John Saville (christened Orestes Stamatopoulos), was born near Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, on 2 April 1916. His parents were Orestes Stamatopoulos, a well-born Greek Engineer who had been attached to a Lincolnshire engineering firm, and Edith Vessey, a working class Lincolnshire girl. Shortly after Saville's birth, his father was called back to Greece for military service and was subsequently killed during the war. Edith went to London to find work and Saville was placed with a Mrs Allison in Gainsborough until he was four. He was then sent to live for a year with his mother's unmarried sister, Lily Vessey, in Ayot St Lawrence [U DJS/2/1/29]. At the end of this year Edith gained a housekeeping position in Romford, Essex, with a widowed tailor by the name of Alfred Saville, and his daughter Eileen [U DJS/1/29]. Saville came to live in with Edith, who would later marry Alfred. Eileen, who was 15 months older than Saville, would later marry Francois Lafitte and the step-siblings would stay in touch throughout their lives.
Saville attended Romford Grammar School and won a scholarship to study at Royal Liberty School, London. He then won another scholarship to study at London School of Economics in 1934, and graduated in summer 1937 with a First in Economics, with a specialism in economic geography. At school Saville was known as 'Stama', then 'Comrade Stam' during his time at LSE. Although he legally changed his name to John Saville towards the end of his LSE days, friends and acquaintances from school and university continued to refer to him in this way throughout his life [U DJS/1/84].
It was during his time at LSE that Saville first became officially involved in politics. He was taught by left-wing academic Harold Laski at a time when LSE was a major centre for student Communism [U DJS/1/30, U DJS/1/54, U DJS/3/26]. Saville joined the university's Socialist Society in his first weeks, and two months later he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain [U DJS/1/84]. His first political demonstration was a march against Mosley in the East End of London. By his second year, he was student Communist organiser and it was through his student activism that he met Constance Saunders in October 1937, a fellow member of the CPGB, whom he would go on to marry in 1943 [U DJS/1/14, U DJS/2/1/15-16]. Whilst Saville remained a member of the party until the Hungarian incident of 1956, Constance resigned her membership earlier over the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. During his time at LSE he became friends with various people, including Jean Floud (nee Macdonald), James Jefferys, Teddy Praeger and Manuel Azcarate. He was also introduced to Mohan Kumaramangalam who was then at Cambridge University [U DJS/1/44].
After graduating, he worked briefly as a supply teacher and undertook voluntary work with the Union of Democratic Control on their China Solidarity Campaign. His work for the UDC came at the request of the organisation's then secretary Dorothy Woodman, and as part of this work he gave lectures on China and Japanese aggression to Left Book Club audiences. Not suited to supply teaching, Saville found alternative employment with the Dictaphone Company where he worked for most of 1938. This allowed him and Constance to move into a shared flat in Lambs Conduit Street, London. During this time he made contacts within the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM), including the London Secretary Don Renton [U DJS/1/59a]. He took part in the Hyde Park demonstration and the December 1938 Oxford Circus lie-down, during which he provided false information of 'communist disturbances' to keep police away from the area of the lie-down. Saville left the Dictaphone Company in January 1939 and was appointed as a research economist by British Home Stores. During his time at BHS he travelled around stores undertaking various roles so that he had a full understanding of the business, before going back to headquarters in January 1940.
He was called up in April 1940 and spent the war as an anti-aircraft gunner, gunnery sergeant major instructor and regimental sergeant major. He began his service at Arborfield in Berkshire where he received training until the end of July 1940. He was then sent to a firing camp at Bude in North Cornwall until end August 1940. From there he was sent then to Liverpool where he remained until May 1941 when he was posted to various places in the Midlands. In the middle of 1942 he was assigned a new unit and was posted successively to Blandford in Dorset, Borstall and then the Shetlands in July 1942 for a year. On leaving the Shetlands, he was sent to Manorbier in South Wales where he stayed for c.3 months training as a gunnery instructor before being sent to Woolwich to await posting. For the rest of the war he was posted to various places in Britain as an instructor. Six weeks after D-Day, he was posted to India, setting out from Liverpool to Bombay, and served the rest of his time in Karachi. He was eventually demobilised in 1946. It is worth noting that, against the policy of the Communist Party, he refused commission as an officer on a number of occasions, believing his place to be amongst the ordinary soldiery. It was during these experiences that he became more sharply aware of the extreme class and racial divisions extant in British society [J. Saville, Autobiography].
Whilst in Bombay he sought out Mohan Kumaramangalam, and through him was introduced to P.C. Joshi and Nehru at the headquarters of the Indian Communist Party in Bombay. Kumaramangalam and Saville became very close whilst in India and corresponded regularly. He also met John Maclean who passed him onto J.J. Anjaria (who Saville had known vaguely in the LSE days), who then passed him on to C.N. Vakil. In Karachi met various Muslim Leaguers, including Hatim Alavi and his nephew Hamza Alavi, the Mallik family, and the Karachi Communist Party Secretary Bukhari. Bukhari put him in touch with British Communists in the RAF's Drigh Road camp, and Saville regularly attended their discussion meetings, even speaking for them on British intervention in Greece in March 1945. During a period of leave he met Anant and Kamala Kamat in Poona at the Communist Party Commune, and was invited to spend time in Bombay at the Mission with John and Agnes Maclean. Whilst on leave he accompanied Agnes on her various visits, worked for at the Party Commune, and wrote at least two pamphlets under the name J. Stammers. He also undertook editorial work for People's War, gave lectures at the Party Commune, organised schools, spoke with Communist Party Congress people, and attended seminars at Bombay School of Economics. His final days in India saw the beginnings of what would become known as the Drigh Road RAF Mutiny, led by Arthur Attwood, and involving David Duncan and Ernie Margetts. Saville, whilst not directly involved at Drigh Road, was involved with the Forces Parliament at Deolali along with Mervyn Jones and Bert Ramelson. Attwood's arrest did not take place until after Saville arrived back in Britain, and so from there he and Michael Carritt helped to initiate a successful Attwood Defence Campaign with D.N. Pritt acting as a civil liberties lawyer [U DJS/1/58]. Incidentally, Saville kept up a regular correspondence with Constance and others whilst stationed in India in which he discusses much of his political activity [U DJS/1/44, U DJS/2/1/16, U DJS/5/14-15]. Also, it was during the voyage home on-board a demobilization troopship in 1946 that Saville began writing notes of his time in the army which would help inform his memoirs.
Once demobilized, Saville worked in the Chief Scientific Division (Economics Section) of the Ministry of Works, where Jacob Bronowski was then head of the Statistical Section. Looking for other work, Saville heard that Ian Bowen (a colleague of James Jefferys at National Institute) had just been appointed Chair of Economics at Hull and required an economic historian. He was invited to interview on a Friday in May 1947 and was offered a job on the following Tuesday. A few months later he moved to Hull, initially without Constance and their child who would join him a year later, and found himself working in one of the temporary Nissan huts then in use at the university [U DJS/1/38]. This first year was spent getting to grips with his new teaching responsibilities, and it wasn't until his second year that he again became politically active.
Within the university he undertook a campaign in 1948 to improve library provisions by circulating a memorandum signed by himself, a lawyer, and a physicist. The result of this campaign was the formation of the Lecturing and Administrative Staff Association, or LASA (initially referred to as the Lecturing Staff Association), and Saville would go on to chair the group in 1960 [U DJS/1/39-40]. A decade later, Saville alongside John Griffith was to form the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy (CAFD), which organisation fought on behalf of those within the university system who were experiencing problems of censorship or maltreatment because of intellectual stances [U DJS/1/11, U DJS/2/1/45, U DJS/3/23, U DJS/4/5]. CAFD's first case was that of Anthony Arblaster in late October 1970, and the organisation was initially formed under a membership arrangement with the National Council for Civil Liberties. Saville was to be involved with CAFD for the next twenty years and served as chairman. Towards the end of the 1980s the organisation began to wither and was succeeded by CAFAS in 1994 with John Griffith continuing to be involved.
Soon after settling in to his new teaching role at the university he took on responsibility for a Hull branch of the British Soviet Friendship Society, organising monthly meetings for nine years during the 1950s [U DJS/1/9, U DJS/4/3]. He ran a series of summer speakers' classes for trade unionists and militant workers over six consecutive years, and he also taught classes for working class mature students in Hull. He now joined the local branch of the Communist Party, delivering the Daily Worker on a Saturday for 6 years. Whilst no longer a member of the Communist Party, Constance undertook to collect money for the Daily Worker in Hull, and they both ran a stall at the annual Christmas bazaar. In addition, Saville took a miners' school for the Communist Party (North East District) a couple of times a year in Durham and Northumberland. When the Communist Party Historians' Group was established, Saville was amongst the earliest members and was, along with Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most active members of the group's 19th century section [U DJS/1/13]. Other members of the group included George Rude, Victor Kiernan, Christopher Hill, Takahashi, Dona Torr, Leslie Morton, and George Hardy. When the group was later succeeded by the Socialist History Society after the collapse of the Communist Party, Saville became an editor of its journal 'Socialist History' along with Victor Kiernan and Brian Pearce. 'Books to be remembered' were Saville's regular contributions, and some of his final writings.
He remained an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until November 1956, but following the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union he broke from the Party line [U DJS/1/43]. Disillusioned with the leadership in Britain and their attempts to stifle discussion around the implications of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' at the 20th Party Congress, Saville and fellow Party member and historian E.P. Thompson compiled and published a discussion journal under the title 'The Reasoner' in July 1956. Around 650 copies were printed and circulated. Saville credits a letter dated 4th April from Thompson to Saville as the beginning of their collaboration on The Reasoner which provoked letters of support from Party personalities such as Lawrence Daly, Hymie Levy, Doris Lessing and Malcolm MacEwen. Although Saville and Thompson had no intention of leaving the Party at this time and merely wanted to encourage open discussion, the leadership requested they cease publication. A second issue of The Reasoner was already awaiting publication and this appeared in September provoking greater support from personalities such as Doris Lessing and Ronald Meek. Incidentally, Meek showed his support by sending the editors a copy of his 'The Rhyming Reasoner' published in September 1956, and containing poetic versions of The Reasoner's political problems (a second and final issue would appear in November 1956). A third issue of The Reasoner was published in October 1956 with no sign that the Party line was changing, and Saville and Thompson resigned their membership in November under threat of expulsion. Many members left at this time, and it is commonly agreed that this represents the beginnings of what came to be known as the British 'New Left'. Once outside of the Party, Saville and Thompson felt there was a need to encourage this natal movement and they began publishing a quarterly discussion journal under the title 'The New Reasoner'. Between 1957 and 1959 10 issues were published, and contributors included Saville, Thompson, Hyman Levy, Peter Worsley, Eric Hobsbawm, Tibor Dery, Adam Waszyk, Tom McGrath, Malcolm MacEwan, and Peter Fryer. The editorial board consisted of Saville, Thompson, Ken Alexander, Randall Swingler, Doris Lessing, Ronald Meek, Alfred Dressler, D.C. Arnott, Peter Worsley, Michael Barratt-Brown, Mervyn Jones and Ralph Miliband. In parallel to The New Reasoner, Raphael Samuel and others at Oxford University had been publishing the Universities and Left Review since 1957 [U DJS/1/60-73]. By 1959 it was felt that the two wings of the British New Left should join forces, and the NR and the ULR were merged to form the New Left Review 1959/60 [U DJS/1/61, U DJS/1/63, U DJS/1/67, U DJS/1/72-76]. By April 1963 Saville, Thompson and Miliband recognised that the new journal no longer represented the original aims and intentions of The New Reasoner. Miliband proposed the establishment of an annual collection of essays which would eventually be published by Merlin Press as the 'Socialist Register'. Whilst Thompson declined to take on more editorial work, Saville was keen and the partnership between himself and Miliband lasted 23 years before the job of editing the Register was passed on to younger blood [U DJS/1/94-112].
In spite of resigning his membership of the Communist Party, Saville remained a committed Marxist throughout his life, never joining the Labour Party unlike a number of his contemporaries. He continued to be politically active, and during the 1959 General Election, he and E.P. Thompson provided financial and practical support for the Fife Socialist League's Lawrence Daly as an independent candidate [U DJS/1/27]. It appears that the secret service were watching Saville, as in 1959 he made friends with a young student by the name of Harry Newton. Newton was welcomed into Saville's political and family circles, but would later turn out to be an alleged MI5 agent. In the summer of 1963 Saville became heavily involved in Hull's 'Lister Street' incident, sparked by an awareness that poor tenants of Lister Street were then living in squalid conditions which their landlords were unwilling to do anything about. The incident resulted in a successful student sit-in lasting 48 hours in late October. In addition to covering the night watch during the sit-in, Saville was active in interviewing tenants of Lister Street and in making their plight known through the local press [U DJS/1/53]. He was also involved in the National Union of Seamen's strike in May 1966, when he helped the local strike committee in Hull, and for three or four nights went out to the pickets along the docks in Hull. During the 1984 Miners' Strike Saville spoke on a dozen university campuses, collected money for the Yorkshire miners and their families, and appeared on a BBC lunch time TV discussion show with Robert Maxwell and Arthur Scargill [U DJS/1/57]. As we have seen, much of Saville's political writings were concentrated in the Reasoner and New Reasoner, and from 1964 most of his efforts to this end were published in the Socialist Register.
Saville spent his whole academic career at Hull, firstly as a lecturer in economics, then as a professor of economic history from 1973. He served as Dean of the Department of Economics, undertook supervision of many postgraduate students, and retired in 1982. During his employment at the university he was closely involved with the Library Committee, through which he came to know Philip Larkin very well [U DJS/1/33, U DJS/2/1/70]. He was responsible for attracting a number of high profile archival collections to the University Archives, including the papers of Jock Haston, the NCCL archive, letters between Harold Laski and Frida Laski, the Granville Eastwood collection, the papers of the UDC, and illustrated letters of Victor Weisz. These collections were usually referred to by Saville as 'Hull's Labour Archive', and now form the nucleus of the Hull University Archives' political collections [Larkin Memorial Series No.2 The Hull Labour Archive]. He was active in his teaching and advisory role and served as external examiner and academic advisor to various universities, funding bodies and publishers. In 1958 he helped establish the Society for the Study of Labour History [U DJS/1/113-117, U DJS/4/4]. He was a member of the Social Sciences Research Council throughout the 1960s and, when it was succeeded by the Economic and Social History Council, he was asked to join the committee in 1972 and served as chairman for the final two years of his membership until 1979 [U DJS/1/91-93]. He helped establish the Oral History Society in the late 1960s and served as its first chairman for several years from 1973 [U DJS/1/81-83]. He also chaired the Labour History Society for a number of years.
In autumn 1982 Saville retired from the University of Hull, although he was granted an office at the university in order to continue publication of the Dictionary of Labour Biography [U DJS/1/21, U DJS/1/91]. This was a project having origins in the gifting of G.D.H. Cole's research to Saville by Margaret Cole on the death of her husband. Cole had begun to compile volumes containing lists of names and biographical details of members of the Labour movement stretching back to its earliest days in the 1790s. It had been Cole's intention to publish a labour dictionary covering the whole period of the movement's history. Saville inherited this project and the first volume was eventually published 1972. It was to be one of the outstanding achievements in the careers of Saville and his co-editor Dr Joyce Bellamy. Funding for the project was initially granted by the Institute of Social History at Amsterdam, and subsequently received from the SSRC. Throughout his academic career Saville was considered to be a first rate scholar of Labour history. Early in his career he published a broadside with Margot Heinemann under the title 'The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse'. Before leaving the Communist Party he also edited a collection of essays in honour of Dona Torr titled 'Democracy and the Labour Movement (1954) [U DJS/1/80]. In 1957 his first major historical study, Rural Depopulation in England and Wales, was published, and over the next two decades he edited three volumes of 'Essays in Labour History' with Asa Briggs (1960, 1971, 1977) [U DJS/1/24-25]. Following his retirement, Saville produced two major pieces of work, the first was his '1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement' (1987), and this was followed by 'The Politics of Continuity: British Foreign Policy and the Labour Government 1945-1946' in 1993. Saville had always undertaken a large number of speaking engagements [U DJS/1/16], and following his retirement this continued with a speaking tour of various Australian educational institutions, and a later visit to India where he was invited to give a lecture at the Nehru Memorial Library by the Indian Historical Institute in Delhi. Whilst in India he also spent time at the University of Calcutta.
His 'Memoirs from the Left', started on a troopship whilst being demobilized in 1946, were completed and published in 2003. His life-long partner, Constance, died in 2007 and Saville himself passed away on 13 June 2009. Saville and Constance had three sons, Graham John, Richard Vessey and Ralph James, and a daughter, Jane Katharine, who gave them two granddaughters, Helen and Emma.