The Institute of Historical Research (IHR) was opened on 8 July 1921 by the historian H. A. L. Fisher, the President of the Board of Education in Lloyd George's Coalition Government, and Lord Bryce, President of the British Academy. Humbly housed in temporary wooden huts it may have been (they were in Malet Street on a small strip of open ground with the terrace houses of Torrington Square behind it to the east, a site now occupied by part of Birkbeck College), but simply by being there the IHR made history.
A few months earlier in 1921 the government had agreed to buy eleven acres, immediately to the north of the British Museum, from the Duke of Bedford's estate, with the intention of making this piece of Bloomsbury into the University of London precinct. There were strings attached to the government's gift to the university, principally that King's College should move to Bloomsbury and that development should be under way by 1926. The faction-ridden university failed to meet the conditions: King's refused to leave the Strand, and the university's Senate refused to accept Bloomsbury as its future base. Hence, in 1926 the site reverted to the Bedford estate.
The University of London had, however, a slender physical presence on the ground: the 'Tudor cottage' of the IHR, and alongside it, in what had been wartime YMCA wooden huts, the newly formed University of London Union. The Bedford estate served an eviction notice on the IHR, but it declined to leave and clung on – almost literally by the skin of its teeth, as the widening of Malet Street brought traffic right up to its front door – preserving a university presence until in 1927 adroit academic political manoeuvring, in which its redoubtable Director played an important part, at last succeeded in getting agreement for the university to purchase the site to develop for its own centre, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, without any requirement for King's to move. In this fashion the IHR played a leading part in securing the site for the Senate House.
In the half dozen years since it opened in 1921 the IHR had quickly established itself as an institution of national and international importance. But what exactly was it? The Institute was the virtually single-handed creation of A. F. Pollard, the Tudor historian, and the concept was outlined in his inaugural lecture, The University of London and the Study of History, delivered on his appointment in 1904 as Professor of Constitutional History at University College London (UCL).
In this he issued a call for the creation of a School of History in London to equal those already existing in Germany and the USA, and for the proper exploitation of the capital's massive concentration of the original sources for English history (he habitually thought of this as embracing 'British' history) in the Public Record Office (PRO), the British Museum and many other specialised collections, which would be achieved by establishing in London a centre of postgraduate historical research.
Fortuitously the First World War acted as a forcing house for these plans. An informal School of History formed itself as those teachers and research students who were left behind when most went to war huddled together under Pollard's lead, meeting in regular Thursday evening conferences to discuss both practical problems of the organisation of intercollegiate teaching, and questions about the methods and direction of historical research.
Moreover, Pollard became greatly interested in contemporary affairs and the conduct of the war, and evolved the ingenious theory that the fundamental cause of the conflict was the lack of historically-educated, and therefore historically-aware, people in the diplomatic and civil services and among men of affairs. This deficiency could only be remedied by creating proper facilities for postgraduate and advanced historical research. It was an argument which impressed his political acquaintances in the Liberal party, many members of the university Senate, and, crucially, his Putney neighbour the property developer John Cecil Power, creator of Kingsway, who was persuaded in 1920 to give 20,000 (a million or more in 2008 values) towards the immediate establishment of the Institute in temporary buildings in Malet Street.
In 1920 the University of London was simply an examining and degree-giving body which happened to possess a library; all teaching and such research as was carried on was conducted by its constituent, and very independent-minded, colleges and medical schools. Not for nothing was Pollard a constitutional historian: he invented the Senate Institute, a novel species of academic animal for the university, which had research functions without being part of any particular college. He could not, however, invent funds for the new Institute, so that it was unable to employ research staff to carry out its own research projects.
In any case historical research at this time was overwhelmingly a matter of individual enterprise, and research teams were practically unknown; the historian needed research tools rather than teams of research assistants, and those are what the IHR set out to provide. So partly for sound intellectual reasons, but perhaps mainly for financial ones, the Institute set out on the course of becoming 'the history laboratory', furnishing resources which would help individual scholars in their research. Above all this meant building up a library – initially chiefly through gifts from Whitehall departments, Parliament and many well-wishers – of printed primary sources, and guides to record collections and classes of documents, which rapidly proved itself to be greatly valued as a unique, open-access collection, complete with a comprehensive range of standard reference works and a generous array of specialist journals.
Within a few years the IHR library had a worldwide readership, and it has been used by generations of postgraduates and established historians, from British universities and universities around the world, both as part of their research topics, and perhaps more importantly as a means of detailed preparation of research strategies before embarking on archival research in record offices. The collections reflected the prevailing concerns of the inter-war period with constitutional, political and diplomatic history, and later developed particular strength in English local history, while also catering for the rise of economic and social history.
Geographically, reflecting a division of labour with other libraries in the university, the IHR's attention has consistently focused on Britain, Western Europe and North America. I well remember, however, taking a party of historians from Latin America on a tour of the library, at the end of which one of them commented that the IHR had the best collection of sources for the history of Nicaragua that he had ever seen – even though it only amounted to a single shelf.
Augmented with 21st-century digital resources the library continues to be the core of the 'history laboratory' function of the IHR, although the 'History Lab' designation has recently been adopted, most appropriately, by a network of postgraduates and new researchers based in the IHR who get together to discuss ideas and move the study of history forward. That historians – teachers, archivists, postgraduates and other researchers – should meet together to debate concepts and research problems and priorities was precisely the way in which Pollard envisaged the role of the IHR. Such meetings were both organised, in seminars, and informal, in the common room; it might be hard to determine which has made the more fruitful contribution to the making of history since 1921.
The seminars are lineal descendants from the Thursday evening conferences which Pollard started during the First World War. These originally had no formal agenda, and were intended for free-ranging exchange of views, which under Pollard's guidance normally homed in on the Tudor constitution. The Director's conferences continued under his successors, once or twice termly instead of weekly, and with established historians addressing themes of broad interest. The audience became divided into sheep and goats: the elect were entertained to an elegant supper before the meeting, while the lesser breeds were invited to take coffee before the speaker spoke. This division was abolished in the 1980s, with supper for everyone who was invited, and the evening conferences themselves were discontinued in the 1990s.
Meanwhile the single unstructured seminar of Pollard's Thursdays was quickly augmented by specialised seminars. The first Anglo-American Conference, held in the newly opened IHR in July 1921, held a formal discussion on 'How to conduct a seminar', but fortunately the IHR forbore to lay down any rules and left each seminar leader to follow his or her own path. The Institute's contribution to the organisation was to arrange the library in seminar rooms, each room earmarked for the books appropriate for the sphere of interest of a particular meeting, so that the England Room had the most space, with lesser rooms devoted to International Relations, the Low Countries, Ecclesiastical History, and so forth. The idea was that points made and queries raised in seminars could be instantly checked by pulling a book of documents off the surrounding shelves.
Initially seminar leaders were recruited by invitations from the Director to senior historians in the London colleges to run a seminarInitially seminar leaders were recruited by invitations from the Director to run a seminar for senior historians in the London colleges, a system which almost imperceptibly evolved into one in which a historian, or more usually a group of historians, from colleges and universities within the metropolitan area as well as from colleges of London University, makes proposals for running a seminar – proposals which the Director usually welcomes enthusiastically. The great increase in the number of weekly and fortnightly seminars since 1945, and the expansion in the range of sources used by historians, have made the concept of a library organised in dedicated seminar rooms obsolete.
The move from the 'Tudor cottage' to the present accommodation in a wing of the Senate House, finally accomplished in 1948 after some intervening wartime shifts, gave the IHR many more rooms but there could never be enough, or enough special collections, to give every one of the 40 or so regular seminars its own library room. It is perhaps logical that the breakdown of the rationale behind the organisation of the library's collections should lead to a move to separate meeting rooms – for seminars, small conferences and special functions – from library rooms where the books are as densely packed as possible. A seminar where the members sit round a table with walls lined with books behind them still feels like a different intellectual and social experience from a seminar where the members sit in rows in a bare classroom.
The astonishing concentration of seminars held in the Institute, with its great chronological spread and thematic variety, is the IHR's major contribution to mobilising the research potential of the historians in London University and many other universities in the metropolitan region. The seminars are a significant element in research training, and from the early days of the IHR have been complemented by courses in palaeography and diplomatic, joined more recently by courses in research methods and the use of computers in historical research.
The politics of London University contained built-in tension between the constituent colleges and the 'centre'. The colleges' sensitivity to any competition in teaching and research by a central university institution, reinforced by the slender financial resources of the IHR, meant that the Institute was directed towards creating and enhancing facilities and aids to historical research, rather than to conducting historical research directly – although the distinction could become blurred. As Pollard remained Professor of Constitutional History at UCL until 1931 as well as being de facto Director of the IHR (he did not assume the title of Director until 1927, until then exercising his authority as Chairman of the IHR Committee) there was a lingering suspicion that the IHR was a Trojan horse for attaining UCL domination of the world of history in London. It was a suspicion allayed by his retirement in 1939 and finally laid to rest by the appointment of V. H. Galbraith as full-time Director in 1944, coming to the post from the PRO, showing that the IHR had clearly broken free from the UCL apron strings.
Directors of the IHR are distinguished historians with established reputations before appointment, and continue with research and publication in their own special fields while in post, and the cumulative contributions to making history of nine Directors over a period of more than 80 years have been very considerable. Likewise members of the library staff have done distinguished research as individuals, although the first Secretary and Librarian, Guy Parsloe, while a highly successful and admired administrator, may not have been deeply attached to history for after serving the IHR since 1922 he happily became Secretary of the Institute of Welding in 1943.
Research initiated and supported by the IHR as an institution, however, was designed to create and improve resources available to researchers, not to produce history. Thus the Institute took over from the Royal Historical Society (RHS) the task of preparing a fully researched edition of Le Neve's Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, listing all the bishops, archdeacons, cathedral dignitaries and prebendaries in each diocese of England and Wales. By 2005 coverage of the periods 1066–1300 (1) and 1300–1541 (2) had been completed in 22 volumes, while work on the final period of the project, 1541–1857,(3) is still in progress, the 12th volume appearing in 2007.
Also taken over from the RHS was the bibliographical project of compiling a retrospective classified listing of Writings in British History,(4) finally completed in 10 volumes in 1986, after which the IHR has continued to make a major contribution to the Annual Bibliography of British and Irish History published by the RHS. The listing of office-holders in the main departments of state, which began with the 1972 publication of Treasury Officials, 1660–1870,(5) was similarly a research project designed to create a multi-volume reference work.
The IHR library grew from an initial 10,000 books to 55,000 by the time the 'Tudor cottage' was demolished in 1938 and it was moved into the third floor of the freshly completed Senate House pending completion of its own wing. Meanwhile the 'Tudor cottage', designed for a large number of books, had space to spare in the early years after 1921. This was rented to kindred institutions: the British [later Royal] Institute of International Affairs occupied a room, until J.C. Power (the IHR's original benefactor) gave it Chatham House in St James's Square in 1923; the School of Slavonic Studies then moved in, until it acquired its own houses in Torrington Square in 1928, while the School of Hygiene had a couple of rooms before its own building on the opposite side of Malet Street was ready.
A longer-term tenant was William Page, the editor-proprietor of the Victoria County History (VCH), who had a room from 1921 to 1932, from which he struggled, with limited success, to revive work and publication of new volumes on the pre-1914 lines of soliciting financial pledges from individual county notables. In view of his long association with the IHR it was perhaps not surprising that Page gave the copyright of the VCH to the University of London in November 1932 (15 months before his death). Naturally the University put the IHR in charge of this bequest.
Nevertheless this was a major departure from the course on which Pollard had set the Institute, for it meant that for the first time the IHR was undertaking a large-scale research project whose purpose was to make history – that is, to research, write and publish volumes which are original, and authoritative, county histories. As reference works VCH volumes certainly had a role in providing sources for other historians to exploit. An early example of this was F. J. Fisher's extraction of data on the ownership of thousands of manors from seven VCH volumes, which formed the statistical foundation of R. H. Tawney's famous 1941 article, 'The rise of the gentry, 1558–1640'.(6) It would be idle to pretend, however, that this was the chief purpose or main value of the VCH enterprise.
The IHR had not planned to acquire the VCH, but in the interests of historical scholarship could not refuse the rather awkward, though not unwelcome gift, there being no money attached to the bequest. There were responsibilities and liabilities. There was a large amount of back stock, bound and unbound, in some disorder: it was sorted, and stored in the School of Hygiene. There were liabilities to individual guarantors of volumes in progress, who expected to see them published: the IHR managed to see some half dozen volumes through the press by 1939, work on which had been started under Page.
It was not until after 1945 that the VCH became a vigorously active research enterprise, with a novel financial and editorial structure. The prototype was the local committee formed in March 1948 to make a start on the VCH of Wiltshire, with a county editor and local research staff largely financed by several Wiltshire local government councils. Similar arrangements quickly followed for Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Essex; the IHR provided the General Editor and central staff to co-ordinate, advise and publish. The 100th volume had been published in 1937, the 150th appeared in 1970, and the publication of the 200th in 1989 was marked by a major exhibition in the British Museum.
For more than half a century after 1932 the VCH remained not only the IHR's major research project but also its only research project aimed at making history, even if, in the General Editor's words, 'the topographical volumes [the parish histories] form a work of reference rather than a work for reading'. Then in the 1980s the IHR discovered a new role, that of providing a home for individually financed research projects. Some, such as the compilation of an index to the illustrations in the Builder, and the creation of a database of the Huguenot exodus to Britain, 1680–1709, were of the traditional kind, creating a research tool. Others, however, set out to make history.
The two projects launched in 1985 were rather modest and inexpensive: a study of the social structure of the medieval English aristocracy, financed by the Leverhulme Trust, and a team enterprise to write the Centenary History of the London County Council (LCC) funded by the Greater London Council (GLC) – this ran into considerable difficulties when the Thatcher government abolished the GLC and the administrators appointed to wind up its affairs failed to appreciate the importance of supporting historical research.
Launched in 1988 the Centre for Metropolitan History (CMH) is in an altogether different league, destined to become the IHR's second major research project, rapidly acquiring a national and international reputation for the originality and excellence of its work, thus ensuring its continued existence after the completion of its first two projects. The CMH started with an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research grant for work on From counting house to office: London's central financial district, 1690–1870, and Leverhulme funding for Feeding the City, 1250–1350; but it also attracted funding from English Heritage and the ESRC for creating a bibliography of pre-1939 printed works on London, thus combining a traditional IHR function of fashioning new research aids with the making of history.
Then in 1999 the Institute of Contemporary British History, which for several years had flourished in informal association with the IHR based in the IHR's Tavistock Square house, formally joined the IHR as its third major research outfit, becoming the Centre for Contemporary British History (CCBH). Like the CMH the CCBH has dual functions, both making history and facilitating research through producing guides to sources. An outstanding feature of its activities, dating back to the 1980s, is the organisation of 'witness seminars' at which prominent actors in contemporary post-1945 events appear in person '20 years on', or more, to review their role in history. Perhaps the closest the IHR has ever come to hosting a riot was the occasion when Enoch Powell came to talk at this seminar, in fact about his resignation as one of Thorneycroft's Treasury team in 1958 and not about immigration and his 'rivers of blood' speech as the protesters imagined.
Another long-term resident in the Tavistock Square house was the History of Parliament (HoP), whose research staff were based there when the project first devised by Josiah Clement Wedgwood in the 1920s was revived and relaunched as a collaborative enterprise in 1951. The HoP is an entirely independent operation, financed directly by Parliament and governed by a trust, but its close contacts with the IHR mean that it has sometimes been described as an 'associated Institute'. Its staff have long been familiar figures in the IHR premises, and its renowned 18th-century editor, Lewis Namier, not only colonised a particular corner of the IHR Common Room for his acolytes but also possessed his own named towel in the gents cloakroom.
The different stories of the VCH, which began life as a private enterprise long before the IHR existed, the CMH, which started life in the Museum of London as an offshoot of the museum's archaeological interests, the CCBH, launched in 1987 with the patronage of a retired Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, all of which became incorporated in the IHR, and of the HoP Trust, which maintained close relations with the IHR, tell how the Institute of Historical Research has developed since 1921 and broadened its scope, becoming the principal national institution promoting and facilitating historical research, through its co-operation with kindred bodies as well as through its own activities.
M. L. Thompson was the Director of the Institute of Historical Research between 1977 and 1990.