Ruth Glass at UCL

[Some friends…] ask if I can explain why “the Ruth Glass interdisciplinary initiative at UCL was disbanded in the end”.  This is the best I can do.  Maybe others can help.

Ruth was a cornery and ungovernable person, incapable of arse-licking.  My feeling always was that this, as much as her radicalism within her work, always made heads of departments keep her (and sociology) rather at arms length.

There were exceptions, up to a point.  I think it was William Holford who sheltered / housed her in the Department of Town Planning in Flaxman Terrace and at that time (60s) she had a co-worker John Westergaard and some research assistants.  She contributed some teaching – from which I benefitted.  Her operation was already called the Centre for Urban Studies.  All her books came out in the 1960s.

I suspect it may have been Richard Llewelyn-Davies who ejected her (check that) in about 1970.  He  certainly took the huge room they had occupied and converted it into his own office – with a white shaggy carpet, multiple layers of floor-to-ceiling white curtains and a room off for his secretary and the fridge for the smoked salmon, chablis and so on.  Maybe a few Barcelona chairs.  No books.

She was then taken in by the professor of geography, Bill Meade – who I believe is still alive at about 100 so you might get a bit of oral history off him. But she wasn’t physically moved into Geography but into a house in Gower St – the corner diagonally opposite Mrs Dillon’s shop.  There she carried on the research and – at some point – started a masters course to which I sometimes contributed.  The main core of it was a lot of statistics and she was a great believer in (genuinely) evidence-based planning. But I don’t think she had much time for disciplinary boundaries and I have a sense that (while very disciplined / rigorous) she operated a discipline-free zone.  There were seminars with historians, epidemiologists, lots of demographers, some engineers on public health and planners like me.

Most of the students I recall were from India, where she had strong connections, and parts of Africa. A lot of mid-career administrators. British Council and commonwealth links.  Everything done in English.

Later she was evicted from that house because UCL wanted to sell it.  So she got moved into one big room (by then I think with no other staff). It was the ground floor room in an old house in Tavistock / Torrington Place immediately adjoining the side elevation of 26 Bedford Way.  I recall many hours spent there with the sherry and the cigarettes discussing the outrages of public policy. So I guess it was Thatcher period.

Bill Meade must then have retired because she ended up with no protective professor.  I was asked to try and get her re-homed somewhere in UCL and failed.  So in the end she withdrew to her country house at Walberswick.  I can’t put a date to that and certainly have none of the papers.

Someone in UCL archives must have files on it all.

And your geography “emeriti” will all have far more memories than I have.  Try also Richard Dennis, Adrian Forty, Irving Dworetsky (and of course John North and Negley Harte).

If anyone can add to this please comment below.

Andrew Harris of UCL geography sent me this:

This was the obit written by Eric Hobsbawm:RUTH GLASS (born Lazarus, in a family of distinguished rabbinical traditions of which she was proud) is most easily pigeon-holed as an academic, a key figure in urban sociology, and indeed, in the 1950s, in the institutionalisation of Britrish sociology as an academic subject.

Her reputation in this field was established from the late 1930s by studies of housing developments and planning in Watling and Middlesborough, and later by pioneer work on black immigration, although the text of what would have been her major work, the Third London Survey (successor to the surveys of Booth and Llewellyn Smith), was unfortunately never quite completed. However, in her last years (1988) a collection of her papers was published by Blackwell.

Together with the demographer David Glass, whom she married in 1942 (her first husband was Henry Durant, pioneer of public opinion surveys), she edited an interesting and notably non-eurocentric series of ‘Studies in Society’ for several years. Through her Centre for Urban Studies at University College, London, passed the future urban planners of the Third World.

Nevertheless it seems absurd to those who knew her, to recall this tiny, combative, bird-like woman, with the rebellious brush of hair and invariably dressed in some shade of carefully tailored blue so different from the colour of her convictions as just another Professor. She was an all-purpose ball of fire, even though what she increasingly reduced to ashes was herself.

Ruth Glass belonged to Weimar Germany, although she lived most of her life in Britain, with regular visits to India where so much of her heart lay. Indeed, she began her career as a teen-age journalist on a radical weekly in pre-Nazi Berlin, and claimed to have lost her virginity, on her own initiative, to a prominent figure from the tables of the Romanische Cafe. From Berlin (via a brief political emigration to Prague) she brought the leftwing convictions of a lifetime never, however, those of the Communist Parties and assumptions about women’s freedom common in intellectual Mitteleuropa long before they became so in Britain. Also a continental accent she never lost, though her German rusted through persistent disuse. Ruth did not look backward.

Extraordinarily intelligent, self-confident, funny, abrasive, but capable of charm when she wanted, she quickly established herself in Britain, though her loyalties were to be triangular: to friends in the USA, where she worked during the war, and to India, whose cause had been so effectively pleaded by Krishna Menon in the 1930s, especially among intelligent women. For a while, wartime and postwar Britain did something to reconcile her, however critically, to the status quo. However, her intellectual and personal attachments were never unqualified, unconditional and uncritical.

Except, in her own way, to her husband David Glass, with whom she established a household long remembered by their friends and, academically, an informal but powerful partnership. Many of his interests came from her, although his position at the LSE at that time made a comparable career for a wife in the same department impossible.

In human terms the marriage to David, by whom she had two children, Helen and Robert, was extraordinarily close and, for Ruth, essential. She never recovered from his untimely death in 1978 and slowly retreated, to the grief of her family and friends, into an increasing loneliness of physical and mental suffering, finally ended on March 7. What her friends will remember is not the last sad ten years but the restless sparkle, the provocative challenges of a never-resting intelligence, the sudden smiles and the genuine love she radiated to some, but not to all at her best

Eric Hobsbawm on Ruth Glass, born June 30, 1912, died March 7, 1990.
More UCL reminiscences here at

Author: Editors


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