Sheffield History

Ownership and the Price of Empire | Festival of the Mind 2022

The original object in Sheffield’s storage facility

‘Ownership and the Price of Empire’ is an exhibition running as part of the Futurecade experience at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery for Festival of the Mind (2022). As we explain in the project’s overview, this exhibition is: ‘an exploration of the debates around the repatriation of “stolen” museum objects implicated by Britain’s imperial past.’ To probe this contentious and layered debate, we tell the story of a historic figure of Buddha, crafted in the 3rd-4th century in the region of Gandhara (now in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan). How did this ancient sacred object find its way into the city of Sheffield’s storage facility, now managed by the Sheffield Museums Trust?

Discussion around the repatriation of museum objects in UK collections has been growing in momentum in recent years, particularly as a response to large-scale public movements, like Black Lives Matter. For me, it was a third-year module at the University of Sheffield entitled ‘Decolonising History: Empire, Power and Colonialism’, convened by Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, that  brought this issue under the microscope. For one of our seminars, we were tasked to design a new gallery in response to the controversy surrounding the The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, opened in 2002 and closed just six years later. Our group of four, including myself, Jessica O’Neil, Maisy Morris and Erin Shaw, chose the theme of ‘Ownership and the Price of Empire.’ We interpreted ‘ownership’ in a material sense, presenting plans for an exhibition that explored the effects of colonial looting and plunder, while proposing ideas for the future of European museums.

Catalogue card from Sheffield Museums Trust

In our presentation, we examined two notable cases in the British Museum connected with demands for repatriation: a stone figure (moai) from Rapa Nui (as local peoples call Easter Island) and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria. Government officials and local representatives from Rapa Nui and Nigeria alike have made repeated calls for the restitution of these items on the basis of their cultural and spiritual significance. In recent years, appeals of this type to European museums have been considered and often honoured with increasing frequency. Just last month, in August 2022, the Horniman Museum in London agreed to return their collection of Benin Bronzes, – but the British Museum is yet to follow suit.

Inspired by our plan, Professor Lambert-Hurley invited us to work with her to pitch the idea for the gallery to the Festival of the Mind team – from which point I took up the baton on behalf of our group. Further collaboration with local Sheffield creatives at Joi Polloi (Russell Stearman and Zoe Roberts), a curatorial consultant from the Portico Library in Manchester (James Moss) and the Sheffield Museums Trust enabled our initial ideas for a seminar task to evolve into the exhibition now featured at Futurecade. The Sheffield connection allowed us to shift emphasis from the more well-known sacred objects in the British Museum to the Gandharan Buddha ultimately featured from the city’s collection.

Sheffield Museums Trust, it should be noted, had already expressed their commitment to a decolonising agenda. As it states in the report on ‘Racism and Inequality in the Culture Holdings of Sheffield’, dated 29 July 2021:

Like many museums in the UK, Sheffield’s are built on a history of colonialism; the desire to explore, collect and ultimately to control the world is reflected in the Museum as an institution and through its collections. Britain’s colonial history, racism and the legacy of slavery are woven throughout Sheffield’s collections and we recognise and will seek to address these offensive ideologies and uncomfortable truths.

But the question remained of what this decolonising agenda should look like for a local museum.

Repatriation is just one – if perhaps the most high profile – of the many ways in which museums can engage with decolonising agendas. The debates for and against the return of ‘stolen’ objects are multifaceted, with a popular concern being that our museums could be emptied of precious objects if items taken without consent are returned to their countries of origin. As London’s TimeOut magazine put it: ‘if we give back everything we got from other cultures, legally or otherwise, what the hell will we be left with?’ This fear of ‘empty museums’ was an idea we wanted to explore and challenge. How can museums honour repatriation requests whilst avoiding blank museum walls and cases?

Page from the Sotheby’s record, photographed at the British Library

Technology, we show in this exhibition, offers opportunities to transform our experience and understanding of museums. Possibilities are opened to engage intimately with ancient and historic artefacts in a way that also honours decolonising agendas. In ‘Ownership and the Price of Empire’, we present a 3D print of the Gandharan Buddha, inviting visitors to touch and even hold the object in a way that is entirely alien to most current museum contexts. The power that an original piece can hold may be diminished, but this type of technology allows alternative ways in which to engage – perhaps even more deeply – with the stories the artefact holds. 

In the course of the exhibition, visitors are invited to move the object across five separate plinths, each triggering a projection that reconstructs a different aspect of the Gandharan Buddha’s long life. While the first introduces its current existence in a familiar museum context, the second recounts its origins and creation – including through the use of a 3D scan to approximate elements lost from the object in intervening years. The third plinth recounts its colonial ‘recovery’ in the late nineteenth century before the fourth encourages us to ponder the politics of ownership since that time. The final plinth invites visitors to engage in decolonising processes by suggesting future options for Sheffield’s Gandharan collection, currently in storage. To finish, the object is placed back in the archaeological context from which it came through the recreation of that landscape using AI technology.

A 3D scan of the Gandharan Buddha in the city of Sheffield’s collection, used to prepare the 3D print for the exhibition, may be accessed on Sketchfab.

The example of Hoa Hakananaiʻa, the moai from Rapa Nui in the British Museum that we focused on for our seminar project, seemed straightforward to me and my fellow students in terms of the repatriation discourse. This project on the Gandharan Buddha, on the other hand, encouraged me to explore the complexities and complications when it came to the repatriation of other objects in European collections. Every object has its own unique history, convoluted present and possible futures – and those need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Join us at the Millennium Gallery to engage in Sheffield’s decolonisation processes by reflecting on these debates and dialogues around the repatriation of museum objects. The story of a Buddha from Gandhara offers ideas of how we can use technology to transform museums for the 21st century.

Lauren Hare received her History BA from the University of Sheffield in 2022. Following this exhibition at the Festival of the Mind, she wishes to pursue a career in curation and exhibition production. 

With thanks to Siobhan Lambert-Hurley for her edits and additions.

For more information and additional resources, please see our project page on the Festival of the Mind website.

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More Change than Previously Thought: An Interview with Dr Linda Kirk About the Sheffield History Department

Barber House exterior

Continuing History Matter’s recent series on the history of the Sheffield History Department, Dr Linda Kirk has very kindly given up some of her time to talk through the changes that occurred within the Department throughout her time there. Linda first joined on a temporary basis in 1969-70 to fill in for Colin Lucas, having previously spent three and a half years volunteering in Africa and teaching at the University College of Rhodesia. After this initial year Colin Lucas did not return and Linda was told she need not apply to the vacant position. But after Colin’s replacement fell through, the department again turned to Linda but this time on a more permanent basis – Linda was to remain a member of the Department until her retirement in 2009.

The Department’s default position was male, with there being only ‘two and a half’ women out of a staff of thirteen and a half – Frances Armytage, who worked as a part time assistant lecturer constituted the half. The 1970’s saw an expanding department with the appointment of several ‘chirpy and self-confident Oxbridge educated people’ who had the appetites to introduce a little bit of Oxbridge into the style and manner of teaching at Sheffield.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a history degree was structured with nine papers examined over the course of a student’s second and third years. Much like today first year would not count towards the final classification of the degree. Katie Crowley’s blog does a wonderful job of explaining the different BA courses that were offered at Sheffield at this time.

The basic structure of courses did not change much throughout this period, with the syllabus getting stuck with three blocks of continuous British History: medieval, early modern and modern. It was not the case, however, of lecturers coming in and reproducing the same notes as the previous year over and over. The course names would remain constant but what was being taught within them was changing. As literature swirled and patterns rearranged themselves so did the content of lectures and reading lists along the lines of these shifts in historiography.

Alongside these three blocks of British History, students would take a special subject that would account for two papers as well as a history exam tackling general themes in history, with questions such as ‘does history matter?’ or ‘do tyrants always fall?’. This took their total up to six. There would then be two more papers on the history of political thought and another on a period of European history, with the last being an optional choice from a selection that were being taught that year.  This took students up to the total of nine papers which would complete their degree.

It was not until modularisation in the 1990s that a structure more familiar to current students began to take shape. We start to see modules such as ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’, which every single honour student taking History at Sheffield in the past 20 or so years will recognise, appearing on the syllabus.  

‘Paths’ was also the beginning of interactive and online learning in the Department. A chat room function accompanied the module where students were supposed to discuss their findings in the readings. However, this was quickly abused and degenerated into a male-led discussion on the attractiveness of their female peers. So, an end was put to that idea. An idea that stuck around a little longer was the introduction of visual material in the form of transparency projections, and then PowerPoints accompanying lectures.

Change would also occur in the ways that a history degree was assessed. Students were already completing two essays per term per course; however, the marks from these had no relation to the outcome of the degree – exam results were the only grades that mattered. The change was as a result of pressure from students, who believed if they had a bad day during the exam, it would have a disastrous impact on their degree. So, gradually, a classification that was based 100% on the exam would become 67% exam and 33% coursework, and modules that were entirely assessed on coursework such as course assignment and a dissertation would become commonplace. 

The increased weighting of essays did present an issue for the Department. Plagiarism would become an increasingly problematic issue for lecturers. With an exam, a marker could be certain that the work of the person themselves, but with essays these distinctions became blurred. What Linda found to be more disturbing was that some staff would find numerous cases in a batch of essays and some would claim to have never seen any.

In the early 1970s, students met individually with a staff member twice a term in an essay return meeting. Linda campaigned to swap these meetings for a weekly group meeting of five or so students – a rudimentary seminar. This marked a reluctant acceptance that Sheffield could not match the weekly individual essay-return supervision or tutorial offered at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the years, the group size of these seminars would grow and grow from five to six to ten. As university student numbers swelled in the 1990s and continued to grow through the 2000s, occasionally up to twenty people could be in these seminars.

This naturally presented issues. Notably, the relationship between students and staff was forced to change. In the 1970s there was an annual weekend trip to Losehill Hall in Derbyshire for second-year students and a reading party at Cumberland Lodge. This was only possible since the entire cohort of 30 to 35 single honours students could fit in a single bus. When these numbers increased to over 100 this became impossible. These trips were intended to create a ‘mateyness’ that was ‘social and interactive’, which is hard to reproduce currently apart from perhaps in the special subject seminars.     

As someone who has been heavily interested gender history, I was intrigued to hear about the ways in which the field had been covered and taught within the Department. In particular, I wanted to know the role that Joan Scott’s 1986 article ‘Gender: A useful Category of Historical Analysis’ had in shaping how women’s history was taught.[1] Women’s history has always been closely linked to feminist politics. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s that saw there was a lack of female representation in standard historiographical texts and sought to re-discover women’s role in the past.[2]

In her blog a year ago, Katie assumed ‘that there was no aspiration to teach women’s history’ in the Department. This is incorrect. Women’s history might not have been visible on the surface of things, but it certainly was taught at the university. Though often hidden behind course titles and overarching themes, women’s issues were being addressed. In Linda’s second year course called Ideas and Institutions of the Age of Reason, some limited focus was on women. But within the History of Political Ideas course, she offered a five week optional sub-section (usually taken by 20 to 40 students) ‘Towards a Doctrine of Women’s Rights’. This worked through Rousseau’s Emile, Diderot’s ‘Essay on Women’, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Condorcet’s, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’.

Linda described herself as a ‘very, very cross, active feminist’ who was trying to ‘introduce women’s history into everything she did’. Take her special subject on the French Revolution for example: one week dedicated to grain riots would focus on the particular role of women in enforcing a ‘just price’ while they were less open to legal penalties for unruly behaviour; another re-emphasised women’s role in the march to Versailles. There clearly was a strong desire to teach women’s history and what was being taught was very important to those within the Department.

As for Joan Scott’s article, Linda recognised its historiographical importance but was insistent that it was not the beginning of women’s or gender history. There had been plenty of work done on the topic and the ideas were hardly new. What the article allowed for was an establishment of a vocabulary around the pre-existing works – that of ‘gender’ and not ‘women’ or ‘sex’. This change that surprised Linda and still remains an ideological issue within gender history today. The Department followed suit, putting on a course called Gender, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain which typically put Joan Scott’s article front and centre of the reading list.

Taking a cursory glance at the History Department during the 1970s and 1980s you could make the assumption that little changed. But looking deeper it is clear that within the broader themes covered there was a significant change in what was being taught as well as the manner it was being delivered. Today the university offers a multitude of gender and women’s related course for second and third years, but it is clear that the Department has a long history of teaching women’s issues that began long before 1986.

Peter Holmes is an MA Global History student at the University of Sheffield currently working on social and economic networks in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Liverpool during the nineteenth century for his MA dissertation. This blog is based on an interview conducted with Dr Linda Kirk who was a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 1969 to 2009, who witnessed an expanding department as well as changes to the curriculum and teaching methods in her time with the Department. 

Cover image: A renovated Barber House, formerly home to the Sheffield History Department.

[1] J. Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91.5 (1986), pp. 1053-1075.

[2] J. Hannan, ‘Women’s History, Feminist history’, Making History (2008),, [accessed 7th April 2021].

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History at Sheffield, 1988-2004: All Change Please!

Barber House exterior

R.I. Moore’s blogs on the history of our Department, 1963-88 (part 1 and part 2) tell how expansion, the arrival of new staff, and curriculum reform transformed a ‘a small and obscure department in a provincial university’.

I arrived in the Department in 1991 as a new lecturer and found it a very welcoming and student-friendly place. Some things never change. But to this American young-man-in-a-hurry, the Department still felt very conservative.  It was led by two professors with titled chairs (the Professor of Medieval History and the Professor of Modern History), each with his (sic) own secretary. British history was still compulsory–a period each of medieval and modern history, with 1509 as the dividing point. Teaching was conducted by lectures, seminars, and first-year tutorials of no more than six students, and assessment almost entirely by unseen examinations. First class degrees were rare–none were given out in my first two years. And there were virtually no computers, though they were becoming common elsewhere.

But the ensuing years felt like continual revolution, as various external and internal pressures led to major changes in all aspects of the Department’s activities. Most important was undoubtedly the government-funded expansion which caused student numbers to double in the 1990s. Government-imposed research assessment exercises, together with dramatic increases in research funding, primarily from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (later Council), provided new resources to do research and increased the value assigned to publication. Meanwhile, broader changes in the historical profession, and in the wider culture, encouraged new approaches and more diverse topics, while computers transformed everything. 

All this was overseen by forward-looking if sometimes controversial Professor Ian Kershaw, Head of Department from 1991 to 2001 (while concurrently writing his prize-winning two-volume biography of Hitler). But change was a collective enterprise, facilitated by an expansion in the senior ranks (with several colleagues promoted to ‘personal chairs’–professorships) and a new committee structure overseeing the key areas of teaching, research, and postgraduate study. But many decisions were taken in seemingly endless Department meetings, in what might euphemistically be described as a productive culture of argument. 

The first issue to confront was the 1988 merger of the Department of Medieval and Modern History with the Departments of Ancient History and Economic and Social History. While many staff moved to other universities, the social historians stayed put, holding onto a separate honours degree in social history. Over time, as many members of the old Department came to practice various types of social history, this separate degree lost its distinctiveness, and it was finally abolished around 2000.

Academic expansion did not keep up with student numbers, leading to a big increase in the staff-student ratio. This led to changes in teaching practices (most obviously larger classes) and assessment. But it proved difficult to reduce the staff workload, as the introduction of continuous assessment meant more work which needed precise marking (sometimes double-marking). The introduction of a requirement for student essays to be ‘word processed’ (opposed by some colleagues who thought it would diminish the quality of the writing) eased some of the burden.  

Prompted both by changes in wider historical practice and the diversity of newly appointed staff (more women, people from abroad, and non-Oxbridge PhDs, but few from BAME backgrounds), the curriculum changed significantly. This was encouraged by University-imposed modularisation and semesterisation in 1994, which meant that courses running over a whole year or over the whole honours degree could no longer be offered (though the Department fudged this by keeping its core year-long special subjects and dissertation).

While the increases in bureaucracy and marking which this caused were unwelcome, the greater number of what were now called ‘modules’ encouraged curriculum innovation.  Mandatory British history was abolished, and courses on a much wider range of topics flourished. The first course which used gender as an explicit category of historical analysis was taught in 1993. A new degree in International History and Politics promoted non-European history (long largely confined to the study of the United States); the first staff taught the histories of Australia, India, and South Africa. 

Two core elements of the 1985 curriculum were revamped: ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’ (level one) replaced ‘World Civilisations’, and ‘Modern Historiography’ replaced ‘Modern Historical Thought’ (level two). The first recognised that the Department did not have the necessary expertise to teach world history (while still introducing students to a broad chronological and geographical perspective), while the second was less philosophy-oriented, focusing on innovation in post-1945 historiography.

The modular programme’s final semester proved difficult, but eventually a reflective core module, ‘Rethinking History’, filled the gap. While the post-modernist ethos of its first iteration proved unpopular with students (who did not appreciate the suggestion that all history was merely ‘representation’), a module reflecting on the purposes of history has retained its place in the final semester ever since. While the seemingly constant chopping and changing was arduous, regular attempts to improve our core modules reflected well on the Department. And with a spine of required modules across each level of the degree, the Department stood out as having a more coherent curriculum than many of its rivals.[1]

Computers transformed not only student and staff writing, but also research. The pioneering Hartlib Papers project (1987-1996), led by Mark Greengrass (with colleagues in English and the Library), based in the newly formed Humanities Research Institute (1991), transcribed and digitised the Library’s collection of the manuscripts of seventeenth-century polymath Samuel Hartlib. This was followed by an AHRB funded project to produce a definitive electronic edition of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In the short term, Hartlib suffered from its CD-ROM delivery platform; the development of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s opened up new possibilities, both for the analysis of digital texts and public engagement.

In the early 2000s two projects, the Old Bailey Online and the Cistercians in Yorkshire, cemented the Department’s move into large scale funded projects, and made it a leading centre for Digital History. For this and many other reasons the Department performed well in the periodic research assessment exercises, attracting additional funding and further enhancing its national and international reputation. Our combination of research success with teaching excellence (also confirmed by external assessment) led the Department to conceptualise its teaching as ‘research led’. It also encouraged the Department’s expansion of its postgraduate programme, both with a stand-alone MA programme (notably the MA in American History, 1993), and in PhD research, as the Department stopped referring its best students to Cambridge and Oxford.

Throughout this period the Department was housed in a set of rather run-down buildings at the intersection of Glossop Road and Clarkehouse Road (though the main building, a former Victorian mansion, exuded an air of dilapidated grandeur). In 2001 the University bought the site of the former Jessop Hospital for Women, paving the way for the Department’s move from its increasingly unsuitable accommodation to purpose-built Jessop West in 2009.

But I will end this story in 2004, when I became Head of Department, marking a generational shift in Department leadership to the baby boomers. At this point I become too much part of the story to be the right person to tell it, so I will leave the sequel to my younger colleagues.

Bob Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History.  His most recent publication is ‘Sympathy for the Criminal: The Criminal Celebrity’ in Eighteenth-Century London’, Crime, History and Societies, 24:1 (2020).

Cover image: A renovated Barber House, formerly home to the Sheffield History Department.

[1] For a review of university history curricula in the late 1990s, see Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker and John Tosh, ‘Skills and the Structure of the History Curriculum’, in The Practice of University History Teaching, ed. Alan Booth and Paul Hyland (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 47-59.

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


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©, [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


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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