Founded in 1906 the Historical Association (HA) has been a broad-based organisation combining teachers of history, from primary level to university, and a large body of those with a general interest in the subject. It was formed to be complementary to the Royal Historical Society (RHS). Initially (1906–14) the HA enjoyed accommodation provided by that Society and, indeed, the RHS's secretary, Miss M. B. Curran, was part-time secretary of the HA, 1906–21.
The impulses for its formation were varied. School teachers were securing support from discipline-based associations, such as the Geographical (1893), Modern Language (1893) and Classical (1903) Associations. There was a widely felt need for an association for history. In several universities and university colleges history was being established as a degree subject and in the Edwardian years the numbers of history graduates were growing. The founders of the HA were both prominent academics and significant teachers of the subject. Its early leaders included Professors T. F. Tout of Manchester (president 1910–12), A. F. Pollard of London University (president 1912–15) and C. H. Firth, holder of the Regius Chair at Oxford (president 1906–10 and 1918–20). The first Council of the HA had many university members but also had two principals of colleges, two training college lecturers and nine secondary school teachers.
The initial aims of the HA included 'the encouragement of local centres for the discussion of questions relative to the study and the teaching of History', 'the representation of the needs and interests of the study of History and of the opinion of its teachers to governing bodies, government departments, and other authorities having control over education' and 'co-operation for common objects with the English Association, the Geographical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Classical Association'.(1) The HA long has seen its role as a wide-ranging 'Voice for History'. Before the Second World War some HA branches often held joint meetings with other bodies, including archaeological and local history societies and organisations. In more recent times it has joined with the RHS, the Economic History Society (EHS) and others to campaign to defend and foster the teaching of history at all levels in British schools. It took the lead in the 'Campaign for History' in the late 1990s.
The HA has also long been prominent in developments in the teaching of history in schools. Its Secondary Committee has organised many conferences at the cutting edge of educational developments, some attracting several hundred teachers. Teaching History, initially edited from 1960 by John Standen, was a pioneering journal of news and ideas about developments in teaching history. In the late 1990s, under Christine Counsell, Nicholas Kinloch and others the journal has become even more successful, both in its innovative content and in the number of subscriptions.
The HA has also taken much interest in primary education, as shown by several pamphlets. However, the area was boosted when the Primary History Association (PHA), founded in 1988, merged with the HA in 1991. Roy Hughes, who had been the secretary of the PHA, became a notably proactive chair of the HA's Primary Committee from 1991 to 2005. Primary History, established in 1994, has provided fresh, practical information and ideas of value to its sector.
The HA's role in promoting good practices in history in schools has been reflected in other ways. For instance when it instituted the Norton Medlicott Medal for outstanding contributions to history in 1985 it was desired that leading educationalists should be among those to whom it was awarded. Its recipients have included an impressive array of distinguished people in this field: John Fines (HA president in 1994–6), Dr Marjorie Reeves, John West and Professor Gordon Batho. One of the earlier presidents (1929–32) was C. H. K. Marten, who taught at Eton. He had attended the foundation meeting and was the joint author of a very successful textbook, The Ground Work of British History.(2)
In 1911 Professor Tout had expressed the hope that the HA would go beyond being an association of teachers of history into one also 'desirous of furthering the study and the investigation of history'.(3) In fact by 1908–9 HA branches were already hearing lectures on the specialisms of their speakers. For instance, at Birmingham, G. M. Trevelyan (also present at the foundation meeting and president 1946–9) lectured on 'The political and ecclesiastical problems of Britain in the 17th century'. This development marks one of the most notable features of the HA. Unlike many of the other subject associations it has attracted very large numbers of non-teacher members, often middle-class people with an enthusiasm for history.
Before the First World War the HA had 15 branches. This grew to 53 in 1921 and 83 in 1931 (plus several more in parts of the empire). In 1918–31 at different times many branches had 70 or more members: Birmingham, Bristol, Cheltenham, Essex, Exeter, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Leeds, Liverpool, London Central, London East, London South West, Manchester, North Eastern Counties, Reading, Sussex and Torquay. The HA's branches have waxed and waned. After the Second World War, the number of branches recovered in 1951 to 74 (when membership was at 8,122), while in 1956 there were 72 branches (with membership having risen to 8,694). Twenty years later there were 70 branches (while membership was down to 6,826). In 2007–8 there were 57 branches (with membership a little above 6,000).
The branches developed their own cultures. In some, themed courses of lectures proved popular. In others, social events, including outings and dinners, contributed to success. A few have focused, at least for a few years, on local history. While branches have failed through a fall in membership, or members failing to attend, a frequent cause for their being wound up has been an inability to find people willing to run them.
The officers of the early branches were primarily from education, with presidents often being professors or headteachers. For instance, the first president of the Manchester branch was Sarah Burstall, the headmistress of Manchester High School for Girls. She was soon succeeded by M. A. Grant, the headmistress of Withington Girls' School. The other major early source of branch presidents were clergymen. The first president of the Bristol branch was George Forest Browne, Lord Bishop of Bristol, and the second was Joseph Armitage Robinson, The Very Revd. The Dean of Wells. Other branches have benefited from the devotion of particular individuals. At Horsham in the late 1920s the dynamic figure involved in the branch's success was Hilaire Belloc, author and former Liberal MP. Another former Liberal MP, G. P. Gooch, served as branch president of the Central London branch from 1918 to 1961, a longevity matched, and even exceeded, by Joan Lewin, MBE, as that branch's secretary for five decades from 1947.
While many members have rarely, if ever, attended a local branch, they have received the HA's publications. Its scholarly journal, History, has been published since 1916, with its more recent editors including Keith Robbins, Bill Speck, Harry Dickinson and Joseph Smith. The Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature is older, having been produced by the HA since 1911. For a long time the HA also published pamphlets, many of which went into several editions. Since 1983 many members have taken The Historian, an illustrated journal, initially edited by Bob Unwin, while others have opted for Teaching History or Primary History. Some members have also availed themselves of the HA's tours, domestic and overseas, which have been run since 1934, with John Salmon being the dominant figure from 1938 to 1995.
In some areas of Britain the local HA branch has been a major presence among the cultural organisations of the area. In the Isle of Wight, for example, in 2007–8 attendances of around 80 people were common. In some instances there were strong demands for excursions to historic sites. Torquay branch in the late 1930s held four to six outings each summer, usually with 50 to 75 people partaking. In the 1990s and after, Dr Trevor James largely built up the Mid Trent branch on a series of very successful excursions.
The branches have more often depended on lively programmes of attractive lectures. A. J. P. Taylor (who was president of the Isle of Wight branch for 1960–4 and 1965–8) frequently attracted audiences of several hundred after the Second World War. He lectured to HA audiences between 1930 and 1981. Several others have also often attracted large audiences, including H. W. V. Temperley, C. V. Wedgwood, A. L. Rowse, Herbert Butterfield, I. A. Richmond, Irene Collins, Professor Dom David Knowles, S. T. Bindoff, Lady Antonia Fraser and David Starkey.
While HA branches have often been dwarfed by local history or genealogy societies, nevertheless they have made often substantial contributions to local history. In Nottingham Dr (later Professor) J. D. Chambers ran a very influential Local History Group, whose members included W. E. Tate and Arthur Cossons. The Bristol branch made a very significant contribution to the city's history with its publication of over 100 high quality pamphlets. Since 1947 the Beckenham and Bromley branch has published a regular newsletter The Beckenham Historian and, in 1997, the Beckenham Historian Golden Jubilee Book.(4)
The HA nationally has played its role in fostering local history, with its Village History Committee from 1925, chaired initially (1925–34) by Professor A. Hamilton Thompson, and later renamed the Local History Committee. After the Second World War archivists such as F. G. Emmison, A. A. Dibben and Kate Thompson wrote and/or edited major pamphlets to assist local historians. As well as individual pamphlets there were the outstanding Short Guides to the Records,(5) 48 guides in all. The HA's Local History Committee initiated Local History Week in May 2001, which has developed since as Local History Month. It has also supported the study of local history in schools with its Young Historians project and the Young Historians Awards in Local History.
The HA, like all such organisations, has depended on its voluntary as well as professional staff. It has been fortunate with its secretaries (later chief executive officers), from the 1970s Christine Povall, Madeline Stiles and Rebecca Sullivan. It has also had very good long-serving honorary officers in Clifford Sharp, treasurer for over 30 years from 1943, and Harold Freakes, OBE, secretary from 1962 to 1989. In more recent years, with shorter terms of office, it has also had a run of very effective secretaries (Peter Harris, Lawrie Taylor, Sean Lang) and treasurers (Chris Wilson, Richard Walker and Kingsley Jones). Its post Second World War presidents have ranged from distinguished medievalists such as Sir Frank Stenton, R. F. Trehaerne, A. R. Myers, Henry Loyn, R. H. C. Davis and Anne Curry, and early modernists such as Denys Hay and Barry Coward, 18th-century specialists such as Herbert Butterfield, Bill Speck and Harry Dickinson, to modernists such as Geoffrey Barraclough, C. L. Mowat, Irene Collins, Donald Read, Keith Robbins and Michael Biddiss. The HA remains a broad church, embracing academics, college and school teachers as well as a constituency of people who enjoy history as a leisure pursuit.
Chris Wrigley is Professor of Modern British History at Nottingham University.