Past History Papers: 1950s

Manon Williams
Thursday 29 July 2021

Past exam papers allow us to piece together information about how History at the University of St Andrews was conceptualised and taught to students, and how that differs from different decades throughout the twentieth century and today. The exam papers from the 1950s suggest that the teaching of History was becoming more organised and categorised than it had been in the early twentieth century. This is consistent with the emergence of separate departments of Mediaeval and Modern History, and later Scottish History.

The 1950s papers that I examined were, unlike in 1905, split up into categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Colonial History. There was more variety in the types of history being taught, indicating that there were now more students and staff and more demand for different types of history. There was a great deal of crossover between the papers, with Colonial History often being used as an alternative paper for Modern History, and Medieval often used as an alternative paper for Scottish History. Much of the content of the papers was focused on Political, Military and Religious History, with very little focus on non-political or social history. Ancient History was very much focused on politics, generally asking about the specifics of different Roman political events, figures, regimes and military campaigns.

Colonial History was an interesting subject to look at as, unlike in any other decade that I looked at, it was its own separate subject. In other decades the topic of colonialism was simply included in Modern History papers. These papers discussed colonialism from a very Western perspective, asking about methods of colonialism, obstacles faced by colonisers and the effectiveness of different colonial regimes. There were no mentions of race or how colonised people were treated, which is unsurprising due to the racial attitudes of the period. Modern History was also very political, and largely focused on British History. Particularly popular topics include Mary Stuart, the Tudors and the English Reformation, which are still stalwarts of British History to this day.

This focus on politics, religion and military are very much what I expected from this period. As a discipline, history at this point was still very much focused on these conventional and ‘hard’ subjects and resistant to schools of history that did not prioritise the male dominated institutions of high politics, such as monarchy and parliament. However, we can see small mentions of social and non-political history tied in to these questions, even if it is just in questions about the state of countries at the outbreak of war or popular support for rebellions. We also start to see questions asking about broader developments and trends, such as this question from a 1956 Scottish Medieval History paper; ‘To what causes do you attribute the emergence of a united kingdom of Scotland in the early eleventh century?’ The study of history was slowly becoming more recognisable to its students today, although it still had a long way to go in terms of inclusivity and variety.


  • 1950 Colonial History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1955 Modern British History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1955 Medieval Scottish History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10


This post was written in 2021 by Amanda Stewart, who was then going into her third year of studying History at the University of St Andrews.

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 progression of the history degree in the twentieth century or the 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, 1970s Past Paper, and 1980s/90s Past Paper, and the style and format of past papers.

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