yeomen back to 1600 he looked it over and said "Good. Not a gentleman in 400 years."

Laslett was Reader in Politics and the History of Social Structure at Cambridge University (the title reflecting his own unusual mix of historical interests) from 1966 until retirement in 1983. At this point, his interests turned to the historical understanding and practical betterment of the elderly. Laslett played a pivotal role in founding the University of the Third Age in 1982.

He died in 2001, aged 85, and was interred at Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford, and was survived by his wife Janet, sons George and Robert, and grandchildren, Vivian, Alden and Claire. His fine library of early printed books by and about Filmer, Locke, and political thought (including political economy) was sold by Quaritch in 2006.

Laslett's headstone in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford


  • The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age (London, 1965; New York, 1966; 2nd ed., 1971, 3rd ed., 1984; re-issued and updated 2000)[4]
  • An Introduction to English Historical Demography: From the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (with David Edward Charles Eversley[5][6] and Edward Anthony Wrigley, London and New York, 1966)
  • Household and Family in Past Time (ed. with the assistance of Richard Wall,[7] Cambridge, 1972)
  • Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology (Cambridge, 1977)
  • Statistical Studies of Historical Social Structure (with Kenneth W. Wachter[8] and Eugene A. Hammel,[9] London, 1978)[10]
  • Bastardy and its Comparative History: Studies in the History of Illegitimacy and Marital Nonconformism (co-edited with Karla Oosterveen and Richard M. Smith, Cambridge, 1980)
  • The World We Have Lost: Further Explored (London, 1983; New York, 1984; 3rd ed., 2000, 4th ed., 2004)
  • Family Forms in Historic Europe (edited by Richard Wall in collaboration with Jean Robin, Cambridge, 1983)[11]
  • A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age (London, 1989; Cambridge, 1991; 2nd ed., 1996)
  • Justice Between Age Groups and Generations (co-edited with James S. Fishkin, New Haven and London, 1992)
  • Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Old Age (co-edited with David Kertzer, Berkeley, 1995)[12]

Also The World We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure, Essays presented to Peter Laslett on his seventieth birthday (edited by Lloyd Bonfield,[13] Richard M. Smith,[14] Keith Wrightson,[15] Oxford, 1996)[16]


  1. ^ Mitton, Simon, Fred Hoyle a life in science, p. 125, Aurum Press, 2005.
  2. ^ Laslett, "Introduction," in John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 61.
  3. ^ Briggs, Asa (1995). The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Volume V: Competition. p. 476. ISBN 9780192159649. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  4. ^ "Laslett: The World we have Lost — Faculty of History". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  5. ^ "Eversley, David Edward Charles : Overview". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  6. ^ "Obituary: David Eversley". The Independent. 13 July 1995. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  7. ^ "Richard Wall - A Tribute" (PDF). Continuity and Change. Cambridge University Press 2011. 26 (2): 139–147. 2011. doi:10.1017/S026841601100018X. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  8. ^ "Kenneth Wachter, Department of Demography, U.C. Berkeley". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 6 November 2018. Retrieved 5 November 2018.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ "ScienceDirect". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  11. ^ Wall, Richard (1983). Family Forms in Historic Europe by Richard Wall. Cambridge Core. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511897535. ISBN 9780511897535. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  12. ^ "Aging in the Past". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  13. ^ "Lloyd Bonfield - Full-Time - Faculty". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  14. ^ "Department of Geography, Cambridge » Richard Smith". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  15. ^ "Keith Wrightson - Department of History". Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  16. ^ Bonfield, Lloyd; Smith, Richard M.; Wrightson, Keith (15 January 1986). The World We Have Gained. Retrieved 15 January 2019 – via Internet Archive.