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Modern British History

Subject Group

Convenor : Professor Jon Parry

 Web Officer: Dr Ben Griffin


Modern British History at Cambridge

The University of Cambridge has an international reputation as a centre of excellence in modern British history, and members of our subject group are playing an important role in shaping the field with their innovative research. Our commitment to integrating that cutting-edge research into our teaching makes Cambridge an exciting place to study.
Because we have one of the largest groups of professional historians working on British history since c. 1700 anywhere in the world, along with large numbers of postgraduate, doctoral and post-doctoral scholars, historians at Cambridge enjoy an exceptionally vibrant intellectual culture. Within our community can be found a wide range of academic specialisms and approaches to studying the past: you can see the academic profiles of the group's members via the links below.

What do we do?

The study of modern British history is constantly evolving, as historians discover new sources, pose fresh questions, and develop new theories. Our interests are broad, and members of our subject group are active participants in the latest debates.

Many of our members are also members of the subject group for economic, social and cultural history, and the two groups work closely together. Cambridge historians of modern Britain have been at the forefront of research on the histories of sexuality, fertility, mortality, religion, heritage, national identity, education, social mobility and transnational cultural exchanges. You can find details of the activities of our members with interests in those areas here.

In recent years, our subject group has been particularly interested in the following areas:

  • Power and politics in Britain
    • Cambridge is a major centre for the study of not only elite politics at Westminster, but also popular political movements and the complicated interactions between the two.
    • Widening our definition of ‘the political’ to encompass a range of informal social hierarchies and power struggles: e.g. the power dynamics of domestic service, the politics of everyday life, the history of disability, and the history of child sexual abuse.
    • The politics of gender: the history of feminist movements in their global context, the politics of motherhood and work, and how the history of masculinity has shaped political and legal power struggles.
    • The history of political ideas and their influence on practical politics has been a particular strength of the Group. This has encompassed the ideas of both elites and non-elites. Our members have been pioneering in exploring the histories of Liberalism and Radicalism in the nineteenth century, and how they shaped progressive politics in the twentieth century. The Group has also made important contributions to the history of Conservatism, including the political thought of Peel and Disraeli, Conservative attitudes to democracy between the world wars, and Margaret Thatcher’s politics in the 1980s.
  • The international contexts of British politics
    • The imperial context of British history is a vibrant area of research: especially the place of settler colonialism in British political thought, relations between Britain and the Middle East, the legacies of empire for post-war politics.
    • It has never been more important to understand modern British history in a European context: our members have worked extensively on cultural exchanges between Britain and Europe, their political interactions, and ‘diplomatic history from below’ since the eighteenth century.
    • Britain’s complicated relationship with Ireland is fundamental to understanding modern Britain, and Ireland’s political and social history since 1850.
    • The international order after 1945: especially transatlantic relations in World War Two and British involvement in the Cold War.
  • The cultural and intellectual history of modern Britain
    • The impact of religion on British culture has been a major area of research, as has the influence of secular notions like ‘politeness’ in the eighteenth century or ‘the everyday’ in the twentieth century.
    • Issues of national identity, with particular emphasis on art and culture.

Undergraduate Teaching

Undergraduates can choose from a wide range of modern British history papers. First- and second-year students can take papers covering British political history from 1688 to1886, or from 1880 to the present, as well as papers on British social and economic history covering the same periods. Third-year students can choose from a range of more specialised papers on modern British history, including:

  • The British and the Ottoman Middle East, 1798-1850
  • Masculinities and political culture in Britain, 1832-1901
  • The transformation of everyday life in Britain, 1945-1990
  • Ireland and the Irish since the famine
  • Women, gender and paid work in Britain since c. 1850

Third-year students can also opt to write a 15,000 word dissertation on a topic of their choosing, under the one-to-one supervision of an expert in the field.

Postgraduate Teaching

In recent years Cambridge has been by far the largest centre for postgraduate research on modern British political history, with around 20 MPhil students and 60-70 PhD students in place at any one time.

The M.Phil. in Modern British History offers an ideal gateway to doctoral research, or – for those who do not want to take that route – an opportunity to develop research skills and expertise under the expert supervision of specialists in the field. The course combines taught courses on central themes in British history with a choice from a range of specialist options. This year, some of the available options are:

  • Approaches to the Long Eighteenth Century
  • Becoming Victorian: transitions to ‘modernity’ in nineteenth-century Britain
  • Sexuality and Gender in Modern British History
  • History and Public Policy
  • Race and Empire in Modern British History

The core of the M.Phil. is the dissertation: a 15-20,000 word research project on a topic devised by the student, and supervised by a specialist in the area.

At a more advanced level, the Ph.D. in History is a three-year course of intensive research, leading to an 80,000 word dissertation. Some of the books arising out of Cambridge PhDs in the last few years include the following:

  • Ben Weinstein, Liberalism and Local Government in Early-Victorian London (2011)
  • Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (2012)
  • Ben Griffin, The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights (2012)
  • David Gange, Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922 (2013)
  • Natalie Thomlinson, Race, Ethnicity and the Women's Movement in England, 1968-1993 (2016)
  • Benjamin Dabby, Women as Public Moralists in Britain: From the Bluestockings to Virginia Woolf (2017)
  • Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (2018)
  • Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, politics and the decline of deference in England, 1968-2000 (2018)

Research Culture

Seminars

The Faculty hosts a wide range of research seminars for our postgraduate students, which offer a forum for students to meet leading researchers from outside Cambridge, and to present their own work. There are dedicated seminars in eighteenth-century history, modern cultural history and modern Irish history, as well as the Group‘s ‘Modern British History’ seminar –which meets fortnightly and which in May 2014 celebrated its five-hundredth meeting. Some idea of the seminar‘s scope will be evident from the following selection of topics addressed at recent meetings:

  • The Late Victorian Monarchy and its Religious Publics
  • “Common Market or Bust!” Britain, Europe and the 1975 Referendum
  • The ‘value’ of bodies and the ‘worth’ of grief: towards an emotional economy of Second World War Britain.

Resources

Within Cambridge, our libraries and archives provide an exceptionally rich collection of primary sources for historians of modern Britain. 

  • The University Library is not only a copyright library which holds several million books, maps, and journals; it is also home to major collections of manuscripts. Among other major collections, the library holds the papers of major figures like Sir Robert Walpole and Stanley Baldwin.
  • The Churchill Archives Centre houses an unrivalled collection of sources relating to almost 600 important political, military and scientific figures from the twentieth century. In addition to the papers of Sir Winston Churchill, the Centre holds the papers of Margaret Thatcher, Ernest Bevin, John Major, Neil Kinnock, Field Marshal Slim, Frank Whittle and Rosalind Franklin.
  • The Girton College Archive is a major centre for the study of the British women’s movement, and the history of women’s education. Among other items, it holds the Helen Blackburn collection of nineteenth-century feminist pamphlets, the papers of Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon. It is also the home of the University and Life Experience Project, which is digitising sources relating to the educational experiences and life histories of over 7000 female university students since the late nineteenth century.

NewYork-Cambridge training collaboration in 20th-century British history (NYCTC).

Cambridge offers a postgraduate training collaboration with Columbia and New York Universities in New York City, which brings together postgraduates in 20th-century British history for joint reading courses and workshops on both sides of the Atlantic. For more information, see the website at http://nyctc.history.columbia.edu/.

Research projects

Cambridge is currently home to a major ESRC research project on ‘Secondary Education and Social Change in the United Kingdom since 1945’. It is led by Professor Peter Mandler with two full-time Research Associates, Dr Laura Carter and Dr Chris Jeppesen.

Recent research projects that the Subject Group has been involved in include an ERC-funded project on ‘The Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture’ and a Leverhulme Trust-funded project on ‘Abandoning the Past in an Age of Progress’.


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Berlin show curated by Cambridge historian turns into blockbuster exhibition

May 14, 2019

The exhibition in Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, Emil Nolde – a German Legend. The Artist during the Third Reich – based on the research of Dr. Bernhard Fulda, Chatong So Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Sidney Sussex College and Affiliated Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge – is attracting record crowds: four weeks after its opening, over 35.000 visitors have already seen the show.

Legacies of slavery research project

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The History Faculty welcomes the opening up of a debate on the legacies of slavery for the University of Cambridge.

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Apr 24, 2019

Chris Morash has been awarded a prize by the British Association for Canadian Studies (BACS).

Dr Caroline Rusterholz discusses the work of sexual counsellor, Joan Malleson on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour

Apr 23, 2019

Audio recordings provide an insight into problems women experienced in the 1950s

Roger Schofield, 1937-2019

Apr 10, 2019

The Faculty is saddened to learn of the death last night of Dr Roger Schofield, Emeritus Director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and Fellow of Clare College.

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Quentin Skinner Lecture and Colloquium

Jun 07, 2019

Alison Richard Building

Purpose, power and profit: feminist ethical enterprise and cultural industries

Jul 12, 2019

Fellows Drawing Room, Murray Edwards College

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