Rex, historian, friend, family man lived his entire long and varied life with the constant ethics of his left-wing intellectual background. He was no bigot, no stick-in-the-mud – Rex viewed every aspect of human behaviour with a measured eye and (mostly) with benign tolerance. He was a solid, kind, honest, generous man who inspired a huge following amongst Lincolnshire historians.
Rex was an active member of the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology for many years and members have enjoyed his input in the form of organised outings, particularly to DMVs, and talks and publications (all of which have been sold under the auspices of the SLHA bookshop).
It was a surprise to some members of the Lincolnshire Methodist History Society to learn that Rex, a founder member of the Society, was not a Christian. Rex would not pretend to a faith he did not have but he saw in the history of Methodism a massive contribution to the progression of the working man towards education and equality. He saw the opportunities offered by Methodism as a great enhancement of trust earned by the working populations of two centuries ago.
On my penultimate visit to Rex when he was in a very weak state I asked him, ‘Have you ever been to Tolpuddle?’ ‘No,’ he replied and metaphorically reared up in the cot-bed where he lay, ‘but I certainly intend to.’ Then he sank back against the sheets looking like a sparse-framed, bearded medieval saint. If I had Rex’s artistic skills I might portray him in a heavenly setting in deeply interested conversation with those old Methodist farm labourers who were martyred for asking for the right to protest.
Rex was fond of telling people that he was born in a workhouse during a Zeppelin raid. This could have been misunderstood as meaning that he was born in poverty. That was not the case – his parents were Master and Matron of Hackney Workhouse at the time of his birth. The Zeppelin raid dates his birth to another world beyond the memory of most people now alive. He could remember the vast complex of buildings that surrounded him in infancy and spoke of the workhouse bakery and butchery, the offices and the infirmary.
As a child of five or six Rex moved to Yorkshire with his mother and three brothers as his father sought other employment. Holme on Spalding Moor became the background to Rex’s childhood. His great-grandfather had been head teacher of the village school there and the four clever little Russell boys all attended that school. Rex won a scholarship to a minor public school (Bancrofts – A Drapers’ Company School) which meant that he became a boarder and enlarged his horizons far from the village school.
As a teenager Rex chose to be a commercial artist and he trained for this work by winning an Essex County Scholarship to art school. Later, after the war, he gained a degree in History and Education at Durham University and used his graphic skills to enhance his many history publications, particularly as a cartographer, he produced wonderfully drawn and lettered maps showing pre-enclosure and post-enclosure parishes. His book on headstones, illustrated by Rex in pen and ink, showed his skill at copying not only an image but the feel of an age. But before his teaching and publishing life began the second world war intervened.
In 1938 Rex married Eleanor – ‘Froude’ as she was known - and, for a time, they both worked on the land which gave Rex that sympathy with farm workers and low pay which he always held. During the war Rex served in the Royal Navy but, after the war and Durham, he found his true vocation in teaching.
Rex’s teaching was never one-sided; he preferred dialogue and discussion. He prepared carefully and spoke clearly; it was a delight to attend his classes. Most of all he gave encouragement on a generous scale and gave helpful suggestions and detailed information on sources.
Many of his publications were a joint effort with students and, invariably, his students wanted to do more work on the subject of local history which they were learning with enthusiasm from primary sources under Rex’s guidance. He published numerous articles and books on subjects such as enclosure; allotments; labourers’ movements, Methodism, friendly societies, water drinkers (tee-totallers which Rex was not); education in north Lincolnshire; the cultural changes in Lincolnshire (From Cock-fighting to Chapel Building); homes of the poor; Deserted Medieval Villages and the effect of the French Revolution on Lincolnshire.
The books were published by the Workers’ Educational Association to which organisation Rex gave a large part of his life together with the Extra-Mural Department of Hull University. Hundreds of students benefited by Rex’s knowledge and enthusiasm and in 2010, when he was a resident in Nettleton Manor Care Home, he was honoured with an award made to him by British Association of Local History for his enormous contribution to local history as a tutor and writer.
Rex reached a point when he became almost a technophobe. Modern gadgets were not for him. He never took to television and certainly had to no wish to have a computer. For a brief, giddy period in the 21st century, however, Rex did enjoy videos. He was introduced to a series on English history made by Simon Schama. For several successive weeks Rex and Joan would arrive in Wragby by taxi (sometimes on the wrong day) and ask excitedly, ‘Can we watch that man on the machine again?’ Rex would lean forward in his chair staring into Schama’s world entranced.
Rex married Eleanor in 1938 and they had two children, Kleta and Adrian. They spent most of their married life in Barton on Humber. Kleta now lives in France, married to Boucif and they have two grown-up children, Mila and Rhéda. Adrian lives in Derbyshire and is married to Pam. They have two sons, Daniel and Ben. Eleanor, who had worked with Rex on several digs when they were already middle-aged sadly died in 1989 and Rex, though by then an old man, continued to teach and write.
In 1994 Rex surprised his friends by marrying Joan when he was nearly 80 years of age. Joan Mostyn-Lewis was, like Rex, an artist and so began, late in life, another happy phase for Rex. Fifteen years later age was inevitably taking its toll – Rex and Joan were no longer able to look after each other and first Joan and then Rex went into care homes for their last years. Joan went to Wales where she was near to her daughters Rose and Vanessa and Rex was cared for in Nettleton Manor.
Rex died on December 15th 2014 of extreme old age. Farewell dear friend.