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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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1 Comment

  1. I was at Sheffield studying History and Politics from 1969 to 1972. The History dept. was of course in the Arts Tower with the famous paternoster which I believe is still there. What I remember with some fondness were some of the lecturers but not Dr. Moore.

    Anthony Fletcher was one of my tutors and a particularly nice and unassuming person. He was always very helpful. Then there was Dr. Binfield and Dr. Jeffs, each of them slightly eccentric in the nicest way possible. KHD Haley was the Professor of Modern History.

    Social and Economic History had its own separate Dept. but I was friendly (through the Labour Club) with Richard Thurlow, then a postgraduate PHD student (I think), who I assume is the same person who now gives the odd lecture and has written about fascism in the UK. Through him I met Alf May another postgraduate student and quite a character.

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