In the mid-nineteenth century a million British workers depended on the cotton textiles industry for their livelihoods. Most of the raw cotton they turned into cloth came from the southern states of America and was cultivated by slave labour. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 a ‘cotton famine’ ensued: the secession of the southern states not only disrupted the American Union but also disrupted the flow of cotton across the Atlantic. For more than two years the Lancashire mills stopped working and hundreds of thousands of workers relied on public relief – yet they largely accepted their lot in the noble cause of destroying slavery.
Coming to the IHR feels like coming home. I was once a postgraduate working on collections in London who needed a base in the city and a warming cup of coffee in the IHR Common Room. And on those forays for doctoral research I would occasionally attend a seminar in the Institute and marvel at the cosmopolitan nature of the audience, more varied by age and background than anything I was then used to. More to the point, I grew up in London and, as an undergraduate, would use the Senate House Library next door in university vacations. I have known these university buildings for as long as I’ve been a student and a historian.
At Cambridge as an undergraduate I was drawn to the nineteenth century (though, if I had my time again, it might be the seventeenth century). I thought I would be a straight Victorianist, and I have certainly published on Victorian political and intellectual history. But, in the best historical traditions, I had an epiphany while taking a term of American History – something I knew little about before then. The history of slavery and the Civil War grabbed me (I was hardly the first). Reading about the life of the slaves, the historical debates concerning their experience of slavery, and the relation of slavery to the origins of the Civil War made me want to learn more, and on graduating I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Yale as a Harkness Fellow taking courses with some of the leading American historians of that era: Ed Morgan, David Montgomery and David Brion Davis (who is still reviewing and publishing).
Cambridge reclaimed me, however, and to a project in intellectual history: the relationship in the mid-Victorian decades of social thought and social policy as evidenced in the work of a neglected Victorian organisation, the Social Science Association (1857-1886) which hoped to do for social science what the British Association, founded in the 1830s, had done for Victorian natural science – to popularise it, raise its profile, and bring its authority and expertise to bear on government. Occasionally patronised by some of the most notable Victorians – intellectuals including John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and F. D. Maurice, and politicians including Brougham, Russell and Gladstone – the SSA gave plenty of scope for analysing the relations between intellectual and political life in this period. It led to a book, Science, Reform and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain. The Social Science Association (CUP 2002).
On the back of this work, and after a Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge at Trinity College, I went to a first job in Oxford – an interesting and unconventional position as History and Politics tutor in Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education, teaching adult students. For five years I was an extra-mural tutor in the old manner, teaching classes, often co-organised with the Workers’ Educational Association, in Oxford but also going out to teach courses to groups all over the region in places like Maidenhead, Windsor and Great Missenden in the Chilterns. It was the greatest fun and I met some remarkable people who took a broad interest in History and current affairs. What I taught, and how I taught it, was often my choice or was negotiated with class members. I developed a deep interest in the life and work of the designer, poet, businessmen and socialist, William Morris, for example, finding him a fascinating subject in himself and a brilliant vehicle for the discussion of wider Victorian themes in politics, culture and the arts. These five years also led, later, to a book on the history of workers’ education – Dons and Workers. Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850 (OUP, 1995) – and to a biography of perhaps the most influential and charismatic tutor in this educational movement, the political thinker and historian, R. H. Tawney (Bloomsbury, 2013; paperback edn. 2014).
Moving after five years to a more conventional university lectureship and college fellowship at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, allowed me greater scope still to teach American History, in particular the popular undergraduate Special Subject at Oxford on ‘Slavery and the Crisis of the Union 1854-75’. Building American History from the bottom up – by generating student interest and demand for this and other courses on the United States – has been one of the most satisfying (if arduous) aspects of my career. I enjoyed the breadth of tutorial work as well: to teach British, American and sometimes even modern European History was a challenge few young historians now face. But it led to some enjoyable research and learned articles on comparative and transatlantic history, and I have continued to favour breadth in the undergraduate curriculum and also in the training of future academic historians. During this time I supervised a range of doctoral theses as well and in my case the range was indeed broad: from studies of Ruskin’s posthumous influence to British diplomacy in Texas between 1836 and 1845 (when Texas was a republic in its own right) and from American financial diplomacy during the Civil War to the ‘Southern Lumber Industry 1870-1920’, an early exercise in multi-disciplinary environmental history.
Ten years ago, on its publication in 2004, I became the editor (alongside the role of college tutor) of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It had been designed by the late Colin Matthew, Gladstone’s biographer, brought to publication by Sir Brian Harrison, and it combined the work of more than ten thousand contributors in the longest single work ever published in English. The Oxford DNB is a compilation, online and in print, of more than fifty thousand biographical essays on more than sixty thousand people who have contributed to British history over two millennia. The scope of the work, and its variety, once more demanded breadth – but I needed help! Colleagues could tell me of medieval bishops, early modern poets, and twentieth century scientists: my three children were required to keep me up to scratch on figures from popular culture, for they are also included in the Oxford DNB. It was stimulating work in which I especially enjoyed ‘taking the Dictionary on the road’ and demonstrating its remarkable potential to unlock the past to local historical societies and civic groups.
After 29 years in Oxford the move to the IHR feels like a natural next step, combining breadth and depth, and giving me the opportunity to use the experience of teaching, supervising and writing academic History in encouraging and stimulating others. The IHR has more than 20 Junior Research Fellows at any one time; it is the home of many different historical projects covering all periods, medieval, early modern and modern; it hosts the most ambitious (and still very cosmopolitan) historical research seminars; and it puts on cutting-edge conferences. It is the natural focus for History and historians in London and has a national and international role to play in presenting British research to the world. There could be no better preparation for this than to have taught all those stimulating and demanding evening classes in the home counties before the most discerning (and best read) students I’ve ever encountered. As I have come to understand, if you can cut it in Great Missenden, you can cut it anywhere.