1880-2020: A Forgotten Anniversary

This post has been contributed by Professor John Taylor, based at the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

Amidst the understandable preoccupation with Covid 19, an important anniversary for higher education has been forgotten.  On 20 April 1880, Queen Victoria signed the charter for the creation of the Victoria University and, on 14 July 1880, the University was formally inaugurated at a meeting of the University Court.  In effect, 140 years ago, Manchester gained a university for the first time.

A Medical School had existed in Manchester since 1824 and Owens College had been founded in 1851, but neither had university status. The Manchester Guardian (14 July 1880) wrote: “One of the most important events in the history of the city – an event which has also a national significance – is being celebrated today.”

The events of 1880 marked the end of a period of vigorous debate over the proposed new university, debates that shed light on the position of English higher education at the time.  At the start of the 1870s, there were four universities in England: Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham.  A university for Manchester had been suggested before, but the idea  gathered support in the 1870s.  By that time, Owens College had successfully established itself as a teaching institution and had begun to gain a strong reputation for research in certain branches of science. In the absence of degree-awarding powers, however, most students went on to take examinations set by the University of London.  As Owens College grew in self-confidence, academic staff became increasingly frustrated by the controls exerted from London.  As a result, in the summer of 1876, members of the College Senate produced a pamphlet calling for the creation of a University of Manchester based on Owens College.

The pamphlet provoked widespread discussion and raised fundamental questions about the future of higher education.  Central to the debate was a simple question: what is a university?  Was it purely a body to examine students and to award qualifications? Or, was it, as Owens College advocated, a body that both taught students and examined them?  Underlying these questions were also issues of academic freedom for academic staff to set their own curriculum to reflect personal specialisms and also to meet local and regional priorities.

The John Owens Building in Manchester, built in 1873

However, the proposals from Owens College provoked a second fundamental question: how many universities were needed in England?  In the 1870s, it was widely accepted that the country needed to expand the opportunities for higher education, to meet growing demands from an expanding population and to help resist increasing international economic competition. However, for many observers, this did not necessarily mean that more universities were required.  Indeed, there was a widely held concern that more universities would erode standards and serve to devalue degrees. Developments in the United States were often quoted as evidence of how an increasing number of universities had undermined the value of a degree.  As a result, various alternatives were put forward intended to avoid the establishment of a new university in Manchester.  One was for a reformed relationship between Owens College and the University of London; another was for the affiliation of Owens College with either Oxford or Cambridge Universities.  These were not really realistic options, given the strength of feelings in Manchester, but they did illustrate the issues at stake.

As the debate continued, the focus of opposition shifted from the old universities to the towns and colleges elsewhere in the North of England.  New colleges, often modelled on Owens College, were emerging in Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Nottingham.  Owens College had from the outset opened the way to the possible affiliation of other colleges to the proposed new University. However, in particular, the Yorkshire College of Science, in Leeds, founded in 1874, was unhappy that the creation of a new University of Manchester would jeopardise its own development and would result in an over-dominance of Owens College.  In Liverpool, discussions were also moving forward about the development of their own college and similar fears grew that this would be disadvantaged by a new University of Manchester. An influential deputation to the Privy Council was organised in May 1878 to oppose the award of university status to Owens College. 

As a result, the debate moved on and began to focus on alternative models for the establishment of a federal university for the North of England.  Owens College continued to argue that new colleges, once they had become established, could be affiliated to the proposed University of Manchester.  However, the Yorkshire College argued for the establishment of an entirely new body which would be based in Manchester and to which Owens College would become the first member; the Yorkshire College also objected that the name “University of Manchester” would convey a false impression for an institution intended to serve the whole of the North. In the end, Owens College conceded on both points.  A new University was established, the Victoria University; Owens College became the first, and initially only, member of the University, to be followed by the University College Liverpool in 1884 and the Yorkshire College in 1887.

At first sight, it may appear that Owens College had failed to meet its objectives.  The Victoria University developed as an “examining university”, with teaching undertaken in the Colleges, not totally unlike the University of London, and they had given way on questions of governance and name. However, the reality was rather different.  The Victoria University was firmly based in Manchester, the Principal of Owens College became its first Vice Chancellor, and, at least initially, Owens College would be the only member institution, able to shape issues of governance, curriculum and assessment.  For all intents and purposes, Owens College had achieved its independence, and Manchester had gained its University.

It is also important to understand the wider significance of the establishment of the Victoria University. The discussions represented a significant challenge to the establishment view of higher education in the late nineteenth century.  The proposed university not only brought higher education to the North of England, it was also explicitly intended to open up new opportunities for the middle classes, and even the upper echelons of the working class, to enter higher education.  Less explicit, but nonetheless real, were also the clear expectations underlying the new University that opportunities for higher education would also be available for women.  Further, the idea of a university social experience based around the residential college as a necessary corollary to academic study was challenged; instead, the picture of the student combining study with living at home and ongoing contact with business and industry was favoured by many of the supporters of the Victoria University.  Moreover, the University would pursue research across all subjects, alongside teaching and assessment of students.  These changes would evolve in future years, but the debates over the Victoria University had questioned old ideas of higher education and would have a significant long-term impact.

Issues of regional and local identity were also apparent throughout the discussions.  At one level, there were questions about how ‘the North’ was perceived.  A number of highly disparaging attitudes towards the need for higher education in the ‘provinces’ were expressed and some critics questioned whether it was appropriate to locate a university in a Northern industrial town.  At another level, despite persistent denials, it is clear that there were strong rivalries between civic and academic leaders across the North, between Manchester and Liverpool, between Manchester and the towns of the West Riding, especially Leeds, and more generally between Lancashire and Yorkshire.  There was a widespread recognition, and indeed admiration, for the achievements of Owens College, but this did not prompt any willingness to accept perceived institutional subservience; on the contrary, there was a broad desire to emulate and compete. In achieving a final agreement, such rivalries were, to some degree, put aside, but their underlying strength did not augur well for the prospects of a federal institution to represent diverse industrial communities across the North.

The debates over the Victoria University also helped to place a new focus on the importance of science teaching in higher education.  Both Owens College and the Yorkshire College had built their reputations around scientific teaching. However, what was also noticeable was the desire to create in the Victoria University a fully ‘rounded’ university, with strengths in the arts, applied science and medicine, as well as in science. The supporters of the Victoria University argued strongly that their institution should meet the broad needs of its region, for education and social advancement as well as for economic success.  Whilst not expressing the idea in an explicit way, the advocates of the Victoria University were, in effect, outlining the idea of a broadly-based civic university that would dominate English higher education for the century ahead. Indeed, in the years ahead, many of the leading members of the Victoria University would play a leading role in helping to broaden and deepen the ideas that would come to characterise  the civic university (see, for example,  H S Jones, T F Tout and the idea of the University, in Thomas Frederick Tout 1855-1929, Barron and Rosenthal (eds), 2019).

1880 marked the start of an important experiment in English higher education.  The Victoria University was established with a mission to become a federal university, uniting colleges across the North of England.  After 1887, the University embraced colleges in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.  However, the experiment, to bring together colleges in three distinct cities, each with strong, proud identities, geographically separate, and with differing needs and priorities, ultimately failed after barely 20 years, leading to the creation of the independent Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds.  The idea of a federal university spanning such a large, diverse English region has never been repeated.  With hindsight, many of the seeds of this failure were already sown in 1880.  By 1879, there was growing frustration that a stalemate had been reached regarding the establishment of a new university.  In order to break the stalemate, many questions were, in reality, left unresolved, especially whether a university should teach as well as examine its students and the scope of academic staff to develop and teach their own curriculum.  At the same time, rivalries between different colleges and between their different communities persisted.  It was, perhaps, a sign of things to come when a minor dispute took place even during the first meeting of the University Court on 14 July 1880 about whether the new University seal should bear the words “Victoria University, Manchester”. As a gesture of goodwill, it was agreed to replace “Manchester” with “1880”. All these issues would re-emerge throughout the life of the Victoria University and would contribute to its eventual demise.  However, it is also important to recognise the role of the Victoria University, inaugurated 140 years ago, in the emergence of the English civic university, and, more specifically, in advocating causes such as higher education for women, a more socially diverse student population, an active regional presence, a breadth of studies and the importance of research across all subjects and involving all academic staff.

The University of Manchester War Memorial

This post is contributed by Dr James Peters, archivist at the University of Manchester’s University Archives and Record Centre.

After the Armistice of 11 November 1918, life at the University slowly returned to some sense of normality.  However, as the War had claimed the lives of so many staff and students, the University community began to consider how it would recognise and commemorate its loss.

There was a strong feeling that a special War memorial was required; in March 1919, the University magazine, The Serpent, called for “a visible, tangible token” of commemoration, arguing that only an enduring monument could properly honour the dead, and it would be an error to pay tribute indirectly through “scholarships or laboratories or additional college buildings”.

This support for war memorials was reflected in society at large. Civic memorials were the most prominent, but schools and universities were also very active in commissioning memorials, unsurprisingly given that the war dead were drawn disproportionately from the young.

WW1 memorial SN

The University War Memorial

The University’s War memorial was not completed until November 1924, six years after the War ended. This long gap was due in part to the University’s preoccupation with a major fundraising appeal in 1919-20. In addition, as the memorial would name the University’s dead, it was essential that these details were accurate. Gathering this information was a major exercise, and the University’s Roll of Service, which provided the data for the Memorial, was not finished until 1922.

It was not until late 1921, when the University Council appointed a committee to plan the War memorial. Committee members included senior lay figures such as Sir Frank Forbes Adam, chairman of Council, and Sir Edward Donner, a major University benefactor, Mary Tout, wife of the historian Thomas Tout, who represented the University’s alumni, and three academic members: Professors J. Orr (French), H.B. Dixon (chemistry) and A.C. Dickie (architecture).

Dickie was given responsibility for the design of the Memorial, and in early 1922 he presented the committee with four options:

  • “a mural treatment” in the wall of the John Owens building, which would list the names of the dead and include a “bronze figure of St. George”;
  • “a not too large winged victory delicately posed on the apex of the great stone”; this planned to use the glacial boulder sited at the northern end of the Main Quadrangle, with panels naming the dead attached to the base;
  • “ a shrine for a figure on a pedestal” in the “old vaulted entrance” at the Oxford Road entrance;
  • “a figure on a pedestal” in the area between the Whitworth Hall and the Christie Library [this was then an undeveloped area where a link building between the Hall and the Christie building was added in the 1950s].


Proposed WWI memorial

One of the proposed memorial designs

Interestingly, three proposals were primarily figurative, with an option situated on each side of the Main Quadrangle. Such distinctive public memorialising was a new departure for the University; until then, its most obvious ‘monument’ was the glacial boulder in the Main Quadrangle, which was proposed for adaptation to a memorial. In the end, the committee opted for arguably the conservative option, the memorial tablet, which avoided difficulties with imagery which might sit uneasily with the University’s strict non-denominationalism in religious matters.

A local firm of sculptors, Earp, Hobbs & Miller of Lower Mosley St., was commissioned to make the memorial. The overall aesthetic of the completed mural was restrained, with imagery kept to a minimum. The planned figure of St George was dropped, with only the University’s coat of arms, flanked by child figures, represented. Dickie characterised the design as being “appropriate to the material used rather than in the style of an Architectural period”, although the style could described as “free classic”.

The memorial’s inscription read: “To members of the University of Manchester and the Officers Training Corps who laid down their lives in the Great War 1914-1919. In Grateful and Enduring Remembrance”. This was accompanied by a quote from Algernon Swinburne’s poem, Super Flumina Babylonis: “He has bought his Eternity with a little hour and is not dead”.

The memorial originally named 510 members of the University and the University’s Officer Training Corps (not all of whom were University students) who died on active service between 1914-1919. Names were organised by seniority of armed service (with Royal Navy personnel appearing first) and within this, by seniority of unit and then by rank. The number of dead listed from the local Manchester Regiment – 104 – is strikingly high. The memorial includes one woman student, Gertrude Powicke, who had died in 1919 whilst working as a nurse during the Russo-Polish War. However, at least one other female former student is not recorded: Isobel Tate, a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), who died of illness in 1917, while serving in Malta.

The memorial was unveiled by the University Chancellor on 29 November 1924 (it had originally been planned to hold the ceremony on Armistice Day, 11 November). The Chancellor, the 27th Earl of Crawford, had only recently taken up this post. Crawford was an experienced politician, who had had an interesting War; he had enlisted, aged 43, as a private orderly in the RAMC in 1915, but within eighteen months had joined the Coalition Cabinet as Minister for Agriculture. Interestingly, he had succeeded Lord Morley of Blackburn as Chancellor in 1923; Morley had resigned from the Cabinet in August 1914 in protest at the British decision to go to war. It is interesting to speculate on how Morley might have approached the ceremony, if he had still been alive.

Crawford’s address at the unveiling was relatively brief and low-key in tone: he stressed the overwhelming sense of loss  for those killed, while commending their sacrifices:

“The University would never realise the potential scale of loss, either to its own fame or to the advancement of the community” and “it is the premature dislocation, the tragic eclipse of young life, which arouses the most continuing sense of grief”.

The memorial’s location at the centre of the main University building, ensured that it was seen and acknowledged by staff and students going about their daily business. The memorial undoubtedly contributed to a stronger corporate identity at the University in the inter-war period, focussing on an event which caused upheaval to so many lives.

Further Information about the Memorial can found on the University of Manchester’s First World War webpages.



Chairs That Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

Hulme Hall is a historic student hall of residence at the University of Manchester.  Over 250 students who passed through Hulme Hall fought during the First World War.  Forty were to lose their lives, with 33 remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  After research taken over a period of seven years, former resident James Hern has pieced together the men’s stories.  In 2017, he published Chairs that Stand Empty based on his research.  James was a student at the University of Manchester from 2001 to 2005 and resident at Hulme Hall for his first three years.  In this post, he reflects on using war diaries in his research.

Lies; deception; reluctant courage; absent without leave; rearguard action; administration errors; bravado; missing in action; a court marshal and victims of friendly fire and fate.

If it wasn’t such a tragic reminder of one of our low-points in recent human history, it would be easy to mistake the stories of many of the men who are remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial as having been lifted straight out of a novel or Commando Comic.

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2018, I want to use this blog post to share how war diaries, written by individual Battalions whilst serving overseas, helped to piece together the stories of three of the men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  The diaries help indirectly to shape an understanding of where and how an individual would have fought in the war and provided a glimpse into some of the horror, bravery and sheer terror that men were exposed too; too often with tragic consequences.

Eyre Spenser Wilkinson
Hulme Hall 1908-09; Classical Studies

Wilkinson - Profile

Battalion ordered to advance – this done by platoon rushes – on leaving assembly trenches [right half of] Battalion met by heavy rifle and machine gun fire in enfilade & shell fire, both high explosive and shrapnel – during this advance, [right half of] Battalion lost 3 officers and 120 men

The [left half of] Battalion, which advanced at the same time, suffered very little.

This entry is from the War Diary of the 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) on 9 May 1915 at 6:10am.1  Reviewing the diary confirmed that the action at Aubers Ridge in France, in May 1915, was the first of two major offensives that Eyre Wilkinson was involved in with the Battalion.  The indiscriminate nature of warfare is captured in the entry.  With the Battalion split into two, one half advances with little loss of life whilst the other half is torn down within seconds of leaving the relative safety of their trenches.

Four months later Eyre was involved in the Battalion’s second major offensive, this time part of the opening attacks of the Battle of Loos. During the fighting, he was blown up in the blast of a high explosive shell, from which he survived, physically unscathed.  Shortly after being blown up, Eyre joined the Royal Flying Corps as an observer; perhaps having tried to escape the horrors of trench warfare he had witnessed.  He was shot down and killed in January 1916.

A letter from Eyre’s father to Professor Thomas Tout, shortly after Eyre’s death was confirmed, hinted at the toll ten months of fighting had taken.2

The boy is gone, indeed, but I know something of the inner battles that he had to fight to which I think he won. He was with us five days in mid-December radiant and tender and I think with some presentiment of what was coming

William Lawton
Hulme Hall 1913-14; Mathematics


The 1 July 1916 is infamous as the first day of the Battle of The Somme; one that saw over 19,000 British soldiers lose their lives.

For Second Lieutenant William Lawton, and men of the 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment, the morning proved uneventful.3

The “great offensive”, as long looked forward to, began at 7.30am; but in Tyler’s Redoubt at Millencourt, we could see nothing, and heard practically nothing.

The first hints of the horrors that had unfolded that day would have come later that evening when the Battalion was ordered to attack the village of La Boisselle at 10.30pm.

Battalion was fallen in, and all the Bombers collected at the front. Unfortunately no guide was obtainable to guide us up to the front line until 9.30pm. We then started up the one communication trench, which was found to be blocked with wounded, and odd men, chiefly from the TYNESIDE SCOTTISH, and others of the 34th Division, who had made an attack in the morning.

As a result of this, our bombers did not get up till 12 midnight, and the 10th Worcesters, who were going to help us in this attack, were in the same plight. The 3 Companies that were following, B, C, D (A being left behind) did not arrive up till 4.30am. As a result of this, we did not attack, because it was broad daylight then, and we were meant to attack in the dark.

The war diary confirms a similar occurrence happened the following night; Staff at Headquarters had agreed to ensure communication trenches were clear but the Battalion encountered a number of wounded men on stretchers which caused more delays.

Finally arriving at the front line at 4am on the morning of the 3rd July, the attack could not be postponed again, which meant the men were not fully briefed before they moved towards the village.

William was killed in the attack, with men of his company later writing to this family that:

Just before his death he was walking around the village (which was still held by the Germans) as if such things as bullets and shells did not exist.4

A victim of circumstances, William, as part of A Company, wasn’t assigned to be part of the original attacks on La Boisselle on the morning of 2 July.  How different would his story have been if the original attacks had taken place as planned?

Robert Southward
Hulme Hall 1915-16


Robert was killed during an attack on The Somme in August 1916 whilst serving with the 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

In trying to establish more details surrounding his death, Robert’s family were told by his Commanding Officer that he was killed whilst crossing no-man’s land and that he was buried on the spot where he died, near High Wood.

The description of Robert’s death had struck me as odd.  The Battalion suffered 190 casualties that day during the attacks: 30 were killed, 110 wounded and 50 were reported as missing.  Did they really have time to bury Robert?  Wouldn’t it have been too dangerous?  Robert had only been with the Battalion for four days before the attack – would he have known many of the men he was attacking with?

Included in the war diary for August 1916 was an account of the attack, written by Major Phillips.  He noted that:

The right platoon, which was detailed to attack trench X and to form a strong point at NW corner of High Wood, left their trenches and was seen to advance into our intense bombardment, which was not timed to lift until 2.48pm. Remainder of right appears to have followed on too quickly and suffered a similar fate.5

Reading the above account along with the information provided to his family, it seems certain that Robert was part of the platoon that advanced into their own bombardment, subsequently being killed by his own side.

It took me three minutes to read the names of the 33 names of men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial during the 2002 and 2003 Remembrance Services.  Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque.  Lives remembered for a fleeting moment.

If you do pause for a moment of silence on Remembrance Day, spare a thought for the men of Hulme Hall who never made it home.  Their stories serve a powerful reminder of the horrors and futility of war and send a clear message to future generations.  They should never be forgotten.



[1] 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) War Dairies, held at the National Archive, Kew, reference WO/95/1730/0/397

[2] Letter written by Henry Spenser Wilkinson, father of Eyre, to Professor Thomas Tout dated February 1916, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1

[3] 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment War Diaries, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/2081

[4] Extracts from letters received by the Lawton family following William’s death, sent to Rev T Nicklin, undated. Extracts held within Hulme Hall Administration Records 1907-1915, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/7/3

[5] 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment War Diaries January 1916 to December 1916, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/1270/3

Photographs of Eyre Wilkinson, William Lawton and Robert Southward: Hulme Hall Chronicle 1916-1920, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1


Securing an academic career: Past and present

This post is from Dr Cath Feely, a Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, after short early-career stints at Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. She was Co-Chair of History Lab Plus from 2014 to 2016.

Recently, a senior colleague told me that he thought History was perhaps the most argumentative (or ‘bitchy’) of academic disciplines. I started to protest but then remembered how I had felt in wake of some of the bad-tempered Twitter ‘debate’ prompted by Matthew Lyons’ History Today column on ‘the betrayal of early-career historians’ by established academic historians a year ago in late August 2015. Many historians, understandably including those facing unemployment and underemployment, retweeted Lyons’ piece approvingly. Others, myself included, were offended by the implication that simply by having an academic post they were complicit in harming the people that they cared about: their students; their colleagues; their friends. Emotions ran high. As then the co-chair of History Lab Plus, a national network for early career historians, for me the debate was confirmation that people felt the need for support in the post-PhD period but, at the same time, I was uncertain as to what such support should look like and whether it would ever be enough.

As William Whyte argued, in an excellent blog that he wrote for us at History Lab Plus, Lyons’ piece was ‘fundamentally presentist’ in his demonstration of the problems facing early-career historians. These problems, and the emotional and practical impact they have on historians attempting to enter the profession are not at all new. This was starkly brought home to me when I was researching the history of the History Department of the University of Manchester, when I was myself between temporary contracts, in the summer of 2013. Manchester was a pioneer of postgraduate education in History and was among the very first institutions in the country to award PhDs in the subject. As I read though the correspondence of lecturers with their recently-graduated students in the 1920s and 1930s (all available in the John Rylands Library), it was hard not to relate their trials and tribulations on the job market to my own.

Indeed, sometimes their words seemed dangerously close to the kind of half-hopeful, half-resigned, sometimes desperate emails that I must have sent to my supervisor (luckily for my dignity, having switched institutions several times, I don’t think evidence of these survive for future historians to ponder). For instance, after several disastrous interviews, one couldn’t help sympathising with Dr Sophia Weitzman, who wrote to Manchester’s Professor T.F. Tout in May 1925:

Mr Barker said I should hear about the King’s College appointment by Tuesday next. I’m beginning to despair of ever getting anything on an interview. These jobs go to the tall, capable-looking women and I’m neither: College lecturers are a type and “insignificant me” doesn’t look the part. However, as I can’t alter that there’s no sense in being depressed about it.

However, one problem Weitzman had which was undoubtedly less of a problem for me was that she was a woman. That’s not, of course, to say that gender bias does not still affect academic careers in History. It undoubtedly does, as the 2015 Royal Historical Society Gender report made very clear. But it does seem to be more an issue of progression within the job rather than the explicit discrimination that the early Manchester women PhDs faced in entering the profession. However, it is incredibly important that the more invisible structural barriers and pressures that can exclude both men and women from a variety of backgrounds from pursuing an academic career are kept very firmly at the top of the early career agenda.

What is also clear from these letters is that very few of the students, and indeed their mentors, expected that they would end up in traditional academic careers (although, at that point the ‘academic career’ in History was actually still very new), even as they hoped that they might. They were a remarkably pragmatic bunch, taking up a range of what we would probably call ‘alt-ac’ jobs: as librarians, archivists, editors, university administrators, hall tutors, etc. As such, however, they were not seen as ‘giving up’ on History but rather contributing to it differently, and were very highly respected in the discipline. Indeed, early academic historians such as Alice Cooke, the first woman to graduate with a Masters’ degree at Manchester (before the advent of the PhD), had periods of lecturing punctuated by cataloguing some of the most important library collections in the country throughout her career. It was not out of the ordinary to swap back and forth in this manner and it remained so into well into the mid-twentieth century.

The introduction of the PhD was part of the professionalization of History as an academic subject, but as these letters and our own experiences suggest, that for most of its history there has been an underlying tension between the ‘apprentice’ model of the degree and the fact that a minority of its graduates have got academic jobs. The booms in the expansion of HE in the 1950s/60s and again in the 1990s/2000s masked this. So, is the PhD itself the problem? Has it always been the problem? Should less people be doing PhDs? Is the PhD simply setting people up for jobs that do not exist?

I am very torn on this, as I imagine many academics are, which is why many of us were so hurt by the shouts of betrayal in 2015. The fact is that I loved my PhD, even though it was damn hard and I did it part-time never expecting to get a job. I think the research I produced was valuable and important in and of itself, as I think the PhD research I now supervise is valuable and important in and of itself. And the fact is that I did (like most supervisors) get a job against the odds and, for all of the pressures of that job, it is an immense privilege to walk into a lecture theatre and debate and discuss the subject that I love with intelligent and passionate students. So while I feel very strongly that it is our duty as academics to be very, very clear to potential PhD students both about the realities of an academic career and the immense competition that there is in even getting entry-level positions, I also don’t think we should presume that this is the only value of doing a PhD. At the same time, neither do I want to lead people up the garden path and do think that, despite the million doom and gloom blog posts about the academic job market, a remarkably large number of PhDs seem unaware about the state of academia and who inevitably feel betrayed.

When I tie myself up in knots about this, I am reminded of the exasperated words of Professor George Unwin, also of Manchester, to his student Mabel Pythian (later Mabel Tylecote, who went on to play an important role in civic life and politics in Manchester) c. 1920. He was referring to women students, but I think it applies to all now:

‘I have given my best efforts to women students most of whom have not achieved what they set out to do. I don’t blame them & I go on hoping.’

I think that’s the real problem. We’re not really as bitchy as discipline as it first appears. Actually, often the problem is that we care too much: we care about the discipline and don’t want to discourage those who we think might be the future of it; we care about our students and we believe in them, so hope against hope that it will turn out alright; and we care about scholarship, and rigour and think that the production of a substantial piece of historical research should not be reduced to job training or ‘graduate attributes’.

Occasionally when I was Chair of History Lab Plus, I would see criticism that we were part of the problem. We were training people into how to enter ‘the system’ rather than questioning or overturning it. I understand that and, frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. My instinct is to be kind at in individual level: to pass on practical advice, to share ideas, encourage and, like Unwin, to ‘go on hoping’. But on a larger scale, maybe commitment to individual kindness is allowing harm.

These tensions have been around as long as the PhD. Maybe it can only take genuine reflection and debate about what the PhD is for, including discussion of its history and development, to take us any further.