ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 4, May 1995


Simon Denison talks to Tom Hassall

The suit shall not contain him

No doubt about it, the new National Monuments Record Centre, which opened in Swindon last year, is an intriguing idea. Photos, surveys and building records, produced by the English Royal Commission over the past century, are now on one site for the first time and thrown open to the public.

This turning outwards, this reformulation of itself as an open-access, public-service outfit, marks a brave new direction for the Commission - and one not without risk. Whether the type of record held will ever interest more than a specialist audience, time alone will tell. But as an idea, as a new democratic raison d'être for the Commission, the NMR Centre is beyond reproach.

Presiding over the Commission's rebirth, and enormously proud of the new infant, is Tom Hassall, Secretary of the Commission since 1986. The opening of the Centre, he told me on the phone, was `the most important event for the national heritage in years'. I had to come down, he insisted, to see for myself.

His excitement was obvious from the start. Bounding down to meet me at the front door, he was eager to show me round himself, pointing out the different architectural phases of the building, the light and space of the public search rooms, enthusing, like any new parent, over every aspect of the site.

We ended up in his office, a large room with a ten-seater round table. Tom Hassall sat opposite me, legs elegantly crossed showing a highly-polished black shoe. The first thing one notices about him is that he looks every inch the chief executive of a government agency - dark grey suit, striped shirt and tie, the right spectacles and haircut. Oddly enough, though, the civil-servant persona was not acquired with the Commission job, but is one he has assumed throughout his archaeological career. In an aggressively informal profession, it must have been cultivated against the odds. So what's going on?

A clue to Tom Hassall's public face lies in his upbringing. Born in 1943, and brought up in an Elizabethan manor house near Oxford, his father was a wealthy and `wildly eccentric' medieval historian at the Bodleian Library, who often dressed in bobble-hat and shorts in public. Bill Hassall was also a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, who switched his sons from a posh city prep school to an `anarchic' county grammar for ideological reasons. For the boys it was a disturbing experience. Young Tom took to wearing a monocle in the 6th form. `My rebellion was to be conventional,' he said.

He went on to Corpus Christi, Oxford, to read history, but found his public-school contemporaries there couldn't quite place him socially. Had this marked him? `Not so much now. But there were times, after Oxford, when I felt socially ill at ease, not knowing quite where I sat.'

Was he, then, perhaps over-compensating now for his early social insecurity? `I think that's a perfectly fair comment.'

As soon as one meets Tom Hassall, however, it becomes clear that the stuffy dark suit disguises an entirely unstuffy man. He does not insist, at work, on his ex officio right to remain aloof; on our rounds of the building, for instance, he stepped in himself to help an obviously-lost member of the public find her way to the caf‚. He is diffident in manner, and openly nervous about our interview. For all his evident capabilities, one occasionally catches an unmistakable look of self-doubt in his eye.

Tom Hassall was introduced to archaeology by his parents, and - quickly hooked - helped on excavations at Verulamium and elsewhere in school and university summer holidays. After a brief spell on the Victoria County History for Oxfordshire, he took a job as a rescue archaeologist in Oxford. He was soon recognised as a high flier, elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries at 28, and became Director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit at 30. He was President of the CBA in the early 1980s.

Brought up in the world of archive management, his move to the Commission was `like coming home', he said; and there seems a strong tendency in Tom Hassall to `come home', even to `stay home', having spent almost his entire life in and around Oxford, and now living again in the family manor. There, with his wife, he has created an impressive garden out of the vast vegetable patch left him by his parents. It is open to the public once a year, and consumes the major part of his free time.

His `only regret' at moving to the Commission, he said, was in becoming `too much a bureaucrat', and he relishes his rare chances to go out in the field, say, with a Commission survey team. In this, as elsewhere, behind the suit appears an irrepressibly natural man trying to get out.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995