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Professor Justin Champion

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Professor Justin Champion

In Memoriam

On the 10th June 2020 Professor Justin Champion passed away. On this page we have gathered some of the thoughts and outpourings of love for one of the leaders in our field.

"These words are so very hard to write and I know will be deeply upsetting to all of you. Justin was the very best of us. He was brilliant: a man of such intellect but so too such passion for his research, his students, his friends and colleagues and, of course his family. He was belligerent, determined, animated by injustice and always committed to the power of education to change and empower. He was the beating heart of our department for so many years and tonight we all share in a deep collective grief."

Dr Anna Whitelock 

"Justin was truly the best. A beacon of light in our College and academia. He will be deeply missed."

Dr Charalambos Dendrinos

"I was very saddened to hear of Justin’s passing earlier in the week. He was a huge figure in the College, as well as the department. So much of what we have today in the College is as a result of his ideas and energy.

When I was Dean I always thought of him as a ‘scrum half’ of the faculty: waiting at any departmental or faculty meeting until I had finished introducing an item and then jumping in straight off for a bit of intellectual wrestling. Justin always spoke with passion and drove to the heart of the principles of the item we were debating. And once he had the ball I knew I had pretty much lost!

Privately, of course, he was a very different person. Running into him in the SCR was always a pleasure and I particularly remember him having lunch with me and my son there. Justin was delighted to know Oli was enjoying history at school and told him about many things. He took the trouble to find me the following day with a Historical Association badge for Oli to wear, telling him that was the mark of a true historian!"

Prof Katie Normington

"While I was never fortunate enough to talk to him, I owe a great deal to Justin for where I am today. When he visited my sixth form (Peter Symonds) to give a speech on the English Civil War I had not so much as heard of Royal Holloway, let alone consider it as a place I might do my degree. However, I found his speech so incredibly captivating, his depth of knowledge and the simplicity with which he conveyed his ideas was really special and made me totally reconsider an A-Level module that I had found relatively boring up until that point ( at least compared to the tumult of the French Revolution).

This intervention of such eventually resulted in me applying to Royal Holloway where I have been fortunate enough to receive the “Childs Family Future Leader” scholarship, something which has made an absolutely huge difference to me. I have enjoyed a really amazing first year at RHUL (even despite Covid) and have enjoyed all my modules so much that it very rarely feels like work. The freedom I have received to explore ideas which wouldn’t even be considered at A-Level as well as the ability to study history over such broad periods of time has proved incredibly stimulating. For this I’d like to thank you for organizing the department that I have found so brilliant this year and also to Justin for pointing me towards it."

Harry Thomas

"Justin was one of nature’s gentlemen, humane, courteous, and above all kind.  In all he did his kindness was to the fore." [He was also] "a passionate cricket fan, who was always ready to go to a test match, to listen half the night to cricket commentary from Australia, and played regularly for the College staff side, relishing the opportunity that matches against local teams gave him to mix with South Asians and eat their food.  In later life he greatly enjoyed playing tennis at the Englefield Green Club. There was also a period, when his daughter, Alice, was a serious footballer, when he coached one of the Abbey Rangers’ women’s teams. Justin loved music and loud tunes could regularly be heard blaring out of his office .  Justin was naturally sceptical of authority, and as a good C17th historian enjoyed the achievements of the Levellers, and not least when some modern Levellers set up camp in Cooper’s Hill woods above Runnymede!"

Prof Francis Robinson

"As President of the Historical Association, he made it an absolute priority to push hard in support of Black history and he lobbied passionately to raise awareness of the desperate need for more Black historians, both in schools and in universities.  At a time when white people are being reminded of the importance of ‘productive’ rather than ‘performative’ ally-ship, Justin undoubtedly epitomised the former.  He called out injustice and inequality for what it was – 100% unacceptable – no messing about!

This clip of him speaking in Black History Month sums that up!

In 2018 when Justin was awarded the Medlicott Medal, he gave a powerful lecture entitled ‘Defacing the Past or Resisting Oppression?, in which he discussed removing or altering statues as well as the place of public art depicting controversial historical figures and past deeds. As the HA later put it, his talk took his audience on a tour of statues from those that had been defaced to others that had been updated, all “with the aim of exploring what the past and its physical representations can mean to current societies.  [As Professor Ansari writes] I can only imagine that Justin in other circumstances would have contributed forcefully to these current debates, willing us on to be actively engaged, to put our money where our mouth is!"

Prof Sarah Ansari

“The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple definitions for the word ‘champion’. One is ‘To fight for; to defend or protect’; another is ‘To maintain the cause of, stand up for, uphold, support, back, defend, advocate’. Justin Champion embodied all the facets of his surname and more. For hundreds of students at Royal Holloway over the years he was an inspiration, albeit a leonine and at times eccentric one. I am one of the lucky few fortunate enough to have him as a supervisor, and I count that as one of my greatest blessings. I owe him everything.

The word genius is thrown around a great deal in modern life, but it can be applied without hesitation to Justin. I never knew him before his diagnosis and that is a matter of deep regret for me. He used to apologise for the cancer slowing his brain down, but if the Justin I knew was the slowed down version then the full strength Justin must have been a typhoon. Ever since we met in 2014 when I started my MA he was the first person I would share my discoveries with, and the first person I would turn to with questions or problems. He would celebrate my discoveries, answer my questions, tell me to stop being so stupid when I began to doubt myself, and be my greatest advocate and cheerleader. Justin gave me the freedom to pursue whatever strand of research I wanted to, offering nothing but encouragement, enthusiasm, and positivity, no matter what bizarre ideas I came up with. Everyone who knew Justin can attest to his kindness, dedication, and genuine love for history. He was truly one of a kind, and he blessed the lives of so many people who will always be grateful to have known him.

Nobody on earth deserves to face the health problems Justin had to endure over the last few years, and him least of all. A phrase I’ve uttered a great deal when talking about him recently is ‘It’s just so desperately unfair’. But no matter what he was going through he never wavered in his determination to keep working, desperate to finish his epic text on Hobbes. Even that book’s completion didn’t mark the end of his work, and he launched straight into his next project. He leaves behind him an enormous body of work, and the fields of early modern religion and political thought have benefitted greatly from his scholarship.

I can’t imagine what my life would have been like with a different supervisor, and I’m deeply grateful to have had his unwavering support and guidance during the difficult years of my MA and PhD. Now I have to learn how to move forward without him at my side, but I know that his spirit will always be with me. I miss him desperately and right now adjusting to life without him seems almost impossible. He has been taken from us far too soon, but we can all take comfort in the knowledge that his suffering is over. Rest now, my dear friend. Your memory will live on in the hearts of everyone who loved you.”

Dr Charlotte Young

It goes without saying, but there are some tasks in life that are much easier than others. As writers, we are all too aware of the difficulties of committing words to paper, and these struggles are exacerbated when faced with the task on reflecting on the life of your friend and supervisor. To put it simply, it’s impossible to summarise the impact that Justin had on my academic and personal life. No words that I write at this point will ever be enough; seem fitting and suitable; or indeed do Professor Justin Champion justice. But here goes.

I first arrived at Royal Holloway in September 2007 and Justin was at that time Head of Department. He was famed for his luscious golden locks and revered for his engaging lectures, filling Monday 9am lectures with consummate ease. Students were there because they wanted to be; everyone knew they were witnessing a master of his craft at work. However, Justin was not just master of one craft, confined by either the boundaries of historic periodisation or limited to one medium of communication. He could do it all: an exemplary model of the 21st century historian.  

Justin will forever be remembered for his ability to make the most complex sound extremely simple. Whether it was through his written prose or during conversation, Justin was engaging and inspiring in equal measure. When Justin spoke on any historical subject, his enthusiasm and passion for his subject was infectious and I can only begin to imagine the sheer number of people he inspired throughout his life.

As one of his PhD students, I can say he was without doubt one of the best. Every time I met with Justin to talk about my work, I left with renewed energy and enthusiasm, a sense of purpose, and belief. Whenever Justin told me that he enjoyed reading my work, I could barely contain my excitement. I’d sit there beaming with pride because Justin was a SERIOUSLY good historian, thinking to myself that ‘if he thought it was good, it must have been.’  Sometimes it was these levels of reassurance that kept me going - even just knowing he believed in me and thought I would succeed was enough. He was always inspiring, supportive, and encouraging. He was also a reassuring presence and voice during the tougher times of writing a PhD. But, most importantly, he was always there – either in his office listening to his music or at the end of an email – always up for a chat and prepared to talk through ideas regardless of how developed they were.  I don’t think it will ever feel normal not to see Justin around the History Department or knock on his door and say hello – he was almost a permanent fixture of the Department and central to its culture.  We have all lost a brilliant historian, colleague, and friend. Justin’s life is one we should look to celebrate for its many positives. Strong and principled; remarkable and kind; intelligent and creative – the superlatives could go on and on. I will always be proud and fortunate to call Professor Justin Champion my supervisor and friend. May you forever rest in peace. “

Steven Franklin


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