Our history

History was first taught at Manchester in the 1850s by Professor Richard Copley Christie.

In 1922, the 'Manchester School of History' became the primary centre for historical research outside Oxford and Cambridge.

The main activities of the School were:

  • advanced study and research,
  • the teaching of University students,
  • popularisation of history.

These activities remain central to the current History department.

Historical research

Mabel Tylecote
Mabel Tylecote, 1 Rusholme Gardens, Manchester (late 1970’s or early 1980’s)

Original research has always been at the heart of History at Manchester. Historians at Manchester have been at the forefront of developing historiographical debate and theory.

For example:

  • Professor George Unwin was the only professor of economic history in the British Empire.
  • In the 1930s and 1940s, Professor Lewis Namier completely revolutionised the study of eighteenth-century politics in focusing on social relationships and collective biography;
  • In the 1950s, Harold Perkin was the first person in the country to hold the title of 'Lecturer in Social History'
  • 1980s and 1990s, Patrick Joyce questioned exactly what 'the social' meant and History at Manchester became a centre for theoretically-informed cultural history.

Find out more about our former historians:

Alice Margaret Cooke

  • Life dates: 1867-1940
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1893-1901
  • Position held: Lecturer in History

Alice Margaret Cooke was born in Manchester (Hulme) in 1867, the daughter of a cotton yarn agent and his wife. After attending a private day school, Cooke was admitted to the Manchester High School for Girls, which was at the forefront of the struggle for women’s education. Due to her parents’ wish that she remain at home, she entered the Victoria University of Manchester (Owens College) in 1887. It is important to note that women had only been admitted into the college in 1883. She was awarded the Bradford scholarship in History (1888) and a first class honours degree in 1890. Cooke was then awarded the School of History’s prestigious Jones fellowship to pursue further research in medieval history at Master’s level (the PhD did not yet exist in UK historical studies).

Cooke was a woman of firsts. In 1893, she was both the very first woman to graduate with a Master’s degree and to be appointed as a lecturer. It is perhaps not surprising that the School of History was the first department to employ a woman as a lecturer, as Prof. T.F. Tout (chair of the School from 1890) was a governor of the Manchester High School for Girls and a prominent campaigner for women’s education, but Cooke’s appointment was clearly in recognition of her expertise as a medievalist and her talent for both research and teaching. Like several of her colleagues, Cooke also took a wider interest in the life of the University and the city, co-founding a union and halls of residence for women (Ashburne Hall) , acting as tutor for women students, lecturing at the University Settlement and as president of the women’s Athletic Union.

Over the length of her career, Cooke wrote over forty scholarly articles, focusing particularly on medieval ecclesiastical history. However, like many scholars of her generation – particularly women – she also played a significant role in cataloguing primary materials and making them accessible to scholars. In particular, Cooke catalogued Earl Spencer’s Althorp Library, which became the central collection of the John Rylands Library, and the massive library of the historian Lord Acton at Cambridge.

In 1907, the University of Leeds appointed Cooke as a lecturer in favour of another Manchester medievalist, and future Oxford Regius Professor of Modern History, F.M. Powicke. Cooke remained at Leeds until 1921 (as Reader in Medieval History from 1919), when she left as a result of ill-health, although she subsequently held a post at Newnham College, Cambridge and lived until 1940. As well as having established its reputation in medieval history, Cooke’s main legacy at Leeds was her advocacy of research-led teaching, arguably a result of having taught in Tout’s Manchester School of History. That Leeds was one of the first departments outside Manchester to adopt the undergraduate dissertation (in 1909) and the third-year special subject (1911) is surely no accident and illustrates the importance of personal networks in spreading methods of historical education.

Bibliography of Cooke's work

Sources and further resources

  • Dictionary of National Biography entry
  • I. B. Horner and E. A. Haworth, Alice M. Cooke: A Memoir(1940)
  • M. Tylecote, The Education of Women at Manchester University, 1883–1933 (1941)
  • J. Kirby, 'Alice M. Cooke and the Beginnings of Medieval History at Leeds, 1907-1921', Northern History, 45:2 (2008), 351-359
  • C. Dyhouse, No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities, 1870–1939 (1995)

John Desmond Hargreaves

  • Historian, born 25 January 1924; died 14 February 2015

John Hargreaves was born in Colne, Lancashire, to Arthur Hargreaves, a cotton merchant, and his wife, Margaret (nee Duckworth). Her father was Caleb Duckworth, a noted inventor in the fruit-processing industry, and her uncle Francis Duckworth the Methodist hymn writer.

From Skipton grammar school and Bootham school, York, John came to the University of Manchester, where he gained a History degree at the age of 19.

Active second world war service (1943-46) followed, and in 1948 he was awarded a master's degree, went briefly to the War Office as a civil servant and returned to Manchester as a lecturer for four years.

Ian Kershaw

  • Life dates: born 1943
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1968-87
  • Position held: initially lectured in Medieval History, 1968-74; lectured in Modern History from 1974 

Ian Kershaw was born in Oldham in 1943 and was educated at St Bede’s College in Manchester (a Catholic grammar) before graduating with an undergraduate degree in History from the University of Liverpool and then a DPhil from Merton College, Oxford.

Although Kershaw is now a world-renowned historian of modern Germany, particularly the Nazi era, his PhD and first book were in medieval history (Bolton Priory: The Economy of a Northern Monastery was published by Oxford University Press in 1973). When he was appointed to Manchester in the late 1960s, it was as a lecturer in medieval history. It was only in the early 1970s that Kershaw began to take an interest in modern German history, learning the German language in his spare time. At Manchester, Kershaw was able to make the switch in topics that was to define the rest of his career. When, by chance, a job in modern history came up in the department in 1974, Kershaw applied for it and managed to convince the interview panel of his ability to lecture in modern history.

On the switch from Medieval to Modern History

"It was wonderful for me to go to such a renowned school of history to become a medievalist there, and for six years to teach medieval history, little thinking that in those six years I would undertake the first stages of converting to a historian of modern Germany. I made that big jump in 1974. I don’t think you’d be able to do it now … it was difficult enough then …

"I had to apply for a completely new job that had been created, absolutely independent of me, at Manchester University. I wasn’t going to apply for this job because I had no qualifications for it being a medievalist. I’d published already in medieval history but I’d published nothing in modern history, and undertaken at that point no serious research in it … I learnt subsequently which rising starts were in for that job, but against daunting competition ultimately they gave me it. And I’ve never been more grateful because that allowed me then to shift completely … without that possibility of moving jobs I would have been stranded …"

- Interview with Institute of Historical Research, 'Making History' project

At the same time as making this switch in jobs, Kershaw was invited by leading German historian Martin Broszat to join a collaborative research project on Bavarian society under the Nazis, which allowed him to build crucial scholarly networks in Germany. Kershaw’s subsequent work on Nazism, including his key works The Nazi Dictatorship (1985) and The 'Hitler Myth'(1987), were particularly well-received in Germany.

Kershaw is one of the most respected and widely-read historians in the UK today, and he has also been a consultant to several high-profile television series, such as the landmark BBC documentary series ‘The Nazis: A Warning From History’ (1997). After making the switch to modern history, Kershaw moved up the ladder at Manchester before being appointed to a chair in modern history at Nottingham (1987) and then at the University of Sheffield, where he remained until his retirement in 2008.

He has continued to publish since retiring, although claimed in 2011 that his latest book, The End, about the final year of the war in Hitler’s Germany, would be his last publication on the Nazis (although he will write the volume on the twentieth century for the Penguin History of Europe). If he holds true to this promise, the book marks the end of a prodigious engagement with the history of the Nazi period that was facilitated by the luck of a job coming up at Manchester and the faith that the department showed in Kershaw’s talent in giving it to him.

Bibliography of Kershaw's work

Sources and further resources

Rosalind Mitchison

Formerly Rosalind Wrong when employed at Manchester.

  • Life dates: 1919-2002
  • Dates at Manchester: 1943-6
  • Position held: Assistant Lecturer in History

Rosalind Wrong was born in Withington, Manchester in 1919. Both her father and mother and both her paternal and maternal grandfathers were academic historians and, later in life, she quipped that she ‘was brought up in history but made a definite attempt to escape’ (‘Interviews with Historians’; see ‘Sources and Further Resources’ below).

This she did by going to Oxford to study Mathematics at Lady Margaret Hall, but she switched to History, gaining a first class degree in 1942. After a short period working as a researcher working for G.D.H. Cole on the Social Reconstruction Survey at Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1943 she took up at an assistant lectureship at Manchester, whose staff was rather depleted due to the pressures of war.

Mitchison on working at Manchester during the Second World War

"I was available when a job became vacant at Manchester. And Manchester would have been a terribly good place to go to in normal circumstances, because really Manchester and Sheffield brought the idea of research to Oxford, you know. Oxford didn’t go in for research in the early days. Manchester in the war was rather hard work and I was a medievalist, I covered history – European history – from 250 to 1495 and it was the first in my long experience of being a hack historian obliged to lecture on anything that turned up …

"The conspicuous person who was not there most of the time was Lewis Namier because he was busy running the Jewish Agency but he did come back and I’d known Namier from childhood …" 

- 'Interviews with Historians: Rosalind Mitchison with Christopher Smout', Institute of Historical Research

After the War was over, and many of the department’s staff returned to their normal academic duties, Wrong found herself surplus to requirements and returned to tutor at Lady Margaret Hall. In 1947, she married John Murdoch Mitchison, a Cambridge zoologist. After a few years teaching part-time at various Cambridge colleges, and having had two children, in 1953, the family moved to Edinburgh when Murdoch took up a post there. Rosalind Mitchison then found herself beginning a series of temporary posts at Edinburgh and Glasgow that lasted, on and off for fourteen years (she also had two further children). She was directly told by one professor that he did not appoint women to permanent jobs. In the meantime, Mitchison had switched to eighteenth-century history and her first major work on Sir John Sinclair was published in 1962. She joked that ‘the birth of my fourth child happened in the middle of Chapter 11’ (‘Interviews with Historians’).

It was for practical reasons – the proximity of archival sources – that Mitchison focused on Scottish social, economic and demographic history from the 1960s onwards, but it was undoubtedly in this area that her work had the most impact. In 1967 she finally gained some stability when she was employed as a full-time lecturer in economic history at Edinburgh; she was promoted to a readership in 1976 and a personal chair in 1981. Unsurprisingly, this led to an increase in academic output. In the 1970s and 1980s a series of books finally brought her recognition, including the History of Scotland (1970), Life in Scotland (1978) and Lordship to Patronage (1983). After her formal retirement in 1986, Mitchison continued to pursue new lines in Scottish history and published into her 80s. Her final book, on the Scottish Poor Law, was published in 2000, only two years before her death in 2004.

When asked in the 1990s if she had been conscious of any prejudice against her as a woman she replied, ‘[n]ot as a woman but as a married woman, yes (‘Interviews with Historians’). Mitchison’s career, a series of part-time and temporary jobs until relatively late in life, shows the immense difficulties that many women had in convincing employers that they could – or should – combine academic work with family life. However, Mitchison was rather philosophical about her career path, having come of age a generation before second wave feminism, and was wary of concentrating on the impact of gender on her career. Indeed, she seemed to suggest that having been forced by circumstance to pragmatically extend her expertise in response to departmental needs had led her to develop a more expansive view of history than might have otherwise been the case.

Bibliography of Mitchison's work

Sources and further resources

Lewis Bernstein Namier

  • Life dates: 1888-1960
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1931-1953
  • Position held: Professor of Modern History

Lewis Bernstein Namier was born in 1888 in Russian Poland to Polonised Jewish parents of aristocratic stock who had converted to Catholicism. His family background was complex and the family moved around a lot in his early years. In 1906, he began studying law at Lwów University but experienced anti-Semitism; in 1907 he enrolled at the London School of Economics and in 1908 Balliol College, Oxford, gaining a first in modern history in 1911. After a short time in New York, in 1913, he made England his home. During the First World War, Namier worked as an adviser in the Foreign Office and became more and more involved in the Zionist movement.

After the war, alongside his political activities, Namier worked on eighteenth-century politics. The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III was published in 1929 and was followed by England in the Age of the American Revolution in 1930. Reviews at the time were mixed, but it was clear that Namier’s method – prosopography, or the use of biography to the explore the connections and minutiae of the working of eighteenth-century politics – was new. It was because of the historian G.M. Trevelayan noting that Namier was a unique historian that he was invited to take up a chair in modern history at Manchester in 1931.

Namier was clearly not easy to work with. He was a man of very fixed ideas and a quick temper – and he greatly resented doing any University administration. He regarded Manchester a provincial university and always felt that he had been overlooked by Oxford and Cambridge. Yet he stayed at Manchester until 1953, even though he did not actually ever move to the city, going back to London every weekend. During his time at Manchester, Namier’s method of studying politics became increasingly influential, eventually becoming somewhat of an orthodoxy for younger historians to challenge. He also continued to be involved in Zionist activities and was released from his job in the Second World War to work for the Jewish Agency.

In 1953, Namier retired from Manchester at a time when respect for his historical work on the eighteenth century was at its height. He then revived the History of Parliament project which is still going on to this day. Namier died in 1960 and throughout the 1960s and 1970s his structural approach to politics was much maligned by a new generation of social historians. However, there is no doubt that Namier – both through his work and as a personality – had made probably the most significant impact on the discipline of any of the historians of his age.

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin on Lewis Namier

"He stood in the middle of room and spoke his words in a slow, somewhat hypnotic voice, with great emphasis and in a continuous unbroken drone, with few intervals between the sentences, a strongly Central European accent and a frozen expression. He kept his eyes immovably upon me, frowning now and then, and producing (I later realised that this was how he drew breath without seeming to do so) a curious mooing sound which blocked the gaps between his sentences and made interruption literally impossible. Not that I dreamt of interrupting: the entire phenomenon was too strange, the intensity of the utterance too great; I felt that I was being eyed by a stern and heavy headmaster, who knew precisely what I was at, disapproved, and was determined to set me right and to get his instructions obeyed.

"… those who met him were divided into some who looked on him as a man of genius and a dazzling talker and others who fled from him an appalling bore. He was, in fact, both. He aroused admiration, enthusiasm and affection among his pupils and those who were sympathetic to his opinions; uneasy respect and embarrassed dislike among those who did not."

- Isaiah Berlin, L.B. Namier: A Personal Impression, Encounter, November 1966, p. 32; p. 36

Bibliography of Namier's work

Archives at Manchester

Sources and Further Resources

Harold Perkin

  • Life dates: 1926-2004
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1951-1965
  • Positions held: Assistant Lecturer and Lecturer in Social History

Harold Perkin was born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1926, the eldest of five children. His father was a building worker but from a young age Perkin was conscious of the fact that his extended family spanned a large range in terms of social status, from relatively poor to the comfortable middle-class. He later claimed that this had fuelled his interest in the structure of society. He won a scholarship to Hanley High School in 1938, followed by a scholarship at Jesus College, Cambridge in 1945. Perkin excelled at Cambridge, graduating with a starred-first, one of only two in his cohort of 330 students. Despite this success, however, his application to study for a PhD at Cambridge was rejected.

After a period of national service (1948-1950), Perkin managed to find lecturing work in the extra-mural department of the University of Manchester, where he taught courses including one on fashion and the history of society. In 1951, as a result of government investment in the social sciences in the early 1950s, Perkin interviewed for a newly-created assistant lectureship in social history in the History department at Manchester. He later recalled a high-powered interview panel, including the formidable eighteenth-century historian Sir Lewis Namier, who asked him to define social history:

"When my turn came, they asked me what social history was. I was then at the height of my chutzpah, and I told them, at some length. What did I have to lose? … I said that social history was not the ‘residual’ history of Trevelyan, history with the politics left out, but the history of society, a history with a backbone. Social structure was the framework in which every other activity in life operated, the foundation on which every other kind of history rested, and without which political and economic history lacked context. I harangued them for twenty minutes or more without a break." 

- Harold Perkin, The Making of a Social Historian (2002), p. 93

Perkin successfully convinced them with this definition and he became the first named lecturer in 'social history' in the country. Later, at Lancaster University, he also became the first professor of social history. Perkin himself admitted that that did not at all mean that he was the first or only person to take an interest in social history. But the fact that he was the first to hold both titles, and later founded the Social History Society (1976) shows how important Perkin was in securing academic and institutional recognition for the field.

Alongside his academic work, Perkin was also a pioneer in television history (even before former Manchester 'telly-don' A.J.P. Taylor) acting as a kind of resident historian for the Granada local news programme ‘People and Places’ in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Amongst other issues, he provided historical background to the Cuban missile crisis. Later, in the 1970s, he wrote and presented programmes on 'The Age of Railways' (1970) and 'The Age of the Automobile' (1976).

Perkin's major academic books were published relatively late in his career and were characterised by long gestation times: The Origins of Modern English Society (1969), The Rise of Professional Society (1989) and The Third Revolution (1996). These works marked him out from many of his contemporaries, such E.P. Thomson, as his books were less concerned with the working-class but more the entire social structure and its impact on all classes. Perkin was an interesting figure not only because he was a pioneer in social history but because he stood alone somewhat, operating at a remove from both Marxism and conservatism.

After moving to Lancaster in 1965, Perkin remained there until 1985 when, demoralised by the effect Thatcherite cuts had on UK higher education, he took a chair at Northwestern University in Chicago. He retired in 1997 and died in London in 2004.

Bibliography of Perkin's work

Sources and further resources

Frederick Maurice Powicke

  • Life dates: 1879-1963
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1906-08; 1919-1928
  • Positions held: Assistant Lecturer (1906-08) Professor of Medieval History (1919-1928)

Frederick Maurice Powicke was born in Alnwick, Northumberland in 1879. His father was a Congregational minister and historian of puritanism. The family moved to Stockport in 1886 and Powicke attended Stockport Grammar School before being admitted to the School of History at Manchester in 1896.

Powicke on studying in the 'Manchester School'

"Here are some impressions gathered by a student who first entered the college in 1896 at the age of seventeen … He entered the history school, as it were, by accident, and was provisionally accepted by a professor called Tout. He attended lectures on history by Tout and another man, a lecturer called James Tait, and classes in Greek and Latin. He felt rather strange. Then, in his second term, something happened. He was being taken in Tait’s lectures, carefully and steadily, through ancient and medieval history, and was introduced by him to Tudor England. He was hearing Tout, in his exciting and discursive way, talking about modern history, and four or five times each term, he was learning how to write historical essays, and encouraged, actually encouraged, to browse in big books as he did so. This was history and these people were historians, and, as it and they became alive to him, the world about him began to seem more interesting and coherent. …

"After four years at Oxford, the student returned to the University of Manchester in the year of its charter, as a research fellow … The student began to work on something himself and in due course began to teach. He learned all about the history of the history school in Manchester from Christie’s time onwards and realised what Christie and Ward and Tout and Tait had done, and what had been done for himself. Later, after the First World War, he got to know Tout and Tait and Little as friends, and also enjoyed the friendship of the first professor of economic history, George Unwin. They were big men in a big place."

 - F.M. Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History: Essays and Papers (London: Odhams Press, 1955), p. 20

Powicke's early academic career was relatively rocky, with temporary appointments as an assistant lecturer at Liverpool (1905-6) and Manchester (1906-8); he was passed over for a lectureship at Leeds in 1907 in favour of fellow former Manchester student Alice Cook. He finally won a prize fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, in 1908, and in 1909 was appointed as lecturer at Queens University, Belfast, where he remained until he returned to Manchester in 1919, this time as professor of medieval history.

Powicke's return to Manchester coincided with Tout's concerted effort to make the School of History a centre of graduate education in historical research. Given the School's particular expertise in medieval history, a significant number of the early PhDs were supervised by Powicke, including Beryl Smalley and Decima Douie, who became leaders in their fields.

Powicke’s work on medieval political and constitutional history, especially the 'making' of the Magna Carta, was imaginative and influenced by continental scholarship in a way that was ahead of its time, and was noticed beyond Manchester. Powicke was appointed Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford in 1928 and remained in that post until his retirement in 1947. In his last year at Manchester (1927), Powicke had been elected a Fellow of the British Academy. He was president of the Royal Historical Society between 1933 and 1937, and was knighted in 1946. His successor as Reguis Professor was Vivian Galbraith, whom he and T.F. Tout had mentored as a student and colleague at Manchester. Following his retirement, Powicke continued to research and publish; indeed, one of his major works The Thirteenth Century (part of the Oxford History of England) was published in 1953. Powicke died in Oxford in 1963.

Bibliography of Powicke's work

Archives at Manchester

Sources and further resources

Terence Ranger

  • Life dates: 1929-2014
  • Dates at Manchester: 1974-1987
  • Position held: Professor of Modern History

Born in 1929, Terence Ranger is primarily a historian of African history and nationalist movements, particularly of Zimbabwe. Outside African history, however, Ranger is probably best known for co-editing, with Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most influential essay collections ever to be published in the discipline: The Invention of Tradition (1983).

Before coming to Manchester, Ranger played an active role in African nationalist politics, which has sometimes made his work, although incredibly well-respected, controversial. Having originally done his PhD in the field of early-modern Irish history, Ranger got a job in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) at University College of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland. Here Ranger became involved in nationalist political movements opposing discrimination against black Africans for which he was deported in 1963. Having also switched his research to focus on African history, Ranger moved to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (1963-7), where he was part of a ‘school’ of nationalist African history, before moving to UCLA (1969-74) and then Manchester (1974-87). During this time he published academic work on colonial history, particularly revolt, as well as contributing to contemporary political debate.

As well as working on Zimbabwean history and editing The Invention during his thirteen years at Manchester, Ranger played a key role in shaping the curriculum. He was particularly keen that African history was integrated into the overall programme.

Ranger on the teaching of world history at Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s

"… my period in Manchester was thirteen years long and I was not professor of African history but professor of Modern history. My African courses fitted into the overall shape of that Manchester degree. I gave most of the first year thematic lectures, one year on aristocracy and the next year on rural society and so on. The Manchester system at that moment enabled people to narrow down to their specialities. I had the special subject on the African experience in Zimbabwe. … Now, when the cuts came, then the department lost Judith Brown and we didn’t have anybody to teach India etc. etc. But up until that point, I would like to think, it had been a model of how to integrate the perspectives of extra-European history." 

- 'Terence Ranger: A Life in Historiography' – transcript of interview with Diana Jeater, published on History Workshop Online (2011). 

Ranger was also the driving force behind bringing the perspectives of the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology, to bear on the History department. In the early 1980s, he helped to introduce two new joint-honours degrees in History and Sociology and History and Social Anthropology, although, unfortunately, the latter was never to take off due to the effect of significant government cuts at this time. History and Sociology, however, remains a valued part of our undergraduate provision.

Ranger left Manchester in 1987 to take up the role of the Rhodes Professorship in Race Relations at Oxford, a post he held until his retirement in 1997. He continued to publish: at the age of 84, Ranger's last  book, Writing Revolt (2013), provoked intense discussion and debate. As with his earlier work, the essays in The Invention of Tradition, and his undergraduate teaching in world history and incorporation of the social sciences at Manchester, Ranger continued to experiment, question convention and create controversy.

Bibliography of Ranger's work

Sources and further resources

Alan John Percivale 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

Thomas Frederick Tout

  • Life dates: 1855-1929
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1890-1925
  • Position held: Professor of Medieval and Modern History

Thomas Frederick Tout was born in Surrey in 1855, the only son of a wine merchant and his wife. He was educated at St Olave’s Grammar School in Southwark before winning a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford in 1875, graduating with first class in the Honours School of Modern History (the only one of his cohort to do so). During this time, he was taught by William Stubbs, then the preeminent scholar of constitutional history. Following his graduation, he stayed on to read for another degree in 'Great', graduating in the second class in 1879.

After some time as a private tutor, in 1881 Tout was employed as Professor of Modern History at St. David’s College, Lampeter. In this small department, Tout was able to develop the teaching and administrative skills that would be instrumental to his success at Manchester (then still Owens College), where he was elected to the chair of medieval and modern history in 1890.

Tout’s vision was that the School of History would be a centre of active historical research as well as teaching, and that the two activities should be intimately intertwined. It is hard to convey today just how innovative this was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. History as an academic discipline in England was still young and many of its institutions as yet unformed. For instance, the first volume of the Dictionary of National Biography had only been published in 1885 and the first issue of the English Historical Review appeared in 1886. Tout quickly became involved in these efforts to build the discipline alongside his attempt to make Manchester the pre-eminent centre for historical research outside of Oxford and Cambridge.

Starting with a staff of only two professors and with very few resources, by Tout’s retirement in 1925 the School of History became the most numerous and powerful of the humanities at Manchester and produced an impressive number of professional historians, who spread the 'Manchester model' throughout country as they gained positions at the growing number of civic universities throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The main feature of this 'model' was Tout’s belief that research should be at the centre of any historical education. This particularly guided his reform of the final year undergraduate honours degree to include, in 1892, an intense ‘special subject’ taught with original documents and, from 1907, the authoring of an original piece of research: the dissertation. Later, Tout pioneered research degrees and Manchester was one of the very first departments to award doctorates in history in the early 1920s; Tout spent most of his time on graduate work from 1920 onwards.

Tout on the connection between historical research and University teaching

"For us, professional historians, who are only by accident preachers, prophets, politicians, or men of letters, history must be organized knowledge of the past. Our methods, then, must necessarily be the methods of the observational sciences, and we require as much training in the technique of our craft as any other skilled worker. Nay, more, the educational value of our study lies not so much in the accumulation of a mass of unrelated facts as in training in method, and evidence, and in seeing how history is made. It follows, then, that the study of history should be largely a study of processes and method, even for those to whom history is not mainly the preparation for a career, but chiefly a means of academic education. No historical education can, therefore be regarded as complete unless it involves training in method. The best training in method is an attempt at research." 

- T.F. Tout, 'AN HISTORICAL "LABORATORY"', Standard, 3 January 1910. (Reprinted in Tout’s Collected Papers, pp. 79-84)

Tout's own research was on the administration of government in medieval England, a subject which was, at the time, strikingly new (medieval history before Tout was overwhelmingly ecclesiastical). His training of a significant cohort of research students and cataloguing of charters in the National Archives made him one of the most influential historians of his generation.

Tout was an extraordinarily-active participant in University life, local civic culture, and the expansion of the national and international growth of the historical discipline. Liberal in his politics, Tout was a strong supporter of women’s education and suffrage and was for many years a governor of the Manchester High School for Girls (many of whose pupils found their way to the School of History). He founded the Manchester Branch of the Historical Association and was a co-founder of the Manchester University Settlement at Ancoats. Tout had strong national networks and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1911 and the president of the Royal Historical Society in 1926. He also had an international profile: in the year before his death he even lectured in the US and Canada.

Above all, however, Tout was remembered by his contemporaries as a family man, friend and mentor. Almost all descriptions of him acknowledge that he could be harsh in conversation, but that he, his wife Mary Johnstone, a former student and fellow historian, and his children were at the centre of a much wider 'family' of scholars and students. His colleague A.J. Little described Tout as 'the truest, most reliable of friends', while his former student and colleague, Maurice Powicke, reflected that his beloved School of History 'was not an institution, but a little community … dominated by a strong, but very human, personality'.

F.M. Powicke on Tout as a teacher and mentor

"We had long desultory talk with him, quarrelled with him, were one day happy in the security of his warm encouragement, another day sore and bewildered after a touch of “the rough side of his tongue”, or the more uncomfortable experience of being “shaken over the pit”. But all the time we knew that we were safe. Perhaps that intimate sense of safety, as one went away after a long evening by the fire, with the memory of a comfortable study filled with great books, of gossipy wandering talk in which one was made part of a wider world, was the greatest of his gifts to his pupils. He could be severe, even rather brutal, and his hot temper could make him unjust. At times he was even fussy and irritable, but he never forgot that we were his fellow-workers. He never tried to impress or to envelop himself in a cloud of learned words. What mattered was not what this or that learned person said, but what had happened. And so we quite naturally came to feel about history as we felt about the interesting things and people of whom he talked. We learned to go our own way, and could safely be left to ourselves, for we knew that he was always there."

- F.M. Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History: Essays and Papers (1955), p. 35

Bibliography of Tout's work

Archives at Manchester

Further reading and resources

  • Dictionary of National Biography entry
  • IHR 'Making History' entry 
  • F. M. Powicke, T. F. Tout, 1855-1929 (1931)
  • The Collected Papers of Thomas Frederick Tout, 3. Vols. (1932-4) [including memoir and bibliography]. Vol I. includes essays by colleagues and friends about Tout's role in the expansion of the University (by Professor Samuel Alexander) and as a citizen of Manchester, as well as Tout's own essays and notes about the School of History.

Mabel Tylecote

  • Life dates: 1896-1987
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1926-1930
  • Position held: Assistant Lecturer in History

Mabel Phythian was born in 1896 in Crumpsall, Manchester. Her father, John Edward Phythian, was a solicitor, journalist and a University-extension lecturer, and was involved in many of Manchester’s civic and cultural institutions, such as the University Settlement and the Ancoats Art Museum. There was little doubt that his daughter would receive a liberal education. Pythian attended Beachfield School in Wilmslow before entering the Manchester School of History in 1915, graduating in 1919.

Professor George Unwin's testimonial for the Rose Sidgwick Fellowship at Columbia University

"Miss Phythian is a student of very exceptional ability with special gifts for historical research ... Miss Phythian has taken an eager and highly intelligent interest in modern social and political movements, and has played an active and helpful part as a leader in the social life of the University. She has won the warm regard of both her fellow students and her teachers."

- Tylecote papers TYL/1/1/813 George Unwin, 27 June 1919

Phythian's time as an undergraduate coincided with a traumatic time for the department as many of its staff and students were called up to fight in the First World War. Phythian’s own brother, Wilfred, was himself on the Western Front (a series of watercolours that he painted of scenes from the trenches form part of the Mabel Tylecote collection at Manchester). Mabel herself opposed the violence of the war, although not quite a pacifist – a stance which she shared with several staff members, including Professor George Unwin. In a testimonial for her, Unwin particularly highlighted her involvement in social and political movements. Having joined the Labour Party at the age of eighteen, she held a passion for politics all of her life.

As well as politics, Mabel Pythian's energies were channelled into social and civic life at Manchester, becoming secretary to the Women’s Union and a tutor at Ashburne Hall, the halls of residence for women. She was also an immensely popular personality among both staff and her peers; T.F, Tout, for example, marked her out as a having ‘an unusual measure of enterprise and character’. After graduating, she held a series of temporary teaching posts in Wisconsin in the US (1919-20) and, slightly closer the home, Huddersfield Technical College (1920-1924) before returning to Manchester as an assistant lecturer and PhD student from 1926 to 1930. Her PhD, which she passed in 1930, was on the history of adult education and was later published as the book The Mechanics' Institutes of Lancashire and Yorkshire before 1851 (1957). In 1940, The Education of Women at Manchester University 1883 to 1933 was published.

However, following her PhD, and her marriage to Frank Tylecote, a doctor and councillor, Mabel Tylecote decided to concentrate on social and political matters rather than build an academic career. Although she maintained ties with the education department and extra-mural studies at Manchester, she pursued wider interests. Alongside her interest in the history of adult education, Tylecote became an important advocate for it, as a Labour city councillor in Manchester from 1940 to 1951, a Stockport councillor from 1956-63, and a parliamentary candidate for Labour in five elections from 1938 to 1953. As a co-opted member of the Manchester Education Committee (1951-1977), she had significant influence on the city’s education policy and was a member of the court, council and governing body of the Manchester Polytechnic. Its successor, Manchester Metropolitan University, still has a building that bears her name. She was made Dame Mabel Tylecote in 1966 is recognition of her ‘political and public services’, and remained engaged in Manchester public life until her death in 1987.

Although she may not have become a famous academic historian, the career of Mabel Pythian Tylecote is included here as an example of how the department was bound up in the social, political and civic life of the city of Manchester, and of how the department encouraged its women students in the early twentieth century. Her considerable achievements as a public-minded woman are therefore central to the department’s history.

Bibliography of Tylecote's work

Archives at Manchester

Sources and further resources

George Unwin

  • Life dates: 1870-1925
  • Dates employed at Manchester: 1910-1924
  • Position held: Professor of Economic History

George Unwin was born in Stockport in 1870, the eldest of six children. His father was an inn-keeper and Unwin left Edgeley Wesleyan day school at the age of thirteen in order to take up a job as a clerk at a hat firm. At the age of twenty, he won a scholarship to study at the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff) and then a classical scholarship at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he was awarded a first-class degree in 'Greats' in 1897. Awarded a six-month fellowship abroad by Oriel College, Unwin chose to study economic history in Germany with Gustav von Schmoller, a leading figure of what was known as the German historical school of economics.

On returning to England in 1899, Unwin worked as secretary to a Liberal politician (Leonard Henry, first Baron of Courtney), while preparing two books for publication: Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1904) and The Gilds and Companies of London (1908). In 1908, Unwin was appointed lecturer in economic history at the University of Edinburgh.

Unwin's chair in Economic History at Manchester, to which he was appointed in 1910, was the only one of its kind in the British Empire. That he was a pioneer of what was still a very young subject can be seen from the reading list he gave to his student Mabel Phythian (later Tylecote) when she was asked to teach modern economic and industrial history at Huddersfield Technical College. This short list included only The History of Trade Unionism by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, his own Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, R.H. Tawney's The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century and William Ashley's An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory (Tylecote Papers, John Rylands Library, TYL/1/1/817).

Unwin had a keen sense of political and social justice, and he spent much of his free time lecturing to extra-mural students and Workers' Educational Association classes. During the First World War, he joined the Union of Democratic Control (which was not quite a pacifist organisation, but opposed conscription and censorship), while still providing personal support for his colleagues and students on the frontline. Unwin’s physical health was always precarious and he died at his home in Withington, Manchester (apparently singing with his wife on his deathbed) in 1925.

Unwin was remembered with deep affection by both his students and colleagues. F.M Powicke described him as 'one of the brightest spirits who ever cast his light on dark places and opened up new horizons to his students' (Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History, p. 32). He was a mentor to some of the most prominent economic historians of the first half of the twentieth century, including R.H.Tawney and T.S. Ashton. He was also very supportive of women students and was sympathetic about their difficulties in finding academic employment. Again, a letter to Mabel Pythian is symptomatic of his frustration in this area, as he lamented that he had given his 'best efforts to women students most of whom have not achieved what they set out to do. I don’t blame them and I go on hoping' (Tylecote Papers, John Rylands Library, TYL/1/1/817).

Bibliography of Unwin's work

Archives at Manchester

Sources and further resources

Research-led teaching

From its earliest history the History division has treated its students as trainee historians.

In 1907 Manchester was the first history department in the country to introduce the undergraduate dissertation, where students were supervised in the production of a substantial piece of original work.

At this time historical education was concerned merely with conveying facts rather than developing research skills.  Eventually the dissertation became the cornerstone of an undergraduate historical education.

Our department was one of the first three departments in the country to award PhDs in history in the early 1920s.

In the 1970s and 1980s Manchester's history of interdisciplinary enquiry to joint programmes with other disciplines, in particular the social sciences.

In the media

Historians at Manchester were keen to make the most of media coverage to promote history:

  • Tout and AJP Taylor wrote articles for The Manchester Guardian between 1910 and 1940.
  • Florence M. Grier Evans made a series of broadcasts for the local BBC radio station between 1910 and 1940.
  • In the mid-1950s, Harold Perkin became the historian in residence for the north-west Granada news programme.

Local historical groups and community history

Tout and his staff helped to found the Manchester branch of the Historical Association in 1906, one of the very first in the country.

Professor George Unwin set up Workers' Education classes and the University Settlement in 1895 to bring art and culture to Manchester's poor.

Manchester historians have played an important part in lobbying for and promoting the interests of History as an academic subject. Ward and Tout were early president of the Royal Historical Society.

The Department of History had and still has a lively History Students' Society, see their songbook from the 1920s.