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Sheffield History

From Merrie England to The Civilized World: History at Sheffield, 1963-1988, Part 1 – Expansion

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The History Department that emerged in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework as one of the top three in the UK had travelled a long way in the previous half-century. When a dramatic expansion of the university system was launched by the publication of the Robbins Report on Higher Education in 1963 it was a small and obscure department in a provincial university. The Robbins Report transformed British Higher Education, and nowhere were those transformative effects more keenly felt than in Sheffield.

The world of civic (“Redbrick”) universities before Robbins is brilliantly captured by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim (1956, based most directly on Leicester and Swansea).[1] The department that Clyde Binfield and I joined in 1964 is described there with uncanny fidelity, not least because George Richard Potter, who had been its head since 1931, was one of the most plausible among several contemporary candidates for the original of Amis’s Professor Welch. He was a kindly and charming man, but no slave to innovation. One of the sixteen Single Honours students in the class to which I gave my first lectures told me that the notes she took from Potter’s lectures had turned out to be identical with her mother’s. Except occasionally in the final year Special Subject, formal lectures were the only means of teaching: gowns were worn, notes were often dictated, and it was considered subversive to allow students to interrupt with questions. Marked essays were returned through pigeon holes or baskets in lobbies, with a perfunctory assertion that the marker might be approached for further comment. Only the cosmopolitan had heard of the strange American custom of “office hours.”

Departments in the late Victorian generation of Redbricks were regarded as appendages of their Professors, many of whom (like H. W. Appleton at Sheffield) were appointed initially with responsibility for several subjects, and gradually shed subjects, and then acquired Assistants, as student numbers increased. Hence by 1963 Sheffield had Departments of Medieval and Modern History, Ancient History, Biblical History (soon to become Biblical Studies), and Economic History, the last, in the Faculty of Social Sciences, recently created for Sidney Pollard, who had previously been in the Department of Economics. Cooperation between these petty fiefdoms was minimal: all were weakened by the dissipation of sparse resources between them, and the consequent jealousies generated a mutual defensiveness which ensured that each pursued and taught its specialism in the narrowest and most conventional ways.

History was often an exception to the general rule of one Professor per Department. Even the smallest departments, of which Sheffield was one, commonly had Professors both of Medieval and of Modern History, and separate departments of Medieval History were rare. [2] This reflected the origins of History as a degree subject, first introduced at Oxford in 1850 in conjunction with Law, and from 1870 as a single school, suitable for men (sic) who “not being candidates for distinctions which require greater powers of intellect as well as application [i.e. classics], might nevertheless be usefully employed on subjects within their grasp.”[3]

The syllabus that would equip them to rule over their own estates or their country’s colonies was based accordingly, in the words of the Regius Professor of Modern History, W. H. Stubbs, on “a continuous reading of our national history” since the Anglo-Saxon conquests, examined in three compulsory papers, and another on English constitutional history to 1307.[4] To these were added a period of European history, the history of Political Ideas, and a Special Subject based on prescribed texts, not from any continentally-inspired enthusiasm for primary sources, but because in the long tradition of classics teaching “set texts” constituted a minimal guarantee of intellectual respectability. This was the English version of History as nation builder that by 1900 underpinned its centrality in education systems across the world. As Cyril Ransome, first professor of History at Leeds (and father of Arthur) put it, “if History does not teach young men to be proud of their country the less they learn of it the better.”[5]

The arrival of Potter’s successor as Professor of Medieval History, in 1965, was the turning point for Sheffield. Edward Miller had been a senior member of the Cambridge History Faculty and was one of the country’s most distinguished medievalists. His appointment immediately boosted our status in the university, where he was promptly placed on several of the main committees, and his standing and wide interests put us on the national map. His infectious warmth and cheerful ebullience made the department a pleasant place both for students, for whom he immediately initiated a regular tutorial system, and academic staff, whom he encouraged to break out of the strait-jacket of lecture-based and conventionally defined outline courses, as far as the syllabus allowed.

In 1963 the Department had a permanent academic staff of seven, of whom two had been there since 1926 and 1931 respectively, and two since just after World War II. By the early 1970s four of the seven had been replaced, and eight new posts had been filled by people in their mid-20s, so that the Department had more than doubled in staff (and much more than doubled in student numbers), and the age profile and seniority of its academic staff had been dramatically reduced. This expansion made possible – indeed, almost compelled – the appearance of new and more varied courses, but the growing generation gap also produced increasingly sharp differences about what their nature should be, and how they should be combined.

Stubb’s Oxford syllabus became the model for almost all those that followed.[6] A survey titled History at the Universities published by the Historical Association in 1966 showed that History degrees in England and Wales were still based on the continuous political History of England (sic), divided at 1485 if in two compulsory papers, or around 1307 and 1660 if (more usually) in three, and garnished with constitutional documents, with lengthy outlines of European and occasionally American history as little more than background.[7] Such courses were inevitably taught by formal lectures, and conventional in content. Sheffield in that respect was typical. The new generation of lecturers appointed in the wake of Robbins, recruited largely from Oxford and Cambridge where individual tutorials were the rule, were outraged by what was offered to their students, and everywhere pressed for small-group teaching, and for syllabus changes that would make it possible. This was one of the chief causes, and leading demands, of the widespread student unrest of the late 1960s.

Nine years later a second survey showed a dramatically different picture.[8] The weight of student demand, in defiance of pundits and policy makers, meant that History had expanded enormously everywhere, and especially in the new (“Plateglass”) universities of the 1960s, now well established. Some, like Sussex, UEA and Essex, initially offered History only in multi-disciplinary schools, of English Studies, American Studies and so on, or as an adjunct to the Social Sciences, without dedicated departments or degree courses. The stubborn preference of applicants for History in its own right eventually forced them to retreat on that, but their immediate impact forced historians everywhere to a new openness to the wider relevance of their subject matter, and the potential of broader approaches to it. Where new History departments were established they broke, deliberately and self-consciously, from the traditional curriculum and its principles: Lancaster placed social rather than political history at the core of its teaching; Warwick became the first British university to offer History degrees without medieval history; York, which had quickly established itself as one of the best departments in the country, treated English as part of European history, in selected periods rather than continuously, and placed much emphasis on team-taught courses on thematically defined topics in comparative history, such as “Aristocracy” or “Revolutions”.

The 1975 edition of History at the Universities showed how widespread the impact of these innovations had been. Almost everywhere courses on European and extra-European (especially American) history dealt with much shorter periods, and were more precisely defined, and taught through seminars, with a far greater variety of topics and of inter-disciplinary and comparative approaches. Room had been made for innovation by dismantling the Stubbsian core. Chronological breadth was still insisted on, and the whole of English history was still taught as such (and still English) in most places, but only a handful of departments now made students follow it from beginning to end in compulsory papers.

Sheffield was one of them. The age of Lucky Jim was gone. The quality of teaching, of the history taught, and of relations between staff and students, had improved immeasurably. But, as Katie Crowley commented in her blog for History Matters, “it appears that there was little development in the historical content taught at the university between 1910 and 1975.” The appearance is deceptive to the extent that new approaches often lurked behind old titles, and that more and better options were offered in the parts of the syllabus that allowed them. But new appointments had been used to fill gaps in the old curriculum, not to extend its scope or change its structure, or the principles on which it was based, which were still those of Stubbs. To the increasing frustration of the younger, and numerically greatly predominant academic staff, change of that kind had to await the 1980s.

If you want to find out about what happened next, you can read more in Part 2.

R. I. Moore taught History at Sheffield from 1964-1993, and is now Professor Emeritus at Newcastle University. His recent publications include ‘L’hérésie dans le jeu des pouvoirs’, Cahiers de Fanjeaux 55 (2020), Le “catharisme” en questions, pp. 157-72, and ‘Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime?’, Medieval Worlds, 6 (2017), pp. 7-19.


Cover image: University of Sheffield in April or May, 1972. Courtesy of David Dixon©, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2891461 [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[1] For a somewhat more sober but almost equally brilliant account, William Whyte, Redbrick (Oxford, 2015).

[2] Sheffield never had a separate department of Medieval History. Katie Crowley’s comment follows the (highly tendentious) account of the merging of Ancient History with History in the 1980s, in Helen Mather, Steel City Scholars (London, 2005), pp. 288-9. Mather gives the succession of departments correctly at 447.

[3] J. A. Cramer, inaugural 1843, quoted by C.H. Firth, Modern History in Oxford, 1841-1918 (Oxford, 1920), p. 7.

[4]  Based on William Stubbs, Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, known to generations of History students as Stubbs’ Charters.

[5] In a letter to T. F. Tout, 1893, congratulating him on the publication of his biography of Edward I in the ‘Great English Statesmen’ series (1893).

[6] Manchester under Thomas Frederick Tout was a partial exception, though much less than he would have liked: see R. I. Moore, “‘The origin of parties, the development of principles…’ Stubbs, Tout and undergraduate History”, Durham University Journal, December 1978, pp. 9-16. The Cambridge approach was rather broader, but its underlying principles were essentially the same.

[7] G. Barlow (ed.), History at the Universities (1968).

[8] S. Blows (ed.), History at the Universities, 2 ed. Historical association (1975).

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

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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©, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2891461 [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), https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/repression-student-movements-uk/[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), https://socialhistory.org.uk/shs_exchange/women-adult-education-1970s/ [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: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/seas/about [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) https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/seas/news/history-korean-studies-sheffield [Accessed 5 July 2020].

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The Armaments Past of Mark Firth

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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: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/JMH-11-2017-0055?journalCode=jmh

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

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