Born Orestes Stamatopoulos in 1916, in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, and educated at the Royal Liberty School, Romford, Essex, John Saville was school captain of soccer, swimming, athletics and eventually, in the upper sixth, the school itself. Awarded a county scholarship and a bursary by the London School of Economics, he studied there for three years and graduated with first class honours in 1937.
While at university, Saville joined the Communist Party and was among the anti-fascist student contingent at the battle of Cable Street. But for the war, a career in business loomed. Contrary to general advice given by the Communist Party, Saville was steadfast in refusing an army commission and ended the war with the rank of Warrant Officer 1, as a sergeant major instructor of gunnery. These were times of considerable agitation in the armed forces, for the election of 1945, and in opposition to the officers steeped in the reactionary attitudes of the Indian empire, which led on occasion to arrests and prosecutions of British soldiers.
On his return, Saville joined the chief scientific division of the Ministry of Works, which was then tackling the scale of the devastation and depreciation of stock wreaked by war. There was also the Communist Party history group, rapidly attracting some of the finest historical minds of the twentieth century; regular discussions were held with Christopher Hill, Dona Torr, Victor Kiernan, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson, amongst many others. The post-war party was at loggerheads with the government of Clement Attlee on numerous questions of the day, and on some issues of individual rights, including the jailing of Arthur Attwood in July 1946.
Appointed lecturer in economic history at the University College, Hull, in 1947, Saville became engaged in much political activity, including Daily Worker bazaars, meetings on industrial, port and housing issues, and the organisation of classes on public speaking for trade unionists. In 1956, he started, with Edward Thompson and a group of like minded Communists, the Reasoner, which questioned aspects of party policy. On resignation from the party, the New Reasoner was launched as a journal of socialist humanism with Saville and Thompson as editors. The new journal ran for three years from 1956 until amalgamation to form the New Left Review.
In the 1960s, as economic and social history attracted increasing attention, new resources came to Hull for more staff and facilities, including a new social science block and an important University library with an archival collection. Under Saville’s guidance the subject area grew fast, and with a separate department, so did postgraduate and research work. Saville’s own work included masterminding the huge research project for the Dictionary of Labour Biography, which reached ten volumes by the time the project was turned over to new editors. The Dictionary addresses the vast tapestry which has been British labour history, and the endless record of hostility and discrimination faced by trade unionists for over two centuries.
Together with Ralph Miliband, and ably supported by Merlin Press, the annual Socialist Register was launched in 1964, and set a new tone in for socialist scholarship: the journal is now in the 42nd year of publication. The foundation of the Lipman Trust in 1974 owes much to his imaginative skills as to its potential in supporting socialist education. Saville has continued to offer discussions on aspects of socialist history and contemporary affairs and to pen the occasional piece for the journal Socialist History.