We have lost a great friend and highly regarded colleague through the sudden death of Dr Dennis Mills on Monday 23 March. He made an outstanding contribution to the study of Lincolnshire's history in a multitude of ways.
Here is a short biography by Rob Wheeler first published in 'Lincoln Connections' in 2011 (a tribute to Dennis Mills on his 80th birthday).
Dennis Mills was the son of a gardener and grew up in the estate village at Winthorpe, near Newark, and then at Canwick outside Lincoln. One of his grandfathers was a small farmer at Scothern who, by hard work and a canny business sense, was able to buy his own farm at Thurlby by Bassingham. Rural society was already changing under the influence of the internal combustion engine and the shadow of the approaching war but it still retained its traditional structure.
Dennis was thus one of the last of that select group of academic geographers who could write about traditional rural society with the benefit of personal experience as well as academic rigour. As just one small example of how that affected his outlook, in considering the practices of a rural registrar of births and deaths in the mid-nineteenth century, he drew on his own experience to pose questions like how those registering births and deaths would have known where to find the registrar and what his office hours were.
After reading geography at Nottingham, with National Service looming, he chose to join the Royal Navy, for no better reason than that he had seen a little of the Army and Air Force and might as well see how the Senior Service conducted itself. The navy must have been a little unsure what to do with a graduate in a non-technical subject. They might have made a `schoolie' (an Education Branch officer) of him, but the Cold War was getting hotter, there was a massive requirement for Russian translators, and so they sent him to the Joint Service School for Linguists. He thus became one of that select group of kursanty who have so influenced the academic and artistic worlds. After service in Germany, observing a different pattern of rural society, as well as putting his Russian to good use in the service of military intelligence, he returned to Nottingham as a Demonstrator and Temporary Assistant Lecturer.
At this point, fortune may have seemed to turn her back: the temporary post came to an end without anything permanent turning up, and Dennis became a schoolteacher. Nevertheless, it provided an opportunity to take a part-time external PhD from Leicester. It was in this period also that he met his wife Joan, whose subsequent support has meant so much to him, academically as well as domestically.
A subsequent move to Melbourn Village College introduced him to that well-documented village which provided the material for a rich vein of research. Three years as a senior lecturer at Ilkley College followed, after which he joined the Open University, first as a staff tutor, then as a senior lecturer within the central academic staff. That made it possible for him and his wife Joan to move house closer to their home turf, as a result of which Dennis became involved with SLHA's publication programme, chairing its History of Lincolnshire committee and himself editing the Twentieth Century Lincolnshire volume.
Dennis's first papers stemmed more from his knowledge of the Russian language than from any deep interest in Russian geography. Besides, Russian geography must have been a rather awkward academic interest at that date, when so much of the relevant material was secret. His first publication on English geography was a division of Kesteven into characteristic regions, a piece of work still used to this day. It drew on his Nottingham MA but did not open up any new lines of investigation. The field of work for which he became best known, the extension of the traditional open/closed classification of English villages in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, started with his Leicester PhD, but then drew on the wealth of material he had uncovered relating to Melbourn, and led to a dozen papers between 1972 and 1988.
A 1978 paper on the techniques of house repopulation may have seemed a mere diversion at the time but was enthusiastically received by the growing band of amateur local historians, people who needed advice on the potential and quirks of the key sources for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social history and a demonstration of how those sources could be used. This linked in to the activities of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. In due course it led to a series of papers and books on the Census Enumerators' Books, on Land Tax Assessments and on trade directories. There must be thousands of local historians who have never read a word of Dennis's papers on open and closed villages but who regularly turn to these useful aids whenever they encounter some new oddity in these sources.
Dennis's involvement with the Cambridge Group continued after his retirement from the Open University in 1985. Indeed, freed from the burdens of teaching and administration, Dennis's output of papers grew considerably. One difference was that he was now able to pursue topics that he found interesting, without worrying about whether they would be viewed favourably in academic circles. He wrote extensively on the village of Canwick and the Sibthorp family.
He took an interest in the history of his old school. In fact, it was a wish for a base map on which to plot the residences of the subscribers to this school that served as the germ from which grew the project to republish all of Padley's large-scale Lincoln maps. He wrote on hermaphrodites - which may seem a remarkable jump in interests to those unaware that a hermaphrodite or `moffrey' is a farm cart that can be converted to a wagon.
More recently, an interest in the large-scale map produced in 1848 by the engineer George Giles to set out his proposals for providing Lincoln with a system of underground sewerage led to further work on that phase of Lincoln's long-running sewerage controversy and on the career of George Giles himself. Much of this work was aimed at a relatively wide audience, but it was all characterised by extensive research and a punctilious concern to tie in with existing work in related domains.
Not the least of the benefits Dennis conferred on Lincolnshire historical work was his encouragement of researchers from a wide range of backgrounds. A natural teacher, he had the gift of posing productive questions that can test or transform a hypothesis. He always set himself exacting standards and he encouraged others to live up to them, but in a gracious manner that exhorts rather than commands. By this means, his influence will live on long after his last paper has come off the press.