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Former historians in the department

Alan John Percivale Taylor (generally known as A. J. P. Taylor)

  • Life dates: 1906-1990
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1930-1938
  • Position held: Lecturer in History

Alan John Percivale Taylor (hereafter AJP) was born in Birkdale, Lancashire in 1906. His father was a cotton merchant and his mother a schoolmistress. Although Taylor’s parents became Labour supporters, the family was well-to-do, and Taylor was well-educated at Boothby School in York and Oriel College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a first class degree in 1927, specialising in medieval history.

In a move that was less unusual then that perhaps it is now, after graduation Taylor switched from medieval history to study modern diplomatic history and travelled to Vienna as a Rockefeller fellow. In 1930, he was appointed lecturer in history at the University of Manchester.

Announcement of Taylor's appointment

"Miss Phythian has gone to be Warden of the Industrial Settlement at Elvington in Kent, a position that will call out many of the gifts that endeared her to us. In her room we have Mr Alan Taylor, a graduate of Oriel, who has come to us from Vienna, where he was working under Professor Pribram."
History Department Newsletter, 5 December 1930

From the start, the rather flamboyant Taylor could be dismissive of Manchester and he clearly viewed as a stepping-stone to returning to Oxford, which he did in 1938 (to Magdalen College, where he remained until 1976). For instance, even though he prepared a PhD thesis for submission in his time at Manchester, he refused to pay the fee to have it examined, suggesting that he did not particularly value the degree (PhDs were still very new in history at this time, and not particularly recognised at Oxford). He remained ‘Mr Taylor’ for the rest of his life.

It was while he was at Manchester, however, that Taylor built a solid academic reputation, publishing work on nineteenth-century European diplomatic history. Later, alongside his academic work, Taylor became a leading television personality – a 'telly don' – lecturing on various historical topics for Lew Grade’s ATV and, later, the BBC, as well as regularly appearing on current affairs programmes like ‘The Brains Trust’. There is a case to be made that his time in Manchester was crucial to his development as a public intellectual; Taylor himself suggested that, more important than his relationship with fellow Manchester historian Sir Lewis Namier was his relationship with A.P. Wadsworth, editor of The Manchester Guardian, who commissioned him to write reviews in the 1930s.

In terms of sheer recognisability and public profile, Taylor is probably the most obviously 'famous' historian that has worked at the University of Manchester. His personal impact on the department was more limited. However, his Manchester years probably had a greater impact on his career than he would have admitted, especially in developing his distinctive lecturing style (without notes) and, in his journalism for The Manchester Guardian, writing for a non-academic audience.

Bibliography of Taylor's work

Sources and further resources

The Samuel Alexander building in the 1950s

The Samuel Alexander building in the 1950s