I grew up on Benfleet’s western-most edge, not far from Tarpots Corner. The eldest of four children, I was born in 1963 and, like my siblings, was adopted as a baby. My parents, Norman and Maureen Thrush, had moved to Benfleet from Dagenham and Barking at the end of the 1950s, soon after they were married. Dad worked as a lithographic printer; Mum was a shorthand typist.
Like many children, I was blessed with an active imagination, and in particular a love of story writing, in which I was encouraged by my junior school teachers, among whom my fourth-form teacher, Mr. Morgan, stands out as inspirational. In 1974, aged 11, I left Woodham Ley Junior School (which stood in Rushbottom Lane but is now demolished) and went to Appleton School. In those days forms were organized on the basis of surname, but since the number of pupils whose surnames began with the letter ‘T’ exceeded the maximum size for one form, I was placed with the Ws, who were thinner on the ground. My classmates included Ian Simpson, like me another alphabetic refugee, who soon became my best friend. Others whose names I can remember were: Andrew Taylor, David Walden, Gary Walters, Theresa Walters, Jay Ward, Mark Ward (who was killed in a cycle accident soon after he left school), Paul Warner, Dawn Waller, Maria Warren, David Webb, Edward Weitzel, Karen Weston, Malcolm Wilson and Anne Wright.
At Appleton I threw myself with enthusiasm into the choir and school drama, but academically I achieved only a modest number of passes at O-level. I subsequently attended SEEVIC (1979-1981), where I fared rather better, thanks to sound teaching and the company of enthusiastic fellow students. Despite my earlier enthusiasm for creative writing, my favourite subject was now history, or rather early modern English history, which I studied under Alec Rose, who taught me how to construct an historical argument, a process not without mishap: my first effort was so lamentable that for years I kept it as a reminder of how not to write an essay.
In the autumn of 1981, after securing three A-levels and an S-level, I was admitted to read history at Bedford College, part of the University of London, in the delightful surroundings of Regent’s Park, where I spent the next two years. During that time I commuted between Benfleet and London, which allowed me to keep in close touch with friends, and maintain my involvement in the Benfleet Operatic Society. However, the college was in severe financial trouble, and in 1983 it merged with one of its sister institutions, Royal Holloway College, on the latter’s site overlooking the town of Egham, in Surrey. I therefore decamped to Royal Holloway College, where I had the great good fortune to be taught by Roger Lockyer, whose many textbooks on early modern England and Europe are justly admired and still widely used. It was under Lockyer that I undertook my first foray into original research, a 5000-word dissertation on the disastrous Cadiz expedition of 1625.
In 1984 I graduated, taking the highest First in history in the University of London that year. I subsequently began doctoral research into the administration of the Navy under Charles the First. My supervisor was not Roger Lockyer, who took early retirement, but Conrad Russell. Newly returned to London after a five-year stint at Yale, Russell (who became the 5th Earl Russell on the death of his brother in 1987) was then the pre-eminent historian of early modern England. Generous with his time and knowledge and kindly to a fault, Russell possessed a dazzling talent, a near photographic memory, an an unerring ability to turn established verities on their head. Whereas Lockyer had fired my enthusiasm and encouraged me to write with greater clarity, Russell taught me to identify the key point and to make vital connections between apparently unrelated pieces of information.
In 1992, after a two-year stint as a teacher at an independent school in north London, and armed with a Ph.D., I became editor of the 1604-1629 House of Commons section at the History of Parliament. A small research organization based in Bloomsbury, the History of Parliament is funded by Parliament and enjoys a close connection with the Institute of Historical Research, part of the University of London. My job was to oversee the preparation of a set of volumes on the Commons in the period between the accession of James l in 1603 and the start of the Caroline Personal Rule in 1629, a daunting task, at least at first, as it required me to widen my existing knowledge of the sources. During these first few years at the History of Parliament, I got married – to fellow historian Helen Bradley – and started a family.
The Commons volumes were published in 2010 and are now freely available online (www.historyofparliamentonline.org). The product of extensive manuscript research, they include detailed entries on every member of the lower House between 1604 and 1629 – nearly 1,800 in total – and thorough studies of the 250 or so constituencies which returned them. Also included is a Survey volume, which explores themes such as the function of the Commons, the mechanics of elections , and the management of the lower House. Throughout these volumes emphasis is necessarily placed on parliamentary and political history, but you will also find plenty of rich material for local and family historians.
Following completion of the Commons volumes, which were critically well received, I and my colleagues produced a companion set on the House of Lords. Published in 2021, they too will eventually be made freely available online. Like their Commons predecessors, they provide detailed biographies of every peer eligible to sit during the period, plus a Survey volume on the hitherto little explored upper House. Several Essex-based peers are included, among them Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, who owned extensive estates in the south of the county. Now, more than thirty years since I first started work at the History of Parliament, I and my colleagues are working on a similar set of volumes on the Elizabethan House of Lords and its members, thanks to continued financial support from today’s upper House.