British Economic and Social History since c.1880

Course Material 2021/22

If there is debate over how 'revolutionary' was the pace of social, economic and cultural change in Britain in the two centuries covered in Paper 10, there is no debate over the shorter period covered in Paper 11. The pace of change accelerated at the end of the nineteenth century and seemed to throw Britain (ahead of much of the rest of the developed world) headlong into a new era, eventually denoted 'modernity'.

Britain became the first and for some time the only fully urbanized nation. Its economy grew rapidly but unevenly, so that the 'class society' widely predicted in the nineteenth century was only in the twentieth realized. Steam power, harnessed a century earlier, finally made its full impact felt, enmeshing the comparatively open British economy in a global web; the advent of electronic communications at about the same time meant that globalization had tremendous cultural implications, too. Mass media shaped a mass society. 'World wars' rent the social fabric, and reknit it into new forms.

By 1945 the British had already seen a lot of industrialization, urbanization, 'modernity' and 'mass society'. Thus they experienced what Hobsbawm has called the 'golden age' of the post-1945 world in a more worldly-wise, even jaded mood than did many other Europeans - yet these new jolts of technological, social and cultural change lost none of their force, little of their capacity to surprise and confuse. Historians are still puzzling over the 'contemporary' history of Britain. You will have a chance to puzzle with them, and, more than in other papers with a highly developed historiography, to find your own evidence and to venture your own interpretations.

Reading material is hardly lacking, although some of it is drawn from sociology and cultural studies - even journalism - rather than conventional historical writing. You will need to work to fit this quasi-primary material into a mature historical framework - good practice in thinking like an historian. The full range of human experience is on offer, so you and your supervisor will have to make choices - to sample all of the sub-disciplines or to specialize. One choice you will probably not have to make is chronological: most students should be able to cover the full chronological range of this relatively short paper.

As with other Part I papers, eight core lectures in Michaelmas term will introduce you to key themes and interpretations in the paper. Otherwise you will be expected to attend a sensible selection of the 'outline' and 'thematic' lectures. These lectures are continued across two terms but, even if you are being supervised for the paper in Lent, you should attend the lectures in Michaelmas (especially the core lectures) by way of preparation for your later work. Lectures are offered at different levels of specialization and sophistication to allow students to explore the terrain and to follow up more closely areas of special interest: they are essential tools for the paper.

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Image: Kitchen, Kensal House, London. Completed in 1937, this modernist housing block was intended to rehouse slum dwellers, and offered a communal laundry, canteen and gardening club.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.