New Horizons, New Tensions: Modern Languages in British Universities, 1900-1920

This post is contributed by Professor John Taylor, currently visiting professor at Lancaster University in the Department of Educational Research.  His most recent book is ‘The Impact of the First World War on British Universities: Emerging from the Shadows’.

In June 1901, the Council of the University College Sheffield (soon to become the University of Sheffield) approved the establishment of a new School of Modern Languages. This initiative ushered in, for Sheffield and for universities elsewhere, a period of significant change for the Modern Languages, including new courses, different teaching methods and new departments, culminating in a major Government inquiry in the field; all of this against the backdrop between 1914-18 of the First World War.  These developments provided the foundation for the Modern Languages for decades to come; they also offer an insight into the workings of British universities at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Like similar initiatives elsewhere, the stimulus for change at Sheffield came from the business community and from local authorities keen to support local business. Thus, the new School received funding from Sheffield City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Sheffield Tramways Committee, West Riding County Council and Derbyshire County Council.  At this time, national Government took very little interest in the work of universities and certainly had no role in establishing the new School in Sheffield.

Reflecting the needs of local business, modern language teaching was broadly based, offering tuition at many different levels. A small number of students studied for honours.  Other students, typically from science and technology departments, took courses at ordinary level; it was common, for example, for science students to seek a basic understanding of German.  However, further programmes were offered as evening classes or as Saturday classes intended to meet the needs of teachers and those working in commerce.  In Sheffield, as elsewhere, at the beginning of the century, teaching was confined to French and German.

However, from the early days of the new century, increasing specialisation took place. In 1905-06, the University of Leeds reached an agreement with the Leeds City Education Authority intended to reduce duplication in teaching and to clarify routes into higher education.  Thus, responsibility for teaching part-time students through evening classes passed to the City authorities.  At the same time, language departments began to look to increasing student numbers working at Honours level.  At Leeds, the first honours degree in Modern Languages was awarded in 1902.  In 1907, it was reported that the Department of French Language and Literature at Leeds showed ‘signs of rapid development’; further, ‘the number of Honours students for the current session shows so marked an increase, and the outlook for the future in this respect seems so bright that … several additional classes would probably have to be established.’

Facilities and teaching methods were also changing. Teaching had traditionally been based around formal lectures.  However, early in the new century, attention was centred upon the German model based on the ‘seminar’. In 1905, the University Council at Leeds noted that: ‘The establishment of “seminars” is advocated by the Professors of English, French and German for the development of teaching in their respective Departments. In each case this would involve the setting apart of a special room provided with maps, charts, apparatus for phonetic reading and a special library for books for the use of advanced students.’  By 1909, the seminar room was in active use and further equipment was sought for both teaching and research.

At this time, periods of study abroad were not integral, required parts of degree teaching in modern languages. However, this also began to change.  In 1912, the University of Leeds reached an arrangement with the University of Caen in France whereby Leeds students would spend a term in Caen and that this period would be recognised for assessment purposes.

However, perhaps the most significant changes in the years to 1920 were concerned with the range of different languages taught in British universities. In 1907, for example, the first School of Russian Studies was established by the University of Liverpool.   In Leeds, as in other large cities, the outbreak of War in 1914 prompted new interest in international affairs.  Members of the Jewish community in Leeds and Bradford, many of them descended from Russian exiles who moved to the West Riding in the nineteenth century, began to lobby for the introduction of teaching in Russian.  For others, especially within the non-conformist business community of the region, the military alliance with Russia at the start of the War raised the prospect of lucrative trade when the conflict ended.


The Panama Canal, 1914

At the same time, interest was also growing in the Spanish language.  The Panama Canal opened in August 1914 and immediately prompted new interest in trade with Latin America.  The Vice-Chancellor in Leeds, Michael Sadler, faced growing pressure in 1914-15 to expand the range of language teaching.  His response was cautious, partly because of the difficult financial position and partly because he was keen to encourage a ‘rounded’ development embracing language, literature and regional studies as well as meeting the demands of business.  After protracted negotiations, the University secured two major donations, one from Sir James Roberts, a local textiles businessman and a member of the Baptist Communion, to establish a Chair and Department of Russian, and the other from Weetman Pearson, Lord Cowdray, a wealthy engineering contractor and pioneer in the emerging oil industry, with extensive interests in Mexico, to establish a Chair and Department of Spanish.  Sadler’s vision was important in another way.  He saw the new Departments working within a ‘hub and spoke’ system, actively involving local school teachers in the work of the University; indeed, his ideas went further, seeking a partnership in language teaching that would include the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield as well.


Michael Sadler (1861-1943), Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds

The War brought an awareness that Britain had been disadvantaged in trade and in science before 1914 by weaknesses in language competence. As the War continued and attention turned to post-War reconstruction, the need to strengthen the teaching of Modern Languages grew.  In 1916, a Government Committee was set up to consider the question.  This Committee reported in 1918 and provided a strong endorsement of the role of universities in meeting the challenge.  The report urged an expansion of Modern Language teaching in schools and universities,  including the study of history, literature, economics and politics, with a reduced emphasis on philology and the classical languages. Recommendations were made for increased diversity in the languages available, with additional studentships and further staff appointments.

By 1920, university provision in the Modern Languages looked very different from the start of the century. In common with other subject areas, demand for places increased sharply at the end of the War, new subjects were in place and the subject had acquired a new status within universities.  However, these developments also illustrate some of the important characteristics of higher education at this time: the prominence of lobbying and associated philanthropy in fostering new developments; the importance of regional networks; an emphasis on the needs of business; and the key role of university leaders with vision and aspiration.

‘Of the greatest practical importance’: Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester

David Woodbridge received a Cultural Engagement Fellowship from the British Inter-University China Centre, for which he undertook a study of the E. H. Parker Collection at the John Rylands Library. A summary of the collection, along with links to relevant handlists, can be found here:  For further information, David can be contacted on:

In September 2015, in a speech in Chengdu, China, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne invited Chinese investment in his Northern Powerhouse scheme. His visit formed part of a broader attempt to increase ties between China and the UK. During his speech in Chengdu, Osborne referred to an announcement, made a few days before, that the government would be investing £10 million with the aim of increasing the number of children in Britain learning Mandarin to an additional 5,000 by 2020.[1] This, Osborne claimed, would ‘give more young people the opportunity to learn a language that will help them succeed in our increasingly global economy.’[2]

This is not the first time that the study of Mandarin has been promoted in Britain in order to strengthen economic ties with China. Nor is it the first time that it has been done particularly with the economy of northern England in mind. In 1901 E. H. Parker (1849-1926) became Professor of Chinese at Owens College, Manchester (then a constituent part of the federal Victoria University, and reconstituted as the Victoria University of Manchester in 1903). Parker’s appointment was perhaps the first time that the study of Chinese was promoted in Britain with the stated intention of enhancing the country’s commercial prospects in China. As Henry Harrison, the Blackburn manufacturer who funded the chair, stated in 1903 in a letter to Owens College: ‘a knowledge of the Chinese Language has become of the greatest practical importance’.[3]

Henry Harrison (1834-1914), was a cotton manufacturer, and from 1887 also served as president of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce. In 1896 this Chamber sent a commercial mission to China, and in its report the mission drew attention to the many potential export and investment opportunities, particularly in the cities inland recently made open to foreign trade. But the report also highlighted the challenges that presented themselves to British businesses in China. Prominent among these was the lack of foreign merchants with a good knowledge of the Chinese language, a deficiency which left them dependent on compradors who, according to the report, could not be relied upon to act in the best interests of the foreign firms they represented. ‘The want of a knowledge of the language was so frequently brought home to us in our journey through the country’, concluded the report’s authors, ‘that we are quite prepared to advise, that every junior attached to a mercantile house should be compelled to learn the language of the country’.[4]

Harrison appears to have taken this advice very seriously. In 1900 he donated £200 ‘for the study of Eastern Languages and ultimately for the establishment of a Chair in Chinese.’[5] His donation was recorded in a list of subscribers to the College’s commercial education scheme, which had been initiated the previous year. This scheme consisted of a series of evening courses, completion of which led to the award of the Certificate of Commercial Education. Candidates had to select from a range of courses on economics, commerce, geography and commercial law, and also to study at least one modern language. Initially students could choose from French, German and Spanish, but thanks to Harrison’s donation, Chinese was soon added to this list. Over the next few years, the courses offered in commercial education were expanded and formalised, and in 1904 a Faculty of Commerce was established, at that time only the second such faculty to be formed in a British university.

A professorship in Chinese was instituted in 1901, and further donations from Harrison safeguarded its future. Parker was appointed to the professorship, and would remain in position until his death, in 1926. This was not Parker’s first academic position. Since 1896 he had been Reader in Chinese at University College Liverpool (which became the University of Liverpool in 1903). Prior to this, Parker had worked for over twenty years for the British consular service in China. During this time, he had been a prominent member of what Norman J. Girardot has described as ‘a remarkable group of hyphenated missionary- and consul-scholars’.[6] These amateur sinologists undertook a range of enquiries, and their findings and disputes filled the pages of journals such as the China Review, and represented a first flourishing of English-language scholarship on China. Parker’s most distinctive contributions were in the field of Chinese dialectology, but he wrote on a wide range of topics, including history and religion.[7]

Parker’s classes were deemed a great success. As early as 1904, the University Council asserted that ‘the value of the classes has been demonstrated by the nature of the appointments obtained and of the work entrusted to those who have studied the Chinese language under Professor Parker’s instruction. The advantages offered by these classes ought to be more widely known in the mercantile community.’[8] Manchester’s professorship in Chinese was only the fifth to be founded in the UK, and the first outside of Oxford, Cambridge and London. But more significantly, it was distinctive in its focus on training students for an engagement with the China of contemporary times. As Parker proudly asserted a few years later, what set the University of Manchester apart from Cambridge, Oxford and London was that it was involved ‘actively in preparing students for China’.[9]

However, despite the attested benefits of offering instruction in Chinese, other universities did not follow Manchester’s example in establishing chairs. Neither did Manchester appoint a successor following Parker’s death in 1926, though Edgar W. Mead (1887-1941) was later employed for a while as Reader in Chinese Language and Social Economy. Following this, it was not until 2006 that Chinese studies again became a programme of study at the University of Manchester. This time, however, it is one of many such programmes that have commenced in British universities since the turn of the century. The courses offered predominantly have a contemporary focus, often with the option of combining Chinese language with business studies. It would seem that, though it did not catch on at the time, Harrison’s vision of Chinese studies as a practical training for those seeking to engage with contemporary China, and particularly with its commerce, has become the predominant model in British universities today.




[3] Vice-Chancellor’s Files: China, GB 133 VCA/7/31: Harrison to The Treasurer, 21 May 1903. University of Manchester Archives.

[4] Report of the Mission to China of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce, 1896-7 (Blackburn: The North-East Lancashire Press Company, 1898), pp. 326-7.

[5] Vice-Chancellor’s Files: China, GB 133 VCA/7/31: Extract from Owens College Council Minutes, 10 October 1900. University of Manchester Archives.

[6] Norman J. Girardot, The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage (London: University of California Press, 2002), p.7.

[7] For Parker’s work on Chinese dialectology, see: David Prager Branner, ‘The Linguistic Ideas of Edward Harper Parker’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 119:1 (1999), pp. 12-34. Many of Parkers books can be viewed at

[8] Printed Minutes of Court /Reports of Council to Court, GB 133 OCA/8/3: 10 November 1904. University of Manchester Archives.

[9] Report of Council to Court: 1919, GB 133 UOP/2/16. University of Manchester Archives.

Image Credit: Historic Images, Lancashire

Books-in-Kind: Philanthropic Resources for a New 1960s University

This post has been contributed by Dr Triona Fitton, who has recently published a monograph on the hidden history of philanthropy at the University of Kent. Triona blogs about her research here, and will be speaking at this year’s ARNOVA conference in Chicago.

The universities of the 1960s started out exceptionally short on books and other library resources. They were especially sensitive to the fact that this set them back behind the long-established ancient and Red Brick universities in Britain and their vast, distinguished and often donated collections.

The first University of Kent library was housed one mile away from the campus, above a shop on Station Road West near to the Canterbury city walls. No provision was available for a library building at the time, so the library remained at that site until October 1964, when the need for further space for the library collection necessitated some resources relocating back up the hill to a hut on Beverley Farm.

The first Librarian at the University was a man called G.S. Darlow, himself a philanthropic donor to the University (a cup bearing his name and years of service sits in the silverstore of Eliot College, a gift from the librarian when he left in 1977).  Darlow recorded in his first report in January 1964 that, in addition to those purchased by the University, over 3,000 books had been donated to his catalogue. By 1970, donated books had risen to a formidable total of 36,638 – one fifth of the entire library collection[1].

An early appeal was made through the Kent Messenger Newspaper and through that over 12,000 volumes were collected by the arrival of the first intake in 1965.

Many volumes came from early benefactors, including Pfizer; from the Sponsors of the University, such as Lord Cornwallis, and from the first members of staff and early recipients of honorary doctorates such as Bonamy Dobrée.

Other early library donations of note include volumes from the Labour Party library, the French Foreign Office, London Transport, the Navy League, United Africa Company, Wye College (with whom Kent would later collaborate to host courses in the Medway area); even three of Kent’s fellow 1960s universities, Lancaster, Sussex and Essex, donated small collections of books to the library.

Library-e1426612753665Unpacking books arriving at the University Library, late 1960s.

However, perhaps the most esteemed donations to the University library were in the form of collections, including the T.S. Eliot Collection (given in part by Bonamy Dobrée, including some with inscriptions from Eliot himself), the Darwin Collection (given by Maidstone donor Jack Johns, a collector of books on evolutionary theory and biology), the Weatherill papers (some of which were given by Lord Weatherill himself, including many personal correspondence), the Melville Collection (given by Andrew Melville III’s widow Joan, featuring documents that span over 100 years of the Melville family’s theatrical history) and the John Crowe collection (a collection of Shakespearean texts that formed the basis for the University of Kent’s Special Collections archive back in the 1970s), among others.

The first Templeman library opened in 1968. It has continued to grow and and is currently undergoing a £12 million extension and a £10 million refurbishment. The early philanthropic gifts may well get forgotten as the library grows and far exceeds the University’s early plan for it to house 1 million books and room for 2,500 people to study. But these first books-in-kind – and the benefactors who gave them – are remembered here as part of the philanthropic groundwork of the University of Kent.

This blog contains excerpts from ‘Hidden History: Philanthropy at the University of Kent’

[1] King, P.G. (1970) “Progress and Developments in the Library of the University of Kent at Canterbury”, Masters in Arts thesis, University of Loughborough. p.44


This category looks at how different disciplines have developed at universities throughout their history, and what this can tell us about the nature of academic institutions and pedagogical communities.