George Philip Baker, a Historian who was Deaf*
By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 17 August 2012
Recently, while reading a reprint of a history book from the 1930s, The Fighting Kings of Wessex, I noticed that the author, George Philip Baker, was deaf. Born at Plumstead in Kent on the 21st of May 1879 he was the son of Philip Baker (an ‘engine fitter and turner’) and his wife Emily. According to his obituary in the Times Baker lost his hearing when he was a boy. The 1901 census tells us that he was ‘deaf from 8 yrs’. His parents sent him to be educated at the Brighton Institution, where he came under the tutelage of William Sleight and his son Arthur.
On leaving school in 1895, Baker got a job in the Royal Carriage Department of the Woolwich Arsenal where the 1901 and 1911 censuses describe himself as being employed as a lithographic draughtsman. In 1910 he married Josephine Garthwaite, who had been a teacher. Leaving to become a full time writer in 1922, Baker was either taking a big gamble or was financially secure. [I suspect that his father-in-law, Joseph, an Estate Accountant of Staindrop in County Durham, had left Josephine a modest legacy.]
Of his historical works, the Times says,
As the rapidity with which these books were written suggests, Baker did not set out to add to our knowledge of ancient Rome. They were popular rather than scholarly works, written in an impressionist style: they sought to give a vivid sketch of the man and his times – not a cautious study. In spite of these limitations he succeeded in bringing to life the people of whom he wrote and his broad judgements were usually correct.
In a short review of Baker’s work on a Roman History Books blog, I Hahn says,
Baker was an avid student of military history. Unable to serve in his native England’s armed forces due to his total deafness, he worked as a civilian official for the Royal Artillery for much of his life. He was neither professor nor soldier-scholar; his works strove to enlighten his lay audience as well as to tell an adventure story of strong leaders struggling against economic and political inevitability. Baker usually accentuates the military aspects of his subjects. He has taken the time to read the specialist accounts of tactics and strategies developed by the respective antagonists. He likes to contemplate the options open to the commanders on the spot and their decision cycle.
I wonder if his historical interest had been cultivated by his time at Brighton. Baker’s chief works were –
Sulla the Fortunate (1927), Tiberius Caesar (1929), Hannibal (1930), Constantine the Great (1931), Fighting Kings of Wessex (1931), Justinian (1932), Charlemagne (1933), and Augustus (1937). He died on the 19th of April 1951.
The Times, Monday, Apr 23, 1951; pg. 6; Issue 51982; col E Mr G.P. Baker. Category: Obituaries
*Adjectives can be awkward. ‘A deaf historian’ could be a historian who was d/Deaf, or a historian of deafness or the d/Deaf.