Sheffield History

Maintaining the Status Quo?: A Brief History of History at the University of Sheffield


In 1905, the University of Sheffield received its own Royal Charter as an independent red brick university and welcomed at least 114 full-time students through its doors. Since that time, there has been lots of change in how History has been taught at the university: but why and when did things change, and is there more that still needs to be done?

During the first decade of the University’s life, there were two history courses, on Modern History and Ancient History, with one single individual, a Professor H.W. Appleton, in charge of both. As you might expect, the modules mainly consisted of Eurocentric histories, particularly centred on Britain. By 1914, the exams were separated into 4 papers on Ancient History and 3 papers on Modern History, and most of the questions were either focused on the victories and strategies of key battles, or on the significance of political and substantial figures of the time. By 1910 ecclesiastical history became a degree, which again was focused on England.

Excerpts from 1914 Modern History Examination Questions. Used with permission from the University of Sheffield libraries.

Looking at the University Calendars, which record all of the University’s courses, it appears there was little development in the historical content taught at the university between 1910 and 1975. As someone who tends to focus on gender history, it is striking to me that there was no aspiration to teach about women’s roles in British history. There is no evidence to suggest that prominent women such as Emmeline Pankhurst or even the monarch herself were being discussed in history classrooms. There was definitely a desire to emphasise the positive aspects of British history at this University, and this celebratory interpretation seems not to have subsided until the early 1970s. This contributed to generational assumptions surrounding major elements of British history, such as colonialism, that continue to spark debate around how far the Empire shaped the way that we view the world and our place within it.

It is by the 1970s that we begin to see a slight shift towards looking into non-European histories, and sensitive topics such as the Third Reich, Slavery and the Russian Revolution began to be offered to History students to take as part of their degree. There are several arguments to explain this dramatic shift within the education system during the 1960s and 1970s. The political atmosphere during the mid-20th century, with the rise of the student movement, the New Left, and the women’s liberation movement, could have played a role in this change in what was taught. The counter-culture of the mid-1960s, which created a sense of opposition to institutions within society, could explain the move away from ‘traditional’ forms of teaching.[1] Another reason for this change could be the steady increase in undergraduate places in History in Sheffield in the early 1970s, as more opportunities became available to previously disadvantaged minorities: Black, Asian and Minority Ethic (BAME) communities, immigrants and women.[2] However, it must be noted that History taught at BA and MA level still focused on Western history during the 1970s, and there was still a lack of BAME histories being taught despite the growing student population.

In 1975, the Medieval History and Modern History departments were merged into one combined department. As Dr Helen Mathers notes, within two years of the merge, none of the original staff (before the merger) remained.[3] Yet despite these major departmental changes, the university was still rather conservative in terms of how historical topics were approached. For example, the 1976 exam questions on the United States, while wide ranging, had little on the lived experience of slavery and abolition.

Excerpt of 1976 examination questions on the United States. Used with permission from the University of Sheffield libraries.

It was only by the 1990s that we see the first instances of non-Western history being taught at the University of Sheffield. East Asian Studies, already established in 1963 as the Centre for Japanese Studies, saw a large expansion in the number of courses taught by the end of the 1980s, with BA courses offered in Korean Studies in 1980 and Chinese Studies in 1996. By the mid-90s, Sheffield was home to the third largest collection of Korea-related academic materials in Europe.[4] Although these Departments had a focus on economics and social sciences, their courses were offered as part of a dual degrees with History, which allowed History students access to a wider range of historical geographies.

Today, the History department at the University of Sheffield aims to explore different narratives in History, with varied courses from women’s emancipation and Irish republicanism, to the migration and settlement of South Asians. However, more can still be done to give a greater representation to non-Western scholars and histories. There should be renewed efforts to explore different historical narratives in greater depth, helping us to move away from limited understandings and rehearsing old narratives about Britain as a glorious and civilised empire. This can only be accomplished by opening our doors to new stories and by challenging traditional historical arguments. As debates surrounding the removal of controversial monuments such as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol continue, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this momentum needs to be reflected and be embodied within UK Higher Education.

Katie Crowley is a MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently working on documenting and exploring the lives of the women from the Greenham Common Peace Camps for her MA dissertation. You can find her on twitter @marmaladetears. This blog is based on a research project on the archived calendars and examination papers held in the University’s Special Collections.

Cover image: University of Sheffield in April or May, 1972. Courtesy of David Dixon©, [Accessed 5 July 2020].

[1] Christopher T. Goldie, Modernisation and the New Left, Ph.D. thesis (Sheffield Hallam University, 2005). For a wider look at the cultural changes within British universities and the wider student movement of the 1960s, see Colin Barker, ‘Some Reflections on Student Movements of the 1960s and Early 1970s’, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 81 (2008), 43-91 and Connor Woodman, ‘The Repression of Student Movements in the UK’, Pluto Press Blog (2019),[Accessed 5 July 2020].

[2] For the history of BAME communities within the education system see Dennis G. Hamilton, ‘Too hot to Handle: African Caribbean pupils and students as toxic consumers and commodities in the educational market’, Race Ethnicity and Education 21.5 (2018), 573-592.

For the history of women’s education during the 1970s, see Eve Worth, ‘Women and Adult Education during the 1970s’, Social History Society (June 2019), [Accessed 5 July 2020].

[3] See a wider history on the University of Sheffield see Helen Mathers, Steel City Scholars: The Centenary History of the University of Sheffield, (London, 2005).

[4] More on the History of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, see ‘About the School’ page on the University of Sheffield School of East Asians Studies website: [Accessed 5 July 2020]. For history of Korean Studies at the University of Sheffield, see Professor James H. Grayson, ‘The History of Korean Studies’, The University of Sheffield (March 2019) [Accessed 5 July 2020].

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The Armaments Past of Mark Firth


For students and staff at the University Sheffield, Firth Hall is familiar as the heart of the university – an iconic red-brick and ivy-clad building, where the VC is based and in whose courtyard graduation parties take place. Rather less well-known though today is the history of the person from whom it takes its name, Mark Firth (1819-1880) – and the role of arms-manufacture in how he made his fortune.

Firth was one of the most important Sheffielders of the 19th century. His fame and wealth came from the family steel company, Thomas Firth and Sons, established along with his brother Thomas and father Thomas senior in 1842. His importance was recognised by stints as both Mayor in 1874 and Master Cutler between 1867 and 1869. Firth was the first Master Cutler to achieve re-election, the position usually vacated by the incumbent Master in a tradition stretching back to 1624.

Firth was certainly philanthropic with the wealth he garnered from the family business. During the final 20 years of his life, he is believed to have donated some £200,000 to projects to help the people of Sheffield. Most famous is Firth Park, donated to the town in 1875 and opened by the future King Edward VII, to provide his workers and their families with quality housing, leisure facilities and greenery. In one of his last acts before his death, Firth provided £25,000 towards the construction (£20,000) and endowment (£5,000) of Firth College in 1879, which became part of the foundation of The University of Sheffield in 1905.

This philanthropy made him popular with the city. So beloved was Firth that when he died suddenly in 1880 at the age of 61, the local newspapers were published with a black border along with his obituary. His public funeral was attended by thousands, including all the workers of Thomas Firth and Sons, before his final internment at Sheffield’s General Cemetery where his grave can still be viewed.

It was no secret at the time, however, that Firth’s wealth was in large part derived from the manufacture of armaments. In many ways, Firth was continuing a long tradition of Sheffield tradesmen using steel for weapons and armaments manufacture. Only the fourth-ever recorded mark granted to a cutler from the Lord of the Manor from 1563 was for arrowheads, granted to Thomas Wright, and in 1595 Kellam Homer was awarded the position of town armourer. In 1604 he went into a partnership with two local manufactures to set up a grinding wheel in the area we now know as Kelham Island.

As the 19th century commenced, it was discovered that steel could be used for a wide range of offensive and defensive weapons, and following the Crimean War, the Sheffield armaments industry began to grow alongside the steel industry. A former University of Sheffield historian, Professor Sidney Pollard (1925-1998), once described the Crimean War as the birth of the modern Sheffield steel industry as the full range of applications for steel began to be realised.

Firths began producing solid round shot for cannons during the Crimean War, and in the 1860s branched into producing a range of projectiles and gun barrels. The technological development of gun barrels and gun tubes led to the establishment of the Gun Works at Firths in 1863, and ultimately the outlay of £100,000 for new plant and equipment, under the agreement that the firm would be rewarded for their expenditure by the British government. These weapons, such as the 35-ton ‘Woolwich Infant’, armed and equipped Britain’s (and France’s) imperial navy.

By the time of Firth’s death, the company had become world-renowned for their guns, and the increased profits available from producing armaments certainly contributed to his wealth and some of his philanthropic contributions to Sheffield. Was this provoked by guilt from where the money came from or was it based on purely altruistic intentions? Different readers may have different interpretations.

After Firth’s death, the Sheffield armaments industry continued to grow, with Vickers, Brown, Cammell, Hadfields and Firth producing armour, projectiles and gun barrels in Sheffield prior to the Great War. By 1914 the city was known as the ‘Arsenal of the World’ with technological and commercial connections across the globe. These companies reacted publicly to the Great War with horror, arguing that their weapons had been intended as deterrents (in the same way nuclear weapons were viewed in the Cold War).

When in the 1920s and 30s, these companies were branded as ‘Merchants of Death’, their directors defended themselves. In their view, they had done their Imperial duty by producing weapons to defend the British Empire with a show of strength. If they hadn’t produced the armaments required, someone else would have. We don’t know for certain, but Mark Firth may have viewed his guns of the 1860s and 70s in the same light.

In any case, as universities across the UK reconsider the circumstances of their establishment, and where their assets came from, it’s worth remembering that the University of Sheffield has a revealing history too, and one that perhaps ought to be reflected upon more.

Chris Corker is a business historian and Lecturer in Management at the York Management School. He has been researching the industrial and business history of Sheffield for over a decade, and in 2017 his PhD on the Sheffield Armaments Industry was awarded the annual Coleman Prize from the Association of Business Historians for excellence in new business history research. His latest article is available here:

Image credit: The ‘Woolwich Infant’ Hathi Trust Digital Library and The University of Michigan Library

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