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Manchester’s golden age

PhD students are mostly known to us undergraduates as our seminar tutors who, often despite serial tiredness, hangovers & lack of reading, try to inspire rigorous academic debate every week. However, Manchester University has more links with the development of the Doctorate of Philosophy in History than you might know.

The PhD has been central to both academic development and professionalism since its initial development in the late 19th century, with innovative key members of staff from Manchester helping it on its way.

The period of 1890-1925 is considered by many as the “golden age” of Manchester’s history department, as it was acknowledged only behind Oxford & Cambridge as the best in the country. It has been suggested this was due to the leadership of Professor Thomas Frederick Tout. A nationally prominent specialist in Mediaeval history, Tout produced seminal academic works including his 6-volume “Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England”. Tout promoted a strong investigative ethos amongst history students, promoting both the PhD & pioneering original research within the undergraduate thesis.

Moreover, Tout was also an important local patron of women’s education, being both involved in the suffragist movement and a board member of “Manchester Girls School”. As a result the history department within the university was advanced in its gender equality, particularly notable in comparison to the male dominance at Oxford. A strong female influence was promoted; 12 of the initial 18 students who gained their PhD in the period 1921-1930 were women.

Books & articles published from the university press highlighted the importance of what was described as the “Manchester School”. Well respected within academic circles, the department was undeniably influential and pioneering in both its widespread encouragement of research and promotion of egalitarianism.

Nevertheless, 90 years after the first history PhD being awarded in the departments’ “golden age”, the methods of students continue in the same way. Dorothy Broome wrote to Professor Tout in 1922 “My thesis ought to be in by 15 October but I haven’t finished writing it yet – do you think I may have an extension of time until 4 November?…I’ve finished the beginning and the end and am struggling with a refractory middle!” – showing although the PhD course has changed overtime, the devices students use to gain qualifications hasn’t!