Samuel Alexander’s conception of a university: locality and liberality

This post has been contributed by Anthony Fisher, a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Washington. Previously, he was a Research Fellow (2016-19) and a Newton International Fellow (2014-15) at the University of Manchester. He works on metaphysics and the history of philosophy. At Manchester, his first project was on the philosophy of Samuel Alexander. In June 2021, he edited a collection of essays that celebrates the centenary of Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity, published with Palgrave Macmillan.

Samuel Alexander (1859-1938) was the first Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester, from 1913-1924. Born in Australia, he made his way to the University of Oxford first as a scholar and then a fellow during a phase in philosophy where British idealism was the dominant trend in reaction to the theory of evolution and its explanatory application beyond biology. He became an influential philosopher, defending a unique metaphysical system in the realist tradition. The Faculty of Arts building at the University of Manchester now bears his name and still contains his bust from 1925.

Alexander first arrived in Manchester as Professor of Logic, Mental and Moral Philosophy at Owens College in 1893, when Owens College was a constituent university college of the Victoria University. He was deeply involved in the campaign to make the Manchester constituent its own independent university. He presented his case to The Speaker on 1 March 1902 and again in the Manchester Guardian on 11 June 1902, which was published as a pamphlet titled A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester by Sherratt and Hughes later that month. The timing on his efforts mattered significantly. In June of the previous year, the University Court appointed a committee to investigate the case for dissolution. This committee sent its report, which proposed separation, to the University Court on 31 May 1902. The University Court at the 1902 Convocation on 23 June 1902 voted on whether to support the break-up of the constituent colleges (it did: 137 in favour, 87 not).[1] Owens College received its independence in 1903. For more on the history of the Victoria University, see John Taylor’s ‘1880-2020: A Forgotten Anniversary‘.

For many, Alexander’s pamphlet proved convincing. Owens College was just over 50 years old by 1902. It had had its ups and downs since 1880 within the federal system that was Victoria University. There were many costs and benefits of such an educational system. Liverpool was keen to free itself, whereas Leeds (Yorkshire College) was steadfast in keeping the union alive. Manchester was somewhat on the fence. Alexander’s position on the issue was shared by others such as T.F. Tout, but for him there were philosophical arguments that supported it, arguments that were imbued with his character and that informed his very conception of a university.[2]

Photograph of Samuel Alexander
Owens College Union Magazine no. 20, December 1895

In philosophy, Alexander defended realism but also believed in system and often theorised in systematic terms. Everything is somehow related to everything else and so the best comprehensive explanation is couched in terms of a system. In his metaphysics, spacetime is the fundamental matrix of reality, as he elaborates in Space, Time, and Deity.[3] At the social level, society and social institutions are organic social wholes (which emerge from spacetime, although this is irrelevant here). These social wholes undergo evolutionary progression, just like everything else. Such an idea dates back to Hegel, which Alexander recognised in his early work along with the realisation that Darwinian evolution and Hegelianism converge to some extent on this truth.[4]

From this perspective, the social institution – in this case, Owens College – is inexorably caught up in the organic growth of the city (Manchester) in which it is located and the city’s surroundings (now Greater Manchester). The social whole is the larger organism, namely the city, with the institution as one aspect or part of that social whole. The social whole is its own system. Alexander added that the people of Manchester felt this social reality too; there was growing and intense ‘sentiment of organic connection’, he writes.[5] We now have the makings of an argument, which can be formulated as follows.

The university is one integral aspect of a social organic whole, which is the city and its surroundings. If the university is a constituent of some other external system, then it cannot fill its role in its real place in its social whole. In other words, in order to fill its role the university should be independent of some other system that has parts external to the university and its city. Therefore, Owens College should be an independent university. A subsidiary point is that the federal system is not a true system exhibiting a unity that makes that thing unqualifiedly one. Rather, the federal system is an aggregate or sum of social entities. An aggregate or sum – like a sand dune – is a thing that derives its reality from its parts. It is something that is built from the bottom up. Hence it is not the sort of thing that can suitably govern the parts from above.

By freeing Owens College it would be able to continue its natural course of being caught up in the social life and economic growth of Manchester. People of Manchester would care more deeply for their institution if it was truly theirs. University and community are two sides of the same coin. Furthermore, deans, lecturers, staff, and others at the university would be able to let in new disciplines and faculties such as those of medicine and law, which is exactly what the University of Manchester did. Finally, the university would be able to tend to the specific needs of Manchester and its distinctive development and expansion in the Northwest. The vision of a local and regional university did not foster an inward parochialism, as it was feared by some. Instead the city with its university – as a unified social whole – would attract students from all over the world.

In presenting arguments for an independent university in Manchester Alexander never implemented a destructive endeavour. Talk of ‘freeing the university’ from the chains of the federal system and talk of ‘independence’ were often seen in a negative light, as if independence implied that the federal system was being dismantled, as if it is something that must be torn down. On Alexander’s view, society and social wholes (such as cities with their universities) progress along evolutionary tracks. In the nineteenth century, there were colleges, university colleges, and universities. Owens College began, as the name indicates, as a college in 1851, then it became a university college in the Victoria University, and its next evolutionary step was to become a university. So, for Alexander, Victoria University was not dissolving, it was evolving.[6]

It should be highlighted that when Manchester became independent its name was the ‘Victoria University of Manchester’. On paper Victoria University was evolving into the Victoria University of Manchester and in principle Manchester could become associated or conjoined with other colleges in the future. So the birth of what is now the University of Manchester occurred in 1880, not 1903. From Alexander’s perspective, Owens College was ready to evolve into something that would be better for all those involved. This evolutionary progression supports the optimism that is needed by the people of a city-with-university to make their institution a superior thing in the future. Manchester was ready to make a great university in the twentieth century, and so it did.

What becomes of the University of Manchester in this century remains to be seen. But lessons can be learnt from Alexander’s conception of a university. Besides the metaphysical underpinnings, he held a practical and what he called liberal conception of the university. His views on this are found in a piece he wrote for The Political Quarterly titled ‘The Purpose of a University’, which he wrote 30 years after Owens College had evolved into the University of Manchester.

According to Alexander, the university is an association of students and teachers. The purpose of a university is for students and teachers alike to pursue knowledge in preparation for a job or profession after graduation as well as in advancing research. Specialised research serves as one way to prepare for the professions because it is engaged in building knowledge of a discipline that grounds the professions that students are preparing for. Acquiring knowledge is the key here; hence, the teacher (lecturer) is meant to teach the student, and not simply examine the student. One flaw with the federal system was its focus on examinations removed from personal instruction. The latter model fuelled in the student an obsession with grades, transcripts and the certificate handed out upon graduation.

Alexander also thought that the university’s job of pursuing higher branches of knowledge grounds the professions of ordinary life. The job prospects of engineers would have been greatly diminished if universities did not acquire and extend knowledge in the sciences such that engineering as a special science could be created. A university, therefore, is essentially bound up with practical issues in life. It is not an institution that cultivates knowledge for its own sake or maintains this goal as its sole purpose.

However, acquiring and extending knowledge must be pursued in a liberal spirit, Alexander says. The word ‘liberal’ is not restricted to the liberal arts. It should be broadened because, he argues: ‘It sets us free from the routine which besets the practice of any craft, it saves knowledge from being merely an acquisition or merely useful, animates it with reason and gives it life and zest’.[7] It describes a spirit that we live when we study any kind of subject, from physics and philosophy to art history. This spirit is directed towards understanding what we know. It thus applies to all branches of knowledge, not just Literature, English, and Poetry. Alexander concludes:

A University thus trains its members to perform their craft with liberation from the mere doing of it, because it supplies them with the enlightening quest of reason. All our studies therefore are pursued, not without regard to their utility for life, but not for the sake of their utility. What the University seeks to provide is the command of a subject, afterwards to be applied, which will make the application worthy of a free man. Such education may justly be called liberal.[8]

In sum, the liberal spirit and the practical drive of the university are unified in the interlocking context of the city and local region of which the university is an intimate and central component. The spread of universities across the world vindicates Alexander’s case for letting Owens College evolve into the University of Manchester and his liberal conception of a university is an important reminder of the real nature of a university.[9]

[1] Fiddes, Edward. 1937. Chapters in the History of Owens College and Manchester University, 1851-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 103.

[2] For an account of Tout’s role, see Jones, H.S. 2019. ‘T.F. Tout and the Idea of the University’ in Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929): Refashioning History for the Twentieth Century, ed. C.M. Barron and J.T. Rosenthal. London: University of London Press, pp. 71-85.

[3] Alexander, S. 1920. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-1918. London: Macmillan.

[4] See Alexander, S. 1889. Moral Order and Progress: An Analysis of Ethical Conceptions. London: Trubner and Co, p. viii.

[5] Alexander, S. 1902. A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester. Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, p. 5.

[6] A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester, op. cit., p. 8.

[7] Alexander, S. 1931. ‘The Purpose of a University’, The Political Quarterly 2(3): 337-52, p. 343.

[8] ‘The Purpose of a University’, op. cit., p. 344.

[9] Images are courtesy of The University of Manchester.

Call for Papers: History of Education Review journal special issue

The History of Education Review is seeking submissions for a special issue, to be co-edited by Tamson Pietsch (UTS) and Joel Barnes (UTS), that will explore the relations and interconnections between the history of knowledge and the history of education.

Abstracts due: October 1, 2020 (Please send to Joel Barnes)

Full manuscripts due: April 1, 2021

Planned publication: Issue 1, 2022

In recent years, the history of knowledge has developed into a thriving and dynamic subfield of historical studies, with its own specialist journals, book series and research centres, bringing together the study of a diverse range of periods, disciplines and approaches. Two programs of historical investigation in particular have emerged: first, an examination of the production, circulation and translation of knowledges outside of formal institutional structures, sometimes with a focus on historically devalued knowledges such as craft and trade knowledges; and second, an attempt to integrate histories of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, sometimes conceived of as an expansion of the history of science. As a field, the “history of knowledge” thus connects and overlaps with the history of science and technology, the similarly nascent field of the history of humanities, and intellectual history and the history of ideas in their various manifestations. However, less attention has to date been paid to the connections the new field might have with the history of education.

The History of Education Review seeks submissions for a special issue that will explore the relations and interconnections between the history of knowledge and the history of education.  Submissions for the special issue may examine empirical cases, focusing on any period and geographical region, or take theoretical or historiographical approaches.  Authors may wish to consider questions such as:

  • What are the implications of centring forms of knowledge for established questions and problems in the history of education?
  • How does bringing the history of science and of other forms of learning into dialogue with the institutional histories of schooling, universities and technical education reframe our understandings of these institutions?
  • What might a focus on informal or extra-institutional knowledges bring to a field that has conventionally focused on the practices and institutions shaping formal, official knowledges? What are the relations between informal and formal knowledges, and how might attention to excluded knowledges reframe understandings of those that have historically been included within education systems?
  • What are the possibilities for history of knowledge methods to bring historically devalued Indigenous and non-Western knowledges more fully into the history of education?
  • How does thinking about the circulation of knowledge bring new perspectives to the traditional subjects of the history of education?

We seek submission of abstracts of 300 words proposing articles for consideration for publication, with full manuscripts to follow. Acceptance of an abstract does not mean acceptance of a paper and submitted papers will proceed through History of Education Review’s usual peer-review process.

Please send abstracts and all queries to Joel Barnes, University of Technology Sydney (email address available at this link)  by October 1, 2020.


Women at the Console

This post is contributed by Dr Jonathan Swinton who has spent thirty years working in mathematical biology in academia and industry.  He is currently writing a textbook on mathematical phyllotaxis and has published several articles on Alan Turing’s pioneering work in this area.  In 2012, he designed the international citizen science project Turing’s Sunflowers with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.  His book ‘Alan Turing’s Manchester’, a social history for a general audience, has recently been published by Infang Publishing.  

The roles played by women in the mid twentieth century history of computing are currently in the spotlight.  The Hollywood film Hidden Figures tells the story of the largely female and African-American staff who provided numerical answers to NASA’s engineering problems. A recent book by the historian of technology Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality, questioned how the British state post 1945 used female expertise in information processing. Hicks’ firm answer is in her subtitle: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing and she makes good use of her sources, primarily in governmental computing, to support this. But much of the computing innovation was happening within universities, where gender roles in computing at the time have received relatively less attention. This blog post draws on my new book Alan Turing’s Manchester to highlight the careers of Bertha Swirles, Phyllis Lockett (Nicolson), Cicely Popplewell, Audrey Bates, and Mary Lee Woods and explore whether computing at the then Victoria University of Manchester did first create and then lose female expertise.

phyllis nicolson

Phyllis Nicolson (Courtesy of Don Nicolson).

Manchester University electronic computing had an early success in 1948, when the Mark 1 ran its, and arguably the world’s, first computer program. One of the reasons this happened where it did was that wartime Manchester was already a national centre for mechanical computing. This approach solved problems from science and engineering by breaking them down into a large number of repetitive steps which did not require elite skill. Designing these algorithms was still the province of the mathematician, first practised in Manchester by Douglas Hartree who was Professor from 1929. He re-appointed an old friend from his Cambridge days, Bertha Swirles, as an Assistant Lecturer.  It was not unusual for women to serve in junior teaching positions in mathematics, but she was also active in research and collaborated with Hartree to solve problems in the new quantum physics by phrasing them as repeated tasks for the operator of a desk calculator. This required the computer – as the operator of the calculator was called – to obediently but precisely obey the demands of the algorithm in thousands of repeated actions per day. Hartree and Swirles’ first computer was Hartree’s father, but clearly this could not scale. When this approach was independently adopted in the US, it evolved into a the large-scale use of semi-professional female labour seen in Hidden Figures. (Swirles herself returned to Cambridge in 1938, where Girton College probably offered her more job security and a higher status role, and she spent the rest of her career there. The couple had no children, and she continued to publish for many decades and to take on senior roles in the University. It was via her husband that she acquired the title Lady Jefferies.). Manchester went in a different direction.

Hartree continued to develop mechanical computing in Manchester by importing the idea of the ‘differential analyser’ from the United States, and raising local sponsorship to build a production machine housed in the basement of Patrick Blackett’s physics department (a room unusable by that stage for physics experiments because of the Rutherford-era radiation). In the decade before 1948 Hartree’s group was a national resource for numerical solutions to the problems of the science war, including the British atomic bomb project. Rather like the Tardis, the differential analyser required simultaneous skilled operators for the most efficient use, and Hartree recruited a team of four. Unlike Swirles’ theoretical role, this was in part manual labour, perceived by at least one of the recruits as a male job because of the lubricating oil and overalls involved. But the competition for male mathematically skilled war-workers was very high and opportunity opened to Phyllis Lockett, a recent Manchester graduate. Her most valued contribution was remembered within the team not at the controls of the analyser but on problems it could not solve. When the team had to act as ‘human CPUs’, reverting to the desk calculators, she was the fastest. But it was her theoretical contributions that have lasted the longest; she went on to co-develop the Crank-Nicolson algorithm which is still in use today by (electronic) computers. It was so-called because Lockett had married, becoming Phyllis Nicolson, in 1942 and she then moved to Leeds by the time of the birth of her first child in 1947. She was appointed to a lectureship in Leeds in 1952 after her husband, who had previously held the post, died in an accident, and with a young family to care for she taught for several years but does not then seem to have been active in research.

The prewar construction of Hartree’s differential analyser had been by engineers under the direction of mathematicians, and this was the postwar model adopted when Blackett and Hartree imported talent and funding to Manchester to create the electronic computing era. The mathematician Max Newman was to create a Calculating Machine Laboratory and Freddie Williams was recruited largely because he could build the Machine for him. Williams rapidly handed responsibility to his student Kilburn and for decades there were no women in Kilburn’s engineering team except at low levels. The large number of repeated logic circuits had to be tediously checked by a ‘wireman’ and a sole ‘wirewoman’, Ida Fitzgerald, is remembered because of her gender uniqueness.


18-year-old Cicely Popplewell in 1939 (Courtesy Girton College Cambridge, Copyright: Lafayette Archives).

Newman famously recruited Alan Turing as his first appointment, but he or Turing also appointed Cicely Popplewell as Turing’s assistant. Popplewell was from the same Girton mathematics mould as Swirles, but her contributions were both theoretical and managerial. Her memories of Turing were not warm – she told Turing’s biographer he had barely recognised her right to exist – but she found a place for decades within the emerging computer service. She wrote the first versions of subroutines for mathematical functions like cosine. She rewrote sections of Turing’s programming manual to make it comprehensible; she edited proceedings and travelled abroad to give courses. Popplewell left a few pages of memories of early computing in which she emphasised the physical labour: the manually switched instructions, the sweltering heat, and the stairs that had to be constantly traversed to co-ordinate with and, sometimes, placate, the engineers.  Despite the extensive celebratory accounts of Manchester computing, she is not emphasised in its own historical record.  She is glancingly remembered as a manager and as a mother-figure within the service. She married and moved to Buxton around 1970 in her late 40s, and at around the same time she left the department, and computer science, with no recorded fanfare despite her long service.

Popplewell shared her 1949 office with Audrey Bates. Bates was like Lockett a Manchester mathematics graduate and she became an MSc student with Turing as her supervisor. She was recruited as part of Max Newman’s initial vision for the Laboratory, to use machines to do symbolic mathematics – what might now be considered a branch of artificial intelligence – rather than to do calculations.  Her MSc thesis was the sole output of Newman’s vision, and neither she nor anyone else followed it up as the mathematical purpose of the Laboratory was lost. But Bates rapidly converted the skills she had gained in using the Manchester computer into what became a lifelong career as a programmer and systems analyst.  She soon moved to the emerging programming group at Ferranti who were commercialising the machine, and where gender relations were profoundly different to those of the University.


Audrey Bates, operating the world’s first remote computation session in 1955 (Copyright University of Toronto Archives).  Bates was Toronto’s expert on the Ferranti Mark I and her name is often found on the internet in association with this photograph, although sometimes incorrectly described as a ‘Canadian National telegraph operator’.

In the 1948 University, there was no in-principle barrier to female achievement: there was a (single) female Professor, there was no marriage ban as in the Civil Service, and there was no explicit pay discrimination. But in practice, no woman had access to creative engineering work, and women appeared in computing only from mathematical backgrounds and were as marginalised at least as much as the male mathematicians were. Swirles and Lockett both acquired academic positions elsewhere but neither as full Professors.  But Ferranti, the Manchester electrical firm contracted to commercialise the university Mark I, started from the ‘radio belt’ where working-class women, for whom Ferranti competed with the Lancashire mills, assembled components under the eye of technically qualified, better paid male supervisors. However, as Ferranti started to market the new machine, they needed software engineers to show users how they could exploit the technology. The managers at Ferranti inserted a pre-fab ‘tin hut’ into the Moston factory to house this emerging class of programmers. One of their early recruits was Bates. Within a couple of years Bates went to Toronto, where Ferranti had sold its second machine, and then on to a career as a systems analyst in the US that lasted into the 1970s. Another Ferranti recruit was Mary Lee Woods (later Berners-Lee). Woods discovered that she was being paid less than her male colleagues and scandalised Ferranti’s female manager of woman’s labour by successfully asking for equal pay. This would have been economically disastrous on the radio belt, and was institutionally impossible in a University which largely didn’t appoint women to the jobs at all. But in the tin hut, where computer programming was a brand-new activity, it was possible and indeed necessary.

How do these individual lives fit into Hicks’s thesis that women acquired expertise that Britain then lost? Women indeed had access to early Manchester computing through their roles, widely accepted as gender-suitable, as mathematicians. Those who preceded Kilburn’s era, Swirles and Lockett, remained within these roles and did not seek to become computing innovators, and were able to continue their careers, albeit in ways that were consistent with the contemporary choices between family and productivity. Popplewell moved into the mother-like role of the system administrator and contributed for decades, though her eventual departure hints at some unhappiness. Bates and Lee Woods both succeeded in becoming part of the first generation of computer programmers, but both did so away from Manchester University, and in Bates’ case, away from Britain altogether. Was Kilburn’s department a hostile environment for these skilled women? Accounting for these individual choices in terms of larger forces of gender, class and disciplinary boundaries will always be speculative, but the outcome was that Manchester University computing moved in a few years from a pioneer group of male and female (and indeed gay and straight) mathematicians and engineers, to one with much less visible diversity.

I particularly acknowledge Simon Lavington for his generous sharing of information (though he is no way responsible for my conclusions); his forthcoming book on the uses made of the Ferranti Mark I will be published by Springer in Autumn 2019. I am also indebted to other sources available on request and which can be found in my book Alan Turing’s Manchester, along with discussion of these and other women and men visible on the Manchester scene like Beatrice ‘Trixie’ Worsley and Dorothy Wrinch.

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.