History in the early twentieth century: from one department to two

Manon Williams
Thursday 29 July 2021

At the start of the twentieth century, the subject of ‘Modern History’ was taught at St Andrews by just one member of staff, a lecturer (although there was separate provision for ‘ancient history’ in the department of Classics, and for ‘ecclesiastical history’ in St Mary’s College). Over the following decades, more staff were appointed, with increasingly specific areas of expertise, and the teaching of history changed accordingly. This blog traces some of those changes by looking at the details of History courses and staff published in the University Calendar, looking at one year in each decade from 1905 onwards.

In 1905, the Modern History lecturer was James Mackinnon (1860-1945); he had been appointed in 1896, and would remain until 1907/8, when he moved to a professorship at Edinburgh. Students for an MA had to take two of Modern History, Ecclesiastical History or Ancient History.

In 1915, the Modern History lecturer was technically John D. Mackie (1887-1978). He had replaced Mackinnon in 1908 and would remain in post until the early 1920s (1921 or 1926, sources differ). He was young enough to be called up for military service during the First World War, so he was not actually teaching (the ‘assistants’ appointed to cover his teaching included Janet Low and Elizabeth Hewat). He later moved to positions at Bedford College, London; and at the University of Glasgow.

By 1925, after Mackie’s departure, the staff in ‘Modern History’ had expanded to two: John (known as ‘Jack’) Williams Williams (1885-1957) had moved from lecturer in Sociology to lecturer in Mediaeval History in 1921;1 and William Lawrence Burn (1904-66) as lecturer in Modern History. There were now separate offferings in Mediaeval and Modern History (which included ‘European History in the Fifteenth Century’ and ‘British Political History in the Fifteenth Century’). In that year, a Carnegie Research Lecturer, Mr A. O. Anderson, offered two additional courses, in ‘Early Scottish History down to the end of the thirteenth century’, and ‘A practical course of Latin Palaeography’. Ancient and Ecclesiastical History continued to be taught (though the Ancient History lectureship was vacant that year).

By 1935, the department of Modern History had acquired its first Chair: Jack Williams had become the first professor in 1929; and at the same time, a new lectureship in Colonial and American History had been created, and filled by William Lawrence Burn. Doris Ketelbey had just joined the department as an ‘assistant’ in Modern History, and Ronald Cant (1908-99) was lecturer in Scottish and Mediaeval History. The Modern History papers that year were entirely focused on British History, while Mediaeval History extended to European History and Age of Wyclif. (Ancient History focused on Greek and Roman civilisations.)

There was a postwar expansion in the department of Modern History.

1955 was a year of change: Jack Williams finally retired (having apparently been living “wholly in the world of whiskey, sherry and literature”, according to one of his American PhD students in the early 1950s),2 and the University agreed to create two separate departments, by appointing two new Chairs, each supported by lecturers: Norman Gash (1912-2009) would lead Modern History until 1980; while Lionel Butler (1923-81) would lead that of Mediaeval History until 1973.

This post is part of a collection examining the establishment of the History degree at St Andrews, looking at the increasing number of staff and students and the gender balance of those graduating with a degree in history. You can also learn about the establishment of the history degree, or the first joint honours in History. To learn more about the past paper exams from key decades throughout the twentieth century, follow these links: 1905 Past Paper, 1950s Past Paper, 1970s Past Paper, 1980s/90s Past Paper, and the style and format of past history papers.

Sources: University Calendars 1905-1975.

This blog post was originally written by Georgia Armour in 2021, who was going into her third year in Art History and English at the University of St Andrews. It was revised in 2022 and 2023 by Aileen Fyfe.
  1. Who was Who ↩︎
  2. Russell Kirk, quoted by Bradley Birzer (2014) https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/05/the-conservative-mind.html ↩︎

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