Modern British and Irish History
The University of Cambridge has an international reputation as a centre of excellence in modern British and Irish history, and members of the History Faculty are playing an important role in shaping the field with their innovative research.
Because we have one of the largest groups of professional historians working on British and Irish history since c. 1750 anywhere in the world, along with large numbers of postgraduate 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 those contributing to modern British and Irish history via the links below.
What do we do?
The study of modern British and Irish history is constantly evolving, as historians discover new sources, pose fresh questions, and develop new theories. Cambridge historians of modern Britain and Ireland have been at the forefront of research on the histories of politics, race and empire, social and economic change, feminism, sexuality, fertility and mortality, religion, heritage, national identity, education and transnational cultural exchanges.
Our size and range mean that we can provide high-level academic expertise and research supervision on any aspect of the rich and diverse history of modern Ireland and Britain.
Gender, family and sexuality
Thanks to a series of new appointments, augmenting established strengths in the history of population and the family, Cambridge now has an unequalled array of academics, research students, seminars and research resources in this field. Our researchers cover all aspects of gender history in Britain and Ireland since 1750, with special interests in family policy, suffrage, feminism, sexuality, gender and employment.
The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure was founded in 1964. In the fifty years since then, members of the Group have made a spectacular series of discipline-transforming contributions to social science history. These include work on historical demography and household structure, on the interdependence of these elements with welfare systems, and on occupational structure.
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 papers of Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, as well as the Helen Blackburn collection of nineteenth-century feminist pamphlets.
The University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies is a multi-disciplinary centre for research and teaching which intersects with the work of historians at many points. Their symposia, public lectures and research seminars are an important place for showcasing research and engaging with theoretical developments in this field.
People at Cambridge working in this area include
Power, politics and political culture
Long an historic strength of the Cambridge History Faculty, modern British and Irish political history here has extended its reach considerably in the last generation as the scope of the field expands, to consider both elite and popular politics and their complex interaction, the history of political ideas, the history and practice of public policy, and a capacious understanding of ‘the political’ that takes in informal social hierarchies and power struggles in and outside of the formal political system. All four nations of the United Kingdom as well as the union itself and its empire are covered.
The Churchill Archives Centre is the most important archive in Britain for materials in 20th-century political history (and much else). In addition to the headline collections of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, it holds over 600 active collections with particular strengths in political life, government policy, military strategy, foreign policy, science and technology, journalism, media, social observation and commentary. Our MPhil in Modern British History is partly taught in the centre and many of our MPhil and PhD students work on its collections.
The Cambridge Centre for Political Thought is joint enterprise between the History Faculty and the university’s Department of Politics (POLIS). Cambridge is a world-leading centre for the study of the history of political thought. Many of the subject’s finest practitioners have studied and taught here, among them John Dunn, J.G.A Pocock, Quentin Skinner, Gareth Stedman Jones, Richard Tuck and Melissa Lane. Through their research and teaching, the present generation of Cambridge scholars continually takes the subject forward in new directions, reinforced by a large and lively community of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
History & Policy is an expanding partnership based at King's College London and the University of Cambridge, and additionally supported by the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leeds, University of Liverpool, the Open University, and the University of Sheffield. It is the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.
People working in this area at Cambridge include
Economic, social and environmental history
Cambridge was one of the pioneers in the growth of economic history early in the 20th century and remains today one of its pre-eminent centre, seeking to broaden the scope and deepen conceptual developments in social, demographic and environmental history.
Cultural and intellectual history
In addition to the powerful Cambridge tradition in the history of political ideas, modern British and Irish historians here specialize in the wider range of ideas and cultural practices, including religion, education, national heritage and national identity, race and ethnicity. They maintain close ties to other departments, notably the social-science departments and our world-class department in the History and Philosophy of Science.
Irish history is a current strength of the Cambridge History Faculty, with close ties to other departments studying Irish literature and culture, a dedicated Irish history seminar and researchers who cover the history of Ireland both inside and outside the United Kingdom from the 18th century to the present.
Britain in the World
The British Isles cannot and should not be studied in isolation, and Cambridge has a long tradition of considering it in global context, including its empire and its commercial and diplomatic relations with the wider world. Modern British and Irish historians work closely with their colleagues in World History (see their separate webpage), especially on the histories of Africa and Asia. We chart political and cultural interactions between Britain, Ireland and the world, the movements of peoples, the role of foreign relations in shaping domestic politics, and the impact of race, slavery, empire and decolonization.
The Royal Commonwealth Society archive is held in the University Library, a treasure-trove of information, pictorial and written, print and manuscript, on the Commonwealth and Britain's former colonial territories, comprising over 300,000 printed items, over 800 archival collections (including manuscript diaries, correspondence, pictures, artefacts, cine films, scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings) and over 120,000 photographs.
Within Cambridge, our libraries and archives provide an exceptionally rich collection of primary sources for historians of modern Britain and Ireland. 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 including the papers of many leading politicians, including Sir Robert Walpole and Stanley Baldwin. It also has archival holdings of anti-establishment material, including the archive of the satirical television programme Spitting Image. In addition to the Churchill Archives Centre and the Girton College Archive discussed above, other college archives hold the papers of major intellectual and cultural figures in modern British and Irish history, such as the papers of the Bloomsbury Group and Keynesian economists at King’s College. In addition to the Royal Commonwealth Society archive in the University Library, there are collections devoted to the histories of Africa and South Asia in centres dedicated for that purpose.
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.
Cambridge brings together one of the largest communities of historians of any university in the world; in modern British and Irish history alone there are about 20 MPhil students and 40 PhD students at any one time, in addition to numerous postdoctoral scholars and approximately 20 permanent lecturers. This critical mass supports a rich and diverse research culture of seminars, conferences, archival collections, research centres and collaborations. 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 social and economic history, political thought and intellectual history, modern cultural history, financial history, population history, and modern Irish history, as well as a wide-ranging Modern British History Seminar which meets fortnightly.