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Led by the current students of the IHR, this project aims to examine the student experience of studying at the IHR over the last 100 years using archival sources and oral history.  This project will create a series of blogs published monthly on the IHR website from September 2021 to May 2022. 

Experiences will be recorded in a series of blogs created by the project team. These will draw on the doctoral and masters’ theses supervised at the IHR to show the range of postgraduate and masters students, the variety of topics covered, the different sources and methodologies adopted and the variety of career paths pursued by students of history. 

Image: Dame Lillian Penson & R.W. Greave's Seminar in 1956-7. Dame Lillian is seated at the end of the table. © History Laboratory: The Institute of Historic Research, 1921-96

From Jazz to Digital – 100 Years of the Student Experience at the Institute of Historical Research

From Vision to Reality – The Creation of the History Laboratory

by Duncan Gager,  Alumnus Fellow, Institute of Historical Research. (Graduated in March 2021).

1904 Albert F. Pollard, the leading scholar of the Tudor period of his generation and one of the founders of the Historical Association, set out his vision for a post-graduate school of research in history in his inaugural address as a newly appointed professor at University College. He saw London as its natural home. Close to the vast primary and secondary sources of the Public Record Office (now the National Archives at Kew) and the British Museum library (now the British Library), the school would have unrivalled access to the material required to write the histories of Britain and its Empire. A national institution based in the capital would be a centre of excellence for the entire historical profession. It was ‘a void clamouring to be filled … the unique opportunity for a post-graduate school of research in the London University’.

Pollard’s voice was a lone one at the beginning of the twentieth century. F.M.L. Thompson, a later director of the Institute, described the teaching of history at the time as ‘a sickly plant, largely left as a tiresome extra chore for whoever chanced to be teaching classics or English.’ It was a problem compounded by the subordinate status of University of London to Oxford and Cambridge, where ‘among the consumers of higher education, London’s student body was continually creamed off by Oxbridge; and among the producers, the great majority of London’s teachers were supplied by Oxbridge.’ As a result, Pollard’s pioneering vision was not to be realized until after the Great War and government intervention in the form of the involvement of the Board of Education.

The First World War and its aftermath had highlighted, in Pollard’s words, ‘the national importance of… bringing to bear upon present problems the light of historical knowledge and experience’. And so, on 8 July 1921 the Institute of Historical Research opened its doors. At the inauguration the historian and President of the Board of Education, H.A.L. Fisher declared that ‘history is an important branch of education and an indispensable instrument of general culture’ and the foundation of the Institute marked ‘a notable stage in the development of historical studies in this country’. With these lofty aims and ambitions, Professor Pollard was confirmed as the Institute’s first Director and with the investment of £20,000 (c. £500,000 today), the Institute took physical shape in temporary huts in Malet Street on the current site of Birkbeck College.

From the beginning, Pollard saw the Institute as existing ‘to fertilise the use of London’s archives, to train students how to find what they want and use it when found’. It was less ‘a place where students do their research than one in which they learn how to do it and discuss its meaning and value when done’. He conceived it as ‘a laboratory rather than a factory, and in its seminars it is seeds that are sown and tested rather than fields that are ploughed or harvests reaped’. This has continued to be the defining and enduring ethos of the Institute. It has remained a place for students to learn the tools and techniques of historical research, a place to participate in seminars across the entire breadth of the historical spectrum and a place to meet and engage in scholarly discussion with other researchers, students as well as the great and the good of the historical profession.

Due to this successful recipe, since its foundation the Institute has occupied a distinctive and unique position in the academic firmament. Sir Douglas Logan, Principal of London University in the late 1940s, described it and its sister Institutes in the School of Advanced Study as ‘the jewels in the crown of London University’. Unencumbered by responsibilities for undergraduate teaching, here resided communities of scholars that transcended university boundaries and created national and international centres of excellence in their respective fields. The post-graduate students formed part of this community, absorbed its atmosphere and learnt their craft.

While the essence of the student experience has remained the same over the last hundred years, how it has been experienced has not. The Institute’s students have, unsurprisingly, not been immune to the social and cultural upheavals of the last century, as we have moved from the Jazz to the Digital Age. In Pollard’s day, the weekly highlight was his Thursday evening conference sessions. These were preceded by dinner (2s 6d for three course and coffee [c.£3.50 today]) and took the form of an informal discussion in comfy chairs in the English History room. Indeed, this genteel style of an older age long remained the hallmark of the Institute. A visiting American professor in the mid-1950s remarked that ‘when one entered the doors of the Institute of Historical Research, one found oneself in a world far removed in atmosphere from that of American universities … There were polite attendants who ushered one in and out of the entrance doors with the bearing of gentlemen’s gentlemen who had joined the Institute after years of service at an Edwardian country house’.

Times were to be a-changing. With the publication in 1963 of the Robbins report on the future of higher education in Britain, impetus was given to the expansion of the university sector. Further, the report concluded that university places ‘should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment’. Greater numbers and a wider social spectrum across the student population were to be found at all universities, including the Institute. Student numbers and published theses had doubled by the mid-1980s. This, in turn, complemented and coincided with the expansion and growing professionalism of the Institute’s activities.

The Institute had taken on the work of the Victoria County History series early in its life, in 1932 and set out reviving interest in local history studies. In addition, it had a clear and obvious remit to promote interest in the history of London, which culminated in the creation of the Centre for Metropolitan History in 1987. (Today, these have been brought together to form part of the Centre for the History of People, Place and Community). Staff numbers have steadily increased over the last hundred years to meet these demands, as well as those of the students for training courses and research materials and established academics for seminars and conferences. For the student, there have been three unchanging focal points for all this activity: the Common Room, the seminars and the Wohl Library.

The former represented a sociable oasis from the rigours of solitary research in one of London’s many libraries and archives. A place for tea and sandwiches with fellow students and an opportunity to meet and engage with established members of the historical profession. More dauntingly, the same opportunity presented itself at the Institute’s wide range of seminars. Professors, lecturers, teachers and students all gathered together to discuss an historical topic or subject. The seminars were filled with lively discussion and formidable characters, an excellent apprenticeship for the trainee historian. Finally, there was always refuge in the Institute’s Library, though this was not a place of comfy armchairs. One visitor described it as ‘architecturally austere, reflecting clearly the ideals of its founders, scientific history … strictly ordered guides… standing on their steel shelves as Prussian regiments on parade’.

Yet, as I write, this historical continuity of the student experience has been broken, hopefully temporarily, by the disruptive force of the pandemic. It has not been without a silver lining for historical research as new approaches have emerged. However, the Common Room is sadly bereft of tea and people, the seminars have moved online and the library is even quieter than usual. But, to quote the Bible and George Harrison and as all students of history know, ‘all things must pass’. As the Institute begins a new century, one looks forward to the History Laboratory on Malet Street continuing to be as successful in forging new ways of studying, researching and teaching history and turning students into scholars as Pollard intended.

Successes, setbacks and stories of the unexpected from the IHR’s Class of 1921

By: Christine Evans Appleyard, (MRes, IHR, 2019) and Janette Bright (MRes, IHR, 2017; current M Phil/PhD student, IHR) 

In the second of two blog posts for the IHR centenary project From Jazz to Digital: exploring the student contribution at the IHR, 1921-2021. Current IHR students find out about the first students to attend IHR seminars and what became of them?

Names listed in the IHR’s Annual Report 1921-22 soon became personalities as our research took shape.  Particularly pleasing to us were stories of triumph in the face of adversity and of successful careers which followed in post-First World War Britain. Less encouraging were the obvious limitations experienced at the time by women students.  

Most unusual was the story of Leicestershire school master Herbert E Howard, who wrote detective crime fiction in his spare time and later became a national broadcaster. Howard was not the only student from the first cohort to achieve a modest public profile but of those whom we have been able to trace with some certainty, most became academics, teachers or researchers, with some achieving the kind of prominence that resulted in what none of them could ever have imagined –recognition in the form of a 21st century website entry.  

Students included Dutchman Gustaaf Johannes Renier, who, on the outbreak of the First World War, swapped his doctoral studies at Ghent University for the safety of London, where he became London editor of Nieuwe Courant. Beginning a PhD at University College in 1921, he completed his thesis on 19th century Anglo-Dutch relations in 1930 and by 1936, Renier had succeeded his doctoral supervisor, Pieter Geyl, as Reader in Dutch history at University College. Combining academia with journalism – in 1939 he was a contract staff member at the BBC – Renier published widely, including a foray into social science with, The English: Are They Human? (1931, Williams and Norgate). His 1950 historiographical work, History: It’s Purpose and Method, was reprinted by Routledge in March 2018.  

New Zealander Esmond de Beer was also personally affected by the war. Soon after winning a place at New College, Oxford to study History in 1914, de Beer’s studies were replaced by active service in India. Awarded a war degree by Oxford on his return, in 1921 he enrolled for an MA in History at University College. De Beer later took on high-profile roles at the Historical Association, the National Portrait Gallery and London Library and during the Second World War helped out at the IHR when members of staff were called up for service. He later edited John Evelyn’s diary (Oxford University Press, 1955) and the correspondence of John Locke (Clarendon Press, 1989). 

Our study included only those twenty-three students who were listed in the IHR Annual Reports as full-time history masters and doctoral candidates, enrolled at one of the registered colleges of the University of London, in 1921. Students ranged in age from twenty-one to forty-four and some already had established careers – as secondary school history teachers, journalists or librarians.   

Most were registered at University College, where the IHR’s founder, Albert Pollard, was a professor of constitutional history. College fees included charges for attendance at IHR seminars, which arguably were not cheap. The IHR charged the colleges £5 5s per session for registered students at PhD level and £2 12s 6d per session for MA students, while unregistered students paid £4 14s 6d. Upmarket addresses on correspondence to Pollard, suggest that students, or their families, were well able to afford them. It is clear from his correspondence that Pollard was a people person, good at developing contacts globally and happy to provide deserving former students with references and, where merited, personal introductions. From its inception, the IHR actively developed links with American universities through its Anglo-American Conference. In 1921, five students, including four PhD candidates, came from overseas.  

Canadian George Simpson cut short his doctoral studies at King’s College after just one year. Nevertheless, he rose to become Head of History and Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Science at his alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan. Simpson edited the first English language history of the Ukraine and published widely on Ukrainian and Slavic history, in 1947 receiving an honorary doctorate from the Free Ukrainian University. 

Returning home to Canada with a doctorate from University College, Aileen Dunham became a Professor of History at Wooster College, Ohio, where she remained from 1929 until 1992. The college later established a History Scholarship in recognition of her contribution as Chair of the Department of History, 1946-1966.  

At a time when British university education was a predominantly male privilege, it is notable that seventeen of the twenty-three enrolled in 1921 were women, possibly due to the high representation of female history teachers at the University. As one of the few professions then open to women, teaching was also a destination for many students, although commonly at secondary level. To be an expensively university-educated female teacher was still relatively rare however, with the training colleges providing an alternative, free form of higher education for most women teachers. With the marriage bar also firmly in place during the inter-war period, many ensured they kept their careers by remaining single. The only female member of the Class of 1921 found to have married was Elsie Herrington, who, after graduating with an MA from King’s College in 1923, later became Mrs Lomer. We were unable to establish if Elsie maintained her interest in history.  

At 22, one of the youngest master’s students, Ruth Bird was Bedford College’s trailblazer. The only historian from the college to graduate with a first-class BA honours degree, she subsequently became the first recipient of its prestigious Amy, Lady Tate Research Scholarship (1921-23) covering her tuition fees and use of the IHR. At master’s level she achieved a Distinction, again the first in History that her college had awarded. Bird became a secondary school history teacher, staying put in her second post at a girls’ grammar in Leicester. Her publications included a revision of her master’s thesis on London’s fourteenth-century guilds, and entries for the IHR’s Victoria County History series. Bird’s achievements won her an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 

Rosina Downing and Mildred Whibley had both attended the London Day Training College (LDTC), later to become the Institute of Education but then under the joint auspices of the University of London and London County Council. Both registered for MA studies at University College, but while Mildred graduated in 1923, there is no record of Rosina having completed, although the 1939 Register has her listed as an Essex schoolteacher.  

Mary Hemmant, who had attended the Maria Grey Training College before studying for a PhD at University College, became an historical researcher. We were unable to find documentation confirming the graduation of Hemmant, the daughter of British-Australian politician William Hemmant, (Legislative Assembly of Queensland 1871 – 1876). However, a letter written in June 1929 by Professor Pollard to Dr Edwin Deller, Registrar, University of London, notes the details of her viva voce, to be held on 3 July 1929. King’s College MA graduate Clare Musgrave, one of the first students to attend an IHR seminar, was listed on the 1939 Register, aged forty-four, as a ‘retired history specialist’.  

Returning to Herbert E Howard, the former King’s College master’s student published his first crime fiction novel, The Journey Downstairs, under the pseudonym R. Philmore, a year after graduating. Other novels, all published by Gollancz and the Collins Crime Club, followed, while articles about detective stories by R. Philmore appeared in the popular science magazine Discovery, The Popular Journal of Knowledge, (Cambridge University Press, 1939). Meanwhile, Howard published ‘The Eighteenth Century and the Revolution, 1714-1815’, in An Outline of European History (Gollancz, 1935). During the 1950s and 1960s, Howard become a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s long-running Round Britain Quiz, representing the Midlands region as quiz master, and, on occasion, a contestant. He also contributed content about English history to the BBC’s Forces Educational and Light Programming output. 



  • AF Pollard Collection: MS 860/6a/2 1928-29; MS860/25/3 1912-1931. 
  • IHR Annual Reports 1921 – 22. 
  • IHR 3/3/5: IHR Seminar Attendance Registers 1922-23.  
  • IHR Committee Minutes 1921-22, IHR 1/1/1 
  • IHR Student Theses, from the Bulletin of the IHR 
  • IHR List of Research Students, UCL, 1920-21
  • The Historical Record 1836-1926, London, University of London Press, 1926, 2nd issue 
  • University of London graduates (1836-1945); 1939 England and Wales Register; UK Census: 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 
  • Dyhouse, C., Students: A Gendered History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) 
  • Purvis, J., A History of Women’s Education in England (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1991) 
  • BBC: Search – BBC Programme Index 
  • Buyniak, V, ‘Simpson, George Wilfred, 1893-1969)’, The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan 
  • Gibbney, H.J, ‘Hemmant, William, (1837 – 1916)’, Vol.4. 1972, Australian Dictionary of Biography 
  • Kossmann, E. H., ‘Gustaaf Johannes Renier (25 September 1892 – 1 September 1962)’, in Political Theory and History (Amsterdam, 1987)  
  • Notman, R, ‘de Beer, Esmond Samuel’, Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand 
  • Welch, D. Anne, ‘Bird, Ruth’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 
  • Prabook 
  • ‘The Aileen Dunham Prize’, The College of Wooster, 
  • The history of the IOE | Institute of Education – UCL – University College London 
  • University of Saskatchewan Honorary Degrees – University of Saskatchewan ( 

More than just cake and conversation—the IHR Common Room as a melting pot for new ideas

By Christine Evans Appleyard (MRes, IHR, 2019)

There can be few visitors to the IHR building in Senate House who have not stepped inside the Weston Common Room. Rather like the family kitchen, it is the natural gathering place for essential refuelling and informal get-togethers. While the Wohl Library can rightly claim to be the IHR’s engine room, the Common Room has arguably provided not only the fuel to ensure the smooth running of its occupants but a welcoming forum for networking and collaboration.

The IHR has always had a Common Room and wherever it has been, academics, researchers and students have always gravitated towards it. Those who attended the IHR’s opening event of Our Centenary last July (8 July 2021, online) may have been struck by the affection with Douglas Peers, Dean Emeritus of Arts University of Waterloo, Ontario, still holds for the IHR Common Room, many years after his graduation. In his opening address at Session Three of the conference, Peers spoke warmly of the sense of community generated by the IHR and attributed the successful completion of his PhD in part to the Common Room.

A visit to the IHR’s archives in the Wohl library shows that Peers’ opinion is far from rare: the records are littered with references to the significant role the Common Room has played over the decades in the lives of students, academics, and visiting historians, particularly those from overseas. Professor Franҫois Crouzet of the Institut d’Histoire, University of Paris-Sorbonne, who first visited the IHR in 1945, noted that his first port of call was always the Common Room, where he knew good company was to be found alongside the tea and biscuits. For Professor Walter L. Arnstein of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the IHR Common Room was not only where he met many eminent British academics during the 1950s but where a student alerted him to the presence of documents vital to his research and ultimately the publication that followed.

IHR Common Room as it looked in the 1970s / 1980s.

It was the vision of the IHR’s founder, A F Pollard, that the IHR would function as a clearing house for the exchange of ideas. Isolation, he believed, was ‘fatal to the comparative method which is the essence of historical inquiry and induction’. Pollard’s vision was soon realised. Research students from all over Britain, and students and staff from overseas universities, came to the IHR as a matter of course when they visited London. According to New York historian William D Rubinstein, the IHR became ‘the best club in London.’

In 1937, overseas visitors accounted for fifteen per cent of the IHR’s population. Lord Macmillan described these folk as ‘potential missionaries of British culture and thought and business’. Certainly, by the 1950s, the then IHR tea lady was doing her best to uphold contemporary British tearoom etiquette, providing spotless tables, china crockery and the ‘correct’ cutlery. Moreover, as many would have been familiar with in their school days, regulars knew they were expected to return their tea things promptly for washing up, and that anyone daring to put their feet up on the furniture would be severely reprimanded.

From the very beginning, through all the years of temporary accommodation in the Malet Street huts and before the current building was opened in 1948, a Common Room was considered an essential element of the IHR. Plans drawn up in 1920 for the IHR’s temporary accommodation in Malet Street showed not one but two Common Rooms—one smoking and the other non-smoking—to be used by both students and staff (see banner image at the top of this post). With the exception of the Council Room, where the Committees were held, the serving of tea was only permitted in the Common Room. The daily ritual of sharing tea at 4pm quickly became as much of a draw for students living in spartan accommodation as it did for historical researchers breaking off from their interrogation of the archives at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane or at the British Museum Library. Former IHR Secretary and Librarian, Guy Parsloe (1927-1943) recalled how in the early 1920s the Institute came alive between 4pm and 5pm, when it was possible to purchase a pot of tea, two slices of bread and butter and a slice of cake for 6d.

Back in 1922, the Common Room boasted French windows leading into its own small garden, cared for by a Ladies Garden Committee, headed by Pollard’s wife, Katie. By 1933, with daily attendance reaching 40 people, the capacity of the Common Room was considered ‘woefully inadequate’. During the move to Senate House in 1938, it was recommended that the library would close but the Common Room, a useful place for meetings, would stay open. In December, the General Committee noted with approval that student friendships forged within the intimate confines of the Common Room had spawned a host of social events, including regular Sunday walks, theatre parties and Scottish dancing, while the annual Christmas party had become a recognised event in the IHR calendar. Such activities, they agreed, ‘contribute most effectively to the success of the Institute’s work by bringing together students from many countries and universities’.

Social activity came to a temporary halt during the war years, with the IHR initially closed to students from autumn term 1939 until the middle of January 1940, opening briefly until May. During this time, the Common Room was occupied by the government’s Ministry of Information with, intriguingly, a few places at tables reserved for members of the University. In September 1940, with no readers in the library, it was acknowledged for the first time that the Common Room had also become ‘superfluous’.

By 1946, the Common Room had reopened, but in June the traditional afternoon tea sessions came under threat by the introduction of post-war bread rationing. This calamity was skilfully avoided by members of the university maintenance staff, who unaccountably managed to acquire the necessary provisions, ensuring that ‘the IHR was able to preserve this valuable means of introducing students from many colleges and countries to one another’. In December 1946, the Common Room played host to the IHR’s annual Christmas party and, by 1947, all social activities had been reintroduced. With peacetime confidence coinciding with the opening of the IHR’s much-awaited permanent premises in Senate House, the Christmas party of 1947 saw the new Common Room ‘filled to overflowing’.

A leaflet published in February 1948 confirmed that Pollard’s vision was still in force:

The IHR has great influence in drawing together historians scattered among London’s many colleges. Many hold their post graduate seminars here and meet their colleagues in conference, library or common room.

In the late 1990s, the IHR’s Academic Secretary, Dr Steven Smith, wrote that if history students were asked to name an aspect of the Institute that they felt most warmly about it would likely be the Common Room. It may be purely coincidence that in 1994, the IHR obtained a private club license allowing it to serve alcohol! Following the IHR refurbishment in 2014, it was a natural choice for the Common Room to take centre stage for the rededication service, presided over by the University of London Chancellor, Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, and attended by 80 fellows, students, staff and Friends of the IHR.

IHR Weston Common room in the 2010s, prior to the Covid-19 closure.

The continuing uncertainty of the Covid 19 pandemic currently leaves the Common Room tea urn empty and switched off. Tables are spaced at two-metre intervals and open windows (providing a healthy draught ensure that in the depth of winter), mean that few linger over a brought-from-home sandwich for too long. One must hope this is a temporary state of affairs. While the advantages of online seminars, conferences, and meetings are not disputed, all historians know that often the most useful conversations take place once the formal business has been done. It’s difficult to do that in a virtual chat room, particularly for students and new researchers. Undoubtedly, the family-kitchen atmosphere of the IHR Common Room where, according to Joel Rosenthal, the ‘free-wheeling conversations and deal-making’ took place, remains just as important for historians in 2022 as it was in 1921.


  • IHR 1/1/1: IHR General Committee Meeting Minutes 1921-22; 1936-1950
  • IHR 1/2/5 – 1/2/7: Buildings Sub-Committee Minutes 1937; 1939
  • IHR 6/12/8: A Permanent Building for the Institute of Historical Research, leaflet c. 1934
  • IHR 6/12/11-13: ‘Institute of Historical Research. 31 May 1938′; ‘Institute of Historical of Historical Research. Report of IHR Committee (Nov.1946)’; ‘Institute of Historical Research. 15 February 1948′
  • IHR 9/1/11: University of London. Centre for Advanced Historical Studies. Proposed Temporary Building’ 1920
  • IHR 9/1/24: Memorandum and related papers concerning the future accommodation of the IHR, 1927-33
  • IHR 5/2/4: IHR Dining Club papers 1938-94; IHR Dining Club Committee Meeting 16 Jan 1939
  • Debra J. Birch and Joyce M. Horn, The History Laboratory: The Institute of Historical Research 1921-96, London 1996
  • Joel T. Rosenthal, ‘The First Decade of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London: The Archives of the 1920s’, Historical Reflections, 1.38.2012
  • Our Centenary Conference, IHR, 2021

Images courtesy of the IHR Archive

Making history: the materials and methods of IHR students, 1921-2021

By Diane Clements, (MRes, IHR, 2018; current PhD student, IHR)

When A. F. Pollard established the IHR in 1921 his intention was to encourage the study of the extensive sources for British history held in national collections at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), the British Museum (now largely held at the British Library) and in local and institutional repositories. The IHR’s Bulletin was a vehicle for information about the availability of resources, including accessions of records by archives in Britain and abroad, and for details of student theses which drew on these resources. In its first edition, in 1923, students were encouraged not only to give the results of their research but also to give full information about their sources. The work of past PhD students at the IHR provides a picture of the research materials they used and the methods they adopted.

Research at the Institute was not confined to British sources, as the following analysis of the 150 or so PhD theses by students associated with the IHR shows. Just over half concerned aspects of British history and another tenth were concerned with the history of the Indian subcontinent. The latter used the records of the India Office held in London, comprising the archives of the East India Company and sources relating to the pre-1947 government of India.

Geographical analysis of the subjects of IHR PhD theses, 1921-2021


As the chart illustrates, students have looked widely for archive material to support their research. European subjects have been the subject of one sixth of theses. In 1930 Mihailo D. Stojanovic completed his research on Serbia in international politics, 1875-1878 using material held in Belgrade and Vienna. Ann Imlah used archives in Switzerland, France and Britain for her thesis. This formed the basis of her later book, Britain and Switzerland: a study of Anglo-Swiss relations, 1845-1860. Albert John Walford’s study of the Argentinian politician, The political career of Bartolome Mitre, 1852-1891, completed in 1941, was one of eleven theses on the Americas. William Henry Scotter researched International rivalry in the Bights of Benin and Biafra, 1815-1885, completed in 1934, as one of the six students who worked on African history.

Students of British history were told firmly in that same first edition of the Bulletin that ‘the student of social and economic history can no longer afford to neglect local sources.’ The Bulletin admitted that students would encounter problems, not the least of which was a lack of finding aids. This was likely to leave the student ‘very largely in the dark as to the material awaiting his researches.’ One assiduous past PhD student, Gladys Thornton, was undeterred and used local sources extensively for her thesis on a History of Clare, Suffolk, in 1928. She found churchwardens’ accounts located in Clare Church (shown on the left), including an immense store of local records, in what she called the ‘church chest’. She even gave a description of this in her thesis, ‘[it] measures roughly six by two feet and stands two feet high, [it] is nearly full with unsorted miscellaneous papers.’

The Bulletin claimed that printed lists of what archives held were extremely rare and ‘official custodians sometimes display an amazing ignorance of the documents in their care.’  These rather harsh words are unrecognisable to the researcher in 2021 as the professional staff at local record offices and other repositories and libraries have made immense strides to document their collections and to make their catalogues available on-line. The digitisation of material and the willingness of archivists to provide photographs and scans of documents has been particularly welcome in a period when physical access to records has been limited.

Newspapers have been a rich source for several students. For his thesis, The passing of the education act of 1870: a study of public opinion, 1843-1870, completed in 1932, Eric Everard Rich used the Times and the Annual Register to provide general background for his study and as a source for the views of contemporary educational associations. The usefulness of the Annual Register appears to have been limited, as Rich noted that it ‘was much more interested in the weather than in education.’ His overall conclusions sound remarkably prescient in the media age of the twenty first century,

The difficulty of studying public opinion is that it often fails to find expression in the contemporary papers, though it influences the working of administrative systems…it is easy to find the opinions of the governing classes, but the opinions of other classes must largely be second-hand evidence.

Eric Rich noted his restricted access as he could only study past copies of the Times in the British Museum Library on Saturday afternoons. His work would probably have been made easier today given the availability of searchable databases of digital newspapers and digitised publications on sites such as the Hathi Trust.

The modern student also has access to word processing facilities and readily available software to create databases, spreadsheets, graphs and charts, such as the one at the beginning of this blog. Another thesis using newspapers, The development of commercial advertising in Britain, 1800-1914, completed in 1979 by T. R. Nevett, involved a painstaking count and categorisation of advertisements in a random selection of twenty local newspapers and the London Morning Chronicle in the nineteenth century. His analysis of advertisements shown here was a manually calculated, hand-written chart added into the text of his thesis.

Occasionally theses give an insight into the student’s experience of their sources and methods. Eric Rich was a part-time student. On competing his thesis in 1932 he remarked that it had taken up the greater part of his leisure time ‘during the last five and a half years’. He found it particularly difficult to pursue his research because many of the libraries were closed when he was free.

Marjorie Reeves, later a tutorial fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford, gave a more positive account of her time as a PhD student in her retrospective memoirs. Her thesis on a medieval mystic, Joachim of Fiore, was completed in 1932. Much of her research was undertaken at the British Museum Reading Room, where she experienced ‘the sheer joy of tracking down [each] rare pamphlet’. She queued up with the other readers to get to her seat at 9am each day but was able to enjoy a cup of tea in the afternoon in facilities, which seem to have been made available only to Reading Room users.

The last hundred years have seen immense changes in the range of historical sources available and how they can be accessed. The methods of the present-day student have benefitted from the information technology revolution. But, in many respects, the process of historical research and the development of doctoral students has remained unchanged. Marjorie Reeves had a supportive supervisor, Edmund Gardner, Professor of Italian at University College. ‘At our first meeting’ she noted, ‘He declared he knew little about the Abbot Joachim…he listened enthusiastically as I reported on each fresh discovery.’ She described the excitement of locating a particular source which ‘revealed just the clue one was seeking’ allowing the researcher to see ‘the jigsaw pieces come together.’ She concluded that ‘finding unanswered questions for oneself …is the key to creative research.’

End Notes

  • IHR theses are listed in the IHR Library catalogue under the name of the author.  Some are available on platforms such as Proquest or Ethos. More recent theses are available on SAS-space.
  • Image of Clare Church By Oxyman, CC BY-SA 2.0,
  • Ann Imlah, Britain and Switzerland, 1845-60: a study of Anglo-Swiss relations during some critical years for Swiss neutrality (London, 1966)
  • T.R Nevett, The development of commercial advertising in Britain, 1800-1914 (PhD thesis, 1979)
  • Marjorie E. Reeves, Studies in the reputation and influence of the Abbot Joachim of Fiore, chiefly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (PhD thesis, 1933)
  • Marjorie E. Reeves, The life and thought of Marjorie Reeves (2003)
  • Eric Everard Rich, The passing of the education act of 1870: a study of public opinion, 1843-1870 (PhD thesis, 1932)
  • William Henry Scotter, International rivalry in the Bights of Benin and Biafra, 1815-1885 (PhD thesis, 1934)
  • Mihailo Stojanovic, The Great Powers and the Balkans, 1875-1878 (Cambridge, 1939)
  • Gladys Thornton, A history of Clare, Suffolk, with special reference to its development as a borough during the middle ages, and its importance as a centre of the woollen industry in the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries (PhD thesis, 1928)
  • Albert John Walford, The political career of Bartolome Mitre, 1852-1891, (PhD thesis, 1941)

Toppling Colston: decolonisation of our own practice

By Mark McCarthy (MRes, IHR, 2018)

Through the months of lockdown, our Student Group Zoom meetings often discussed how historical research intersects with contemporary life.  A broad historical ‘turn’, the rethinking of our European colonial heritage, was foregrounded in June 2020 when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled into Bristol harbour. Colston was born and buried in Bristol and left much of his fortune to that city – money he had gained in London as a merchant within the Royal African Company and from trade through ports that included Bristol. Local history made national news.

My own local research in Camden Town benefitted from the ‘Legacies of British Slavery’ database, revealing street names that have associations both with merchants and with abolitionists of the slave trade. I also found that a young artist from Camden Town, Richard Jeffreys Lewis, painted ‘The Death of Edward Colston’ in 1845, at a time when Colston’s cadaver was exhumed during renovation of the Bristol church where he had been buried. Lewis’ forgotten picture was recovered from the storeroom depths of Bristol Museum for a ground-breaking exhibition on the slave trade in 1999. The exhibition’s curator, Madge Dresser, used the picture as the front cover for her social history book. There is a challenge in interpreting the pose of the black female servant kissing the dying master’s hand.

For the IHR Centenary, we’ve been reflecting on our predecessors’ PhD and MA theses. What subjects did they choose, how did they approach them and what current interests did they demonstrate? I looked at a sub-set of the ~300 total, those relating to the British Empire up to 1960. Six were of the Caribbean and South America, seven were of Africa and seven of India. A majority drew upon British government records or organisational archives such as missionary societies. Only one investigated local perspectives – a pre-Independence study of Bengal by B.C Battacharya which linked nineteenth century western political thought (‘the ideas of Mill and the emotions of Mazzini’) with Indian (Hindu) culture and history. And only this thesis took a critical stance.

Over its century, the IHR has been very much a part of the British colonial perspective. It was deliberately sited within the capital’s university and claimed exceptional access to national political and cultural sources. Students came to study with historians who drew from, and created, British historical thought. The IHR provided access to government records which enabled students to investigate histories of non-British countries, in English, and provided an ideological framework of ‘normal’ British colonial practice. Researchers were working with the ‘official view’ and afterwards, with this ‘trained mind’, could continue the legacy as teachers and cultural leaders of the Empire.

There is active debate on how British Empire history should be presented in public settings,  including what to do with the statue of Colston. After the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern European countries, we became used to seeing foreign statues being overturned – Stalin most frequently – with general British cultural approval. In the last five years, the photographic gallery of fame on the staircase within the IHR has shown a steady transformation, with women’s portraits joining (topling?) those of their male colleagues. This celebrates unremembered excellence but it cannot demonstrate the differences of approach and insight that these historians brought. Did they hold to the ‘official view’ or were they contrarians in their times?

Decolonisation – the changing political relationship with other peoples, and their internal perspectives – was not in the curriculum of the 2017-18 MRes course. With no recommendations from a reading list to draw on, our study group turned to a quite short book by an American professor, Dane Kennedy – ‘The Imperial History Wars’. He describes historiographical debates about the British Empire and postcolonial studies, explains the field of subaltern studies and underlines the importance of Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’. These texts wrest history away from the Empire’s perceptions and place it in the hands – and formulations – of other cultures and people.

Toppling Colston has brought forward questions for a range of British values. In its second century, the IHR could choose a stance which is more distant from the British establishment and actively seek out and celebrate new voices, critics and oppositions. Beyond revising our histories of other cultures, our new decolonised history can relook at our own culture and historical practice. If we understand how others see us, we may better understand ourselves.


C Bhattacharya, Development of social and political ideas in Bengal 1858-1885 (PhD Thesis, 1937)

Madge Dresser, Slavery obscured: the social history of the slave trade in Bristol (Bristol, Redcliffe, 2007)

Dane Kennedy, The Imperial History Wars (Bloomsbury 2018)

Legacies of British Slavery (database),

Mark McCarthy, The slave trade and emancipation recalled by the street names in Camden Town, London NW1, London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Transactions, 71 (2020), 351-362

‘What to seek, and how to find and use it’ – Students, Archives and the IHR

By Phil Winterbottom (current PhD student, IHR)

When in 1904 Albert F. Pollard first spoke of his idea for a post-graduate school of research in history, he began by outlining why such an institution should be based in London: ‘here we have a monopoly of advantages which no other city in the whole Empire can boast’. The concentration of primary sources in the capital meant that ‘graduates who aspire to research in Modern history are compelled to resort to London. For here in the Record Office (now The National Archives), the British Museum (now the British Library), and in other Government Departments are stored the vast bulk of materials on which they must base their work’. He added ‘It is true that the Bodleian has considerable manuscript collections unused, untouched, unseen; it is true that there are archives at various noblemen’s seats, like those of Lord Salisbury at Hatfield, or those of the Duke of Portland at Welbeck, and of course the materials for local history must always be sought in various localities. But from the point of view of national history all these are a drop in the ocean of records existing in London. Of course, some of these have been printed or calendared, and thus made accessible in any respectable library’, but ‘of the extant materials for English history not one-tenth has yet been calendared or printed’. It was clear that London’s collective institutions made it the nation’s pre-eminent repository of historical material; an advantage that Pollard was keen to exploit in promoting his idea of an Institute of Historical Research.

Whilst Pollard’s choice of archival examples represents what might now be considered an unrepresentative ‘top-down’ approach to history, Pollard’s concern that students and scholars should be sufficiently equipped to use primary source material, and that a post-graduate school of history should provide ‘competent instruction in the meaning and use of original sources’ remains at the heart of the IHR’s activities today.

In 1919 Pollard argued for a school of history building with ‘rooms in which the materials for historical investigation can be arranged according to their subject and students trained in the methods of using them’. When Pollard’s vision was realised, in 1921, a pamphlet publicising the new Institute of Historical Research began by explaining ‘the principles on which it is based’. ‘The Institute is a laboratory in which students will be trained in the methods of historical research and in the use of archives … Its object is … to teach students what to seek, and how to find and use it, and thus to economise their labour and that of the custodians of archives. Students will pursue their actual investigations in those archives; they will come to the Institute to discuss their problems and result and to receive that oral guidance from which they are properly debarred in libraries and manuscript departments.’ The pamphlet included a description and plan of Institute’s new premises, with individual rooms containing materials on the histories of particular countries or regions.

The 1921 pamphlet concluded by stating that the IHR ‘is not a general historical library but a workshop for historical research. Its need is not for histories but for the materials out of which history is, or should be, made; and what it requires most is catalogues of MSS. and books, indexes and guides to records, bibliographies, calendars and collections of printed documents’. The Institute’s library soon held a uniquely rich collection of such material, which students could utilise as a way into the nation’s manuscript collections. In 1971 Guy Parsloe, Secretary and Librarian of the IHR between 1927 and 1943, recalled that in the library ‘the placing of the books might have seemed capricious to one as yet unaccustomed to distinguish between ‘research tools’, ‘record material’ ‘narrative sources’ and ‘secondary works’ ‘, but this arrangement reflected Pollard’s aims.

Extract from a plan of the IHR premises featured in the Institute’s prospectus for 1928-1929

The training courses provided by the IHR were designed to help students identify, read and understand primary source material and to evaluate sources and weigh their evidence. Of particular importance was palaeography, the set of skills required to read and date archival documents. To give this ‘special treatment’ a room was dedicated to that purpose. It was to remain part of the IHR until in 1938 the Institute moved to Senate House, where the new University Library opened with its own Palaeography Room. So began the Institute’s long-standing interest and expertise in the study of palaeography.

In addition to the facilities and events onsite for postgraduate students, the IHR also sought to reach a wider audience through publication of its Bulletin, which featured numerous articles relating to sources and their use written by distinguished practitioners. The first two volumes, published between 1923 and 1925, included articles entitled ‘ ‘U’ and ‘V’ – A Note on Palaeography’ (Sir Henry Maxwell Lyte, Deputy Keeper of the Public Records), ‘The Wardrobe and Household Accounts of the Sons of Edward I’ (Hilda Johnstone, Professor of History at Royal Holloway College), and ‘The Homes and Migrations of Historical MSS.’ (J P Gilson, Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum).

Extract from the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol 2, No 6 (1925), 6.

Pollard had highlighted the role of the Institute, and its interest in primary sources, alongside that of the keepers of archives. One of the joint authors of the first article to appear in the Bulletin in June 1923, a ‘Report on Editing Historical Documents’, was Hilary Jenkinson of the Public Record Office, who also for many years taught a number of the Institute’s training courses, including an elementary palaeography course for library students at UCL. Jenkinson (1882-1961) was later to serve as Deputy Keeper of Public Records, receiving a knighthood in 1949. Jenkinson’s 1922 A Manual of Archive Administration was the first textbook for British and Irish archivists, introducing elements of European archival theory. This still has iconic status for archivists, and even in 2022 continues to stimulate debate. Most archivists and many manuscript librarians were then trained on the job, but as number of archives expanded before and after the Second World War, there was a need for wider professional training. Jenkinson was responsible for the establishment in 1947 of the first archival diploma course in England, at UCL, and many trainee archivists (the author included!) would, over the succeeding decades, use the IHR’s resources as part of their studies there.

Extract from the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol 1, No 1 (1923), 6.

Over the century since the establishment of the Institute the archival landscape in Britain has changed enormously, initially with the pre- and post-war development of a network of county and borough archives, the establishment of the National Register of Archives in 1945, and the development of the archive profession with the foundation in 1947 of the Society of Local Archivists (now the Archives & Records Association UK & Ireland).

One of those who helped shape the new and emerging archives environment was Felix Hull (1915-2010), whose 1950 PhD thesis ‘Agriculture and Rural Society in Essex, 1560-1640’ was listed in the May 1951 issue of the IHR Bulletin. Hull was one of many mature students to have used the facilities of the IHR. He was described in an obituary by a former Keeper of the Public Records, Michael Roper, as ‘the last survivor of the heroic age of pre-war local archives, when county record offices were just being established and training took the form of learning on the job from an existing practitioner’.

After training as a teacher, Hull joined the newly established Essex County Record Office in 1938, to which he returned after the Second World War. He obtained a London extra-mural BA in history, and went on to study for his PhD at LSE, supervised by R H Tawney, whilst working as an archivist. He was appointed the first county archivist of Berkshire in 1948, and four years later became the first county archivist of Kent, where he developed a model archive service over the remainder of his career. Hull taught on the UCL diploma course founded by Jenkinson, and on similar courses at Aberystwyth, Bangor and Liverpool. A founding member of the Society of Local Archivists (renamed the Society of Archivists in 1954), he served as its vice chair and then chair. In 1979 Hull was the first local authority archivist to be elected President of the Society. He used three of his presidential addresses to reflect the contemporary relevance of Hilary Jenkinson’s work. In the last of these addresses, entitled ‘The Archivist should not be an Historian’, paraphrasing a quote from Jenkinson, he considered the potential conflicts of interest that archivists might encounter. Hull was ideally qualified to address this subject, as both an archivist and a historian, and in doing so he continued a dialogue between the two professions which Pollard and Jenkinson had encouraged.

Hull’s legacy lives on in the IHR library: his guides to the Berkshire and Kent archives, catalogues of maps in the Kent and Essex archives, and A calendar of the White and Black Books of the Cinque Ports, 1432-1955 form part of the library’s core collection of catalogues and calendars of archives held in repositories spread throughout Britain.

The extent of UK archive provision continued to expand in the second half of the twentieth century with the establishment or development of archive services by universities, businesses, learned societies and other organisations, a process which has continued more recently with the growth of community archives. The introduction of online catalogues and digitised collections, and the availability of new digital research techniques has transformed historical research, as highlighted by Diane Clements in the ‘Making History’ blog in this series. The Institute adapted accordingly. As there was less need for the Bulletin to document accessions and migrations of historical manuscripts, it shifted its focus and, in 1986, was renamed Historical Research. The IHR continues to provide students with access to a unique collection of printed source material in the library, supplemented with a variety of online resources including, since the early years of the 21st century, British History Online.

BHO’s online version of Henry Maxwell Lyte’s 1900 Calendar of Close Rolls

The Institute’s early focus on sources and their use has remained core to its activities over the past century, and in recent years the Institute’s research training programme has included a popular ‘Methods and Sources’ week, as well as sessions focused on online research methods and digital humanities research. The latter help students navigate and interrogate the increasing number and diversity of online platforms hosting digitised sources. Since 2014 the Institute has collaborated with Senate House Library to organise the annual History Day event which brings together archivists and librarians to continue to help students and researchers know, as Pollard intended, ‘what to seek, and how to find and use it’.


Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research

‘Introductory’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol 1, No 1 (1923), 1-5.

Birch, Debra J., and Horn, Joyce M., The History Laboratory: the Institute of Historical Research 1921-96 (London: University of London, 1996).

Gilson, J. P., ‘The Homes and Migrations of Historical MSS.’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol.1, Issue 2 (1923), 37-44.

Hull, Felix, Guide to the Berkshire Record Office (Reading: Berkshire County Council, 1952).

Hull, Felix, Guide to the Kent County Archives Office (Maidstone: Kent County Council, 1958).

Hull, Felix, A Calendar of the White and Black Books of the Cinque Ports, 1432-1955 (London: HMSO, 1966).

Hull, Felix, Catalogue of Estate Maps, 1590-1840 in the Kent County Archives Office (Maidstone: Kent County Council, 1973).

Hull, Felix, ‘The Archivist should not be an Historian’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol 6, No 5 (1980), 253-259.

Jenkinson, Hilary, A Manual of Archive Administration, including the problems of war archives and archive making (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922).

Johnstone, Hilda, ‘The Wardrobe and Household Accounts of the Sons of Edward I’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol 1, No 5 (1924), 37-45.

Lyte, Henry C. Maxwell, ‘ ‘U’ and ‘V’ – A Note on Palaeography’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol 2, No 6 (1925), 63-65.

Poole, R. L., Clark, G. N., Crump, C. G., Jenkinson, H., Jenkins, C., and Little, A.G., ‘Report on the Editing of Historical Documents’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol 1, No.1 (1923), 6-25.

Roper, Michael, ‘Obituary: Felix Hull (1915-2010)’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol 32, No 1 (2011), 153-159.

Rosenthal, Joel T., ‘The First Decade of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London: The Archives of the 1920s’, Historical Reflections, 38.1 (2012), 19-42.

Steer, Francis W., and Hull, Felix, Illustrated Handbook to Exhibition of Essex Estate, County and Official Maps (held at Shire Hall, Chelmsford, 17-24 May, 1947) (Chelmsford: Essex Education Committee, 1947).

The following are among works published in 2022 which reference Jenkinson’s 1922 Manual:

Brilmyer, Gracen M., ‘Toward a Crip Provenance: Centering disability in archives through its absence’, Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, 9.1 (2022).

Lester, Paul, Exhibiting the Archive: Space, Encounter, and Experience (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2022).

IHR archives:

IHR/6/9/1: Institute of Historical Research Prospectuses, 1928-29 to 1935-36

IHR/6/8/6-13: University of London School of History and Institute of Historical Research Instruction-Courses booklets, 1921-22 to 1928-29

IHR/6/12/4: leaflet ‘Institute of Historical Research’, 1921

Phil Winterbottom (current PhD student, IHR)

Phil Winterbottom first used the IHR whilst training for a postgraduate diploma in archive studies at UCL in 1986-7. Following a career as an archivist he is now in his third year as a doctoral student at the Institute, researching personal banking in London between 1672 and 1780.

Continuity and Change at the IHR

By Janette Bright (current PhD student)

In 2020, as the world around us changed dramatically, IHR students (past and present) decided that as their contribution to the IHR Centenary celebrations they would look back at their predecessors from the very beginnings of the Institute.  This last instalment in our series of blogs reflecting on the student experience over the last 100 years will consider continuity and change at the IHR, looking at some of the training courses provided both for post-graduate students undertaking further degrees and students who attended on an occasional basis. The main source for this research is the series of IHR annual reports, an almost complete run of which is held in the Wohl Library of the Institute. It has been interesting to consider how when we started this project in 2020, we were just entering a world of disruption and challenge. In contrast the students of 1921 were moving away from their own period of trauma. Of course, they had had to deal not just with a pandemic but the impact of global warfare too.

Figure 1 – IHR Annual Report for 1991

Those first students in the 1920s may have felt optimistic with the promise of a new historical laboratory to enhance their studies after the events of the 1910s.  The specialist research training offered by the IHR during the 1920s and 1930s included several courses looking at primary sources, from the 13th to the 19th centuries, mainly related to English and colonial studies and with course titles that varied little over the period. In 1927-28 there was an additional course on the history of British India, but it does not appear to have been repeated. Studies of palaeography were offered from the very beginning. These concentrated on Latin texts but extended to include Dutch (1925-29) and Greek (1926-27). For a few years (1935-39), there was also An Introduction to the History of Western Handwriting, which included practical sessions on reading historical texts.

Figure 2 – IHR Library c.1920-30s

As the world entered a further period of conflict in 1939, no doubt many of the students who had begun their studies had to change their plans. However, the training planned for the academic year 1939-40 suggests that there was an expectation that some students would continue. Alongside courses relating to specific legal, economic, bibliographic, and newspaper sources (all new that year), there were two lectures on Work on Records, with Special Reference to War-Time Conditions.[1]  It would be fascinating to know the content of these. Even with this preparation one wonders how, and even if, any students managed any research over the next few years. How many continued to study (or even survived), has not been explored in this current research project—something for future historians to consider, perhaps. The IHR had closed temporarily from 1940, although initially there was some limited access to the library, and unsurprisingly courses did not resume until 1945. Once hostilities ended the Institute began to return to normal, at least in terms of restarting its training programmes.

In the academic year 1945-46 the Institute began with just two traditional courses. They were An Introduction to the Sources of English History from the 6th to 12th centuries, alongside An Introduction to Palaeography and Criticism. Course content continued to focus on sources of English history for specific chronological periods throughout the 1940s; occasionally more specialist topics were also offered. These included, in 1947-48, an introduction to medieval manuscript illumination. Although this was only available for one year initially, it returned as an introductory course in 1953, and then continued until 1965. A course on the History of Islam in the Near East ran only during the year 1948-49, whereas An Introduction to the Sources of Byzantine History fared much better, lasting from 1948-49 until 1953.  In 1961-62 several courses (each lasting just one academic year) considered the social implications of technological change in the Commonwealth, international history (1815-1939), and the diplomatic background of the Second World War. A specific course looking at methods and sources for women’s history did not appear until 2002-03, despite it becoming an area of historical interest from the 1970s.

In 1987-88 a partly residential course, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, concentrated on London-based sources for economic and social history. The IHR Annual Reports for 1989 and 1990 describe how these intensive courses were over-subscribed, with 56 students in the latter year. In July 1988, the IHR also experimented with a one-week summer school focused on archives and historical method, organised jointly with the Public Record Office (PRO). Though it was reported not to have been well attended in its first year, the decision was taken to repeat the course.  In its second run it was described as well subscribed, with 20 students ranging from amateur historians, graduate students, teachers, and staff from the PRO.

Figure 3 – IHR Computer Room, c.1990s

With a new decade, the IHR began to administer Master’s degrees for the University of London. The first of these seems to have been the one or two-year (full or part-time) MA in Computer Applications for History, in 1990-91. The Institute had obtained for the students’ use 12 micro-computers, which were shared with members of the university’s Computer Users Group. The course consisted of four elements. There were three taught modules, the first exploring the ways historians had used computers in their research and the techniques that had dominated. The second module provided practical computer skills, while the third allowed students a choice of options—programming, quantitative methods, or image analysis. The fourth element was a 10,000-word dissertation.[2] Though this MA was relatively short-lived (it does not appear in the list of courses offered after 1994), several short courses relating to computer use appeared regularly in the 1990s. By 1993 the Institute had a new computer suite with 20 computers, so it is not surprising that an effort was made to encourage their use. In 1993-94, Caroline Stead taught an Introduction to using electronic mail, and from 1995 there were an Internet Data CourseAn Introduction to the Use of the Internet for Historical Research (from 1996), and An Introduction to Sources for Historical Research on the Internet (in 1999). Use of computers is now so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget how ground-breaking email and the internet once were.  Fast forward 20 years and students are not only regular uses of such technology but can now access a wealth of material from their phones and other portable devices.

More recent courses at the IHR have reflected some of these developments in the digital age, including concepts relating to social media. In 2018 a course run by the IHR on Creating and maintaining an online presence showed historians how to build a basic website but also considered the usefulness of social media to historical work. Methodologies such as GIS (geographic information systems) have also been catered for. GIS, along with social networking techniques, allow students, and indeed established historians, to look at data about people and place in new ways. However, not all of the most recent IHR courses have required digital skills. A favourite course of mine was Visual Sources for Historians (first listed in 2002), which taught not only how to find images and analyse them, but how to consider architecture as primary source material. 

Figure 4 – student in 2020s

IHR students now also benefit from training from the School of Advanced Study (SAS), which opened in 1995. Also, it should also be recognised that not all training is performed in classrooms. Training also comes through attendance at seminars and conferences—listening and debating with other students and academics. With the recognition of the power of public engagement to demonstrate the value of the humanities, students can also become involved with activities such as those promoted by events like the Being Human Festival, held annually since 2014.  

Although the crisis of 2020 seriously impacted students’ research, there was already much in place to facilitate a continuance of studies, some of which have had a lasting legacy. Staff worked particularly hard in the first few weeks of the pandemic to provide access to as many primary and secondary sources as possible, online or by email. In addition, the university opened access to numerous resources previously hidden by pay walls. Unlike our predecessors from the class of 1939, current students may have been severely restricted in some ways, but when the buildings were closed there were many ways we could continue our studies. We have also benefitted from the assistance of bodies outside the university: some libraries and archives provided virtual reading rooms, whilst many others offered additional scanning services. Now current and future students may be able to continue to use such technologies, perhaps to assess whether a distant source is worth a physical visit. The pandemic also made more common alternative ways of communicating and connecting with other scholars—video conferencing, webinars and the like were technologies available before 2020, but which, until Covid-19 hit, had often not been fully explored. One of the main benefits of online conferencing is the ability to attend something that looks vaguely interesting but perhaps cannot be justified in terms of time and money. Perhaps you are only interested in one paper—with a virtual conference you can attend for just that. But it has also created greater access to those who might have been excluded due to mobility issues, family commitments, or financial constraints. Online conference attendance does have its drawbacks though—it is definitely not as convivial as meeting in person, particularly as it is more difficult to engage with others through a screen. 

But if 21st century technology has made how and what we research very different to those of our counterparts of 100 years ago, there are still fundamental elements of historical research that have not changed. One key example is the need to analyse sources and write up a thesis. There is little doubt that earlier students had similar problems of choosing what to include and exclude, whilst acknowledging the need to write coherently. It is impossible for the students of today to imagine, as it was for those of the Jazz age 100 years ago, how study will change over the next 100 years.  There are bound to be new methodologies, new ways of accessing records, new ways of communicating our ideas, as well as new topics to research. And yet there will also be the same pressures of finding time for study and writing, finding the right tone, and ensuring we are contributing something original to our chosen academic field. 


  • Being Human website, (2022), online – [accessed: 26.6.2022]
  • IHR Annual Reports (IHR/6/2) – Almost complete run: reports for 2005/06; 2007/08; 2011/12 are missing. Reports for 2001/02; 2002/03.
  • ‘M.A. in Computer Applications for History’ in Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 1990, Vol. 15, No. 4 (56)
  • School of Advanced Study website, (2022), Our History, online – [accessed: 26.6.2022]

[1] This one-off course to prepare students for war time conditions had been presented by Hilary Jenkinson of the Public Record Office and I was pleased to note that he did return to teach again in 1946.  See Phil Winterbottom’s blog of May 2022, ‘What to seek, and how to find and use it’ – Students, Archives and the IHR for more biographical information on Jenkinson.

[2] ‘M.A. in Computer Applications for History’ in Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 1990, Vol. 15, No. 4 (56), p.201

Janette Bright first enrolled at the IHR as a Masters student, undertaking an MRes in Historical Research in 2016.  After successfully graduating a year later she began a part-time PhD with the Institute.  For her Master’s degree Janette looked at the education of the children of the London Foundling Hospital in the eighteenth century.  For her current research she is looking at the Founding Hospital in terms of its creation and maintenance.  Janette works occasionally as a Museum Assistant at the London Foundling Museum.

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