Remembering Peter Rushton

peter rushton
Peter Rushton.

As I write this I am sat in my garden in Walker, Newcastle. The sun is shining and I am  listening to the birds in the surrounding trees. Normally this would be a blissful Spring afternoon, but I have just had my daily dose of increasingly awful news from the outside world and am left with the stark reminder that there is a tragedy unfolding outside all of our front doors.

I was informed earlier today that my remarkable, ebullient PhD Supervisor, Professor Peter Rushton (or ‘Pete’ as he preferred), had very sadly died. At a time where funerals are restricted and life is not as we know it, it seems criminal for his life to go unremarked upon. In better times he would have been praised by many colleagues and publicly mourned by lots of thankful Sunderland University students to whom he dedicated over four decades of his life. I only knew him for five of them, but he had a profound effect on my life and I feel it would be remiss to not record my gratitude in memory of the man. I hope in time people will be able to do this together, in celebration of a life well-lived and in service of others.

I first met Pete when I had the hare-brained scheme of applying for a PhD scholarship. Having spent ten years in TV production I was in no way qualified for the position, but knew I wanted to return to study and knew that Pete’s interests in criminal law (particularly in the c18th and c19th matched mine). I emailed on the off chance that he might be interested in supervising a PhD on the last dying words of the executed in the North East of England and, to be honest, I never expected to hear back. To my surprise Pete did reply and said to give him a call and before I knew it a meeting was set for the following week.

As I entered the canteen of the Priestman Building, St Peter’s Campus – Sunderland University, I remember seeing Pete from a distance and instantly being intimidated as he looked every inch the academic and in that moment I felt every inch the idiot chancer. I needn’t have worried though, as from the off Pete was warm, ebullient and a great listener and conversationalist. He was also something of a maverick. After calmly taking in everything I had said about why I wanted to do the PhD and what my thoughts were on how he would be a great fit for supervisor, he looked at me and asked me whether I knew what a ziggurat was. I didn’t, but in a moment of blind panic I replied yes, fearing that to not know would expose me as an idiot and unworthy of the PhD I was asking him to supervise. He then proceeded to discuss them in great length and when he had finished, he said, ‘I think this will work well, so get an application drafted and we’ll take it from there.’ I left the meeting delighted and dazed at the same time and spent the rest of the metro journey home googling ziggurats and trying to figure out how, in any way, they related to executions.  They don’t.

In reflecting on the story though it made me remember what was truly great about Pete. He was a lover of knowledge, and he had a great way of giving you the benefit of the doubt – always treating you as an equal, whilst simultaneously making you aware that there were so many things you didn’t know and could still learn. More than anything he was just an enjoyable person to be around and made the arduous process of the PhD immeasurably more bearable.

The last time we spoke it was to confirm that he’d received a gift I sent him, to thank him for all his work in getting me through my Doctorate (finally achieved in December last year). As is often the case with University’s labyrinthine internal mail systems, he hadn’t, but went on a mission to find it and later ensured me that it had been tracked down and enjoyed. I am eternally grateful that he got that small token of my thanks for all he did.

Finally, it seems apt that in a relationship that commenced around an interest in last dying words, that we look to Pete’s legacy. We can’t ever know what our last contribution will be and I know that he had been working very hard on his forthcoming book with his long term collaborator Gwenda Morgan on Treason and Rebellion in the British Atlantic, 1685-1800. However, amidst all his academic achievements, I was delighted to find this little article when I googled Pete’s name. It would appear that he spotted a parrot on campus and sparked a news story.  I will savour the image of him sat eating his lunch, being intrigued by a bird far too exotic for Sunderland’s shipbuilding shores – I am sure the parrot thought the same of him.

Rest in Peace Pete. You will be sorely missed and fondly remembered.

Ziggurat at Choghā Zanbīl near Susa, Iran. Robert Harding Picture Library/Sybil Sassoon.


P.S. I deliberately ‘did a Pete’ earlier and gave you the benefit of the doubt that you knew what a ziggurat was. If you were bluffing like me then here is the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s definition –  A ziggurat is a ‘Pyramidal stepped temple tower that is an architectural and religious structure characteristic of the major cities of Mesopotamia(now mainly in Iraq) from approximately 2200 until 500 BCE.’

9 thoughts on “Remembering Peter Rushton

  1. Matt Perry

    Pete was a picket line and Natfhe/UCU branch committee stalwart. Always witty, generous and fair, he was a pleasure to spend time with. He was the moral centre of gravity of an institution that I spent a decade at. Love and best wishes to all those close to this wonderful man.

    1. Harriet Bradley

      Pete was a wonderful inspiring colleague when I worked at Sunderland. Always cheerful, in love with history, supportive and creative. And a very committed trade unionist. He will be sorely missed by his friends, especially Gwenda

  2. Adam BERTRAM Robertson

    A truly great Academic mind and a wonderful Human Being. Pete was instrumental in guiding me to my PhD after many personal trials and tribulations (all of mine I must say), his wonderfully dry wit and comprehensive knowledge leaves me in absolute awe at what the human mind can achieve. My thoughts are with his sister and her family – and also with his long term friend and co-author Gwenda. Many thanks Pete – we shared many a good session together!

  3. Joanne liu

    For many years looking after Pete and Gwenda’s travel arrangements I found Pete to be an interesting, fascinating and remarkable person. Thoughts are with his family and Gwenda at this sad time.

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