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 
  • Ancestry.com: 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 https://prabook.com/web/aileen.dunham/588823 
  • ‘The Aileen Dunham Prize’, The College of Wooster, https://wooster.edu/area/history/ 
  • The history of the IOE | Institute of Education – UCL – University College London www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/about-ioe/history-ioe 
  • University of Saskatchewan Honorary Degrees – University of Saskatchewan (usask.ca) 

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7388999
  • 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), https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/details/

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