Our history

Our history: over 125 years of teaching and research

1877-1945

History has been taught and researched at Leeds since 1877. Arthur Grant (1862-1948) joined the Yorkshire College in 1897, and became Professor of Modern History - a foundation chair - when the University of Leeds acquired its royal charter in 1904. Grant was a dedicated educationalist, with a wide range of historical interests. He worked tirelessly for the Workers’ Educational Association as well as lecturing at the university. The second academic to join the School was Miss Alice M. Cooke (1867-1940), a medievalist who published over forty articles on topics ranging from the Cistercians in England to St Francis of Assisi. Cooke also played a key role in developing the library’s medieval collections. By the time that Grant retired in 1927, History at Leeds was a well-established department.

Grant’s successor as head of department was Alexander Hamilton Thompson (1873-1952), who joined the school as Reader in Medieval History in 1922, and was promoted to Professor two years later. Hamilton Thompson was an expert on medieval military architecture, and a prodigious writer whose friends produced a list of his 413 publications to mark his seventy-fifth birthday. He was heavily involved with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, appointed CBE in 1938, and served as head of department until his retirement in 1939. He was President of the Royal Archaeological Institute from 1939 to 1945. From 1936, historians were able to study in the newly-opened Brotherton Library. Arthur Turberville, who had been at Leeds since 1929, took over as head of department in 1939 and served until 1945.

1945-1960

The University grew steadily after the war and the School of History appointed a number of new staff, including John Le Patourel (1909-1981), who moved to Leeds from the University of London in 1945, and held the chair of Medieval History until his retirement in 1970. Le Patourel's work focused on the history of the Channel Islands in the medieval period, although he also worked on medieval Leeds and medieval empires. He was instrumental in establishing what became the Institute for Medieval Studies, an innovative interdisciplinary unit.

Guy Chapman also joined the School in 1945 as Professor of Modern History, and held the post until 1953. Chapman was a well-known writer who was married to Storm Jameson, a novelist and graduate of the university. Chapman promoted the teaching of international relations, and published works on the Dreyfus case and the history of the French Third Republic.

The application process has changed significantly since the 1940s, when prospective students were expected to write to the head of department and request an interview. Around 24 undergraduates studied history each year at this time. One of our most long-standing members of the School, Gordon Forster, recalls how students studied in the Brotherton and socialised in the Student Union building just like today, but in other respects campus has been transformed since then in terms of its buildings and facilities.

Student numbers grew in the 1950s, from a total of 53 students studying history in 1953-1954, to 90 students by 1957-1958. In 1955, Asa Briggs (1921 - 2016) moved from Oxford to take up the Chair of Modern History, in which role he sought to extend the chronological and geographical scope of the history curriculum. For example, he devised an innovative course on 'The development of Russia and the United States in modern times' in 1958, which introduced post-war history for the first time. Briggs was also active in adult education and widening participation in higher education.

1960-present

Our unique International History and Politics (IHP) undergraduate degree programme was created in 1969 by just as distinctive a personality, John Grenville (1928-2011), who had been appointed Professor of International History in 1966. IHP was initially intended as a small undergraduate course for around ten students who wished to specialise in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its popularity has led to its continued growth over the years.

Grenville pioneered the use of newsreels and films as teaching resources for the IHP programme, sometimes shown as part of a public debate. Grenville was the perfect British gentleman, who wore a tweed jacket and brogue shoes, and took an avid interest in county cricket. Grenville, nonetheless, had not had a privileged upbringing. He had escaped from Berlin by Kindertransport in 1939, and was forced to leave school at the age of 14 on financial grounds. Grenville acquired British citizenship in 1949, educated himself while working as a gardener in Cambridge, and acquired a BA and PhD in History from the London School of Economics.

Peter Sawyer (1928-) joined the university in 1964, and became Professor of Medieval History in 1970. A world-renowned expert on Anglo-Saxon charters and the Vikings, Sawyer used coins extensively in his teaching at Leeds. Sawyer was instrumental in the creation of the International Medieval Bibliography in 1967, still the leading interdisciplinary bibliography of the Middle Ages. In 1966, the department launched the first ever regional history journal, Northern History.

The university continued to grow rapidly during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Innovative course development has remained a distinguishing feature of the Leeds history curriculum, and the geographical breadth of our provision has become a notable strength during the past two decades. In 1994, the International Medieval Congress (IMC) was launched, building on the university’s international reputation for medieval studies. Today, the IMC draws over 2,000 medievalists from over 50 countries to Leeds each summer. When the Leeds University Business School was established in 1997, the economic historians from the former School of Business and Economic Studies joined the School of History, extending the disciplinary breadth of the department’s research and teaching. In 2011, the Institute for Medieval Studies, an interdisciplinary institute, became a formal part of the School of the History.