By Diane Clements, (MRes, IHR, 2018; current PhD student, IHR)

When A. F. Pollard established the IHR in 1921 his intention was to encourage the study of the extensive sources for British history held in national collections at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), the British Museum (now largely held at the British Library) and in local and institutional repositories. The IHR’s Bulletin was a vehicle for information about the availability of resources, including accessions of records by archives in Britain and abroad, and for details of student theses which drew on these resources. In its first edition, in 1923, students were encouraged not only to give the results of their research but also to give full information about their sources. The work of past PhD students at the IHR provides a picture of the research materials they used and the methods they adopted.

Research at the Institute was not confined to British sources, as the following analysis of the 150 or so PhD theses by students associated with the IHR shows. Just over half concerned aspects of British history and another tenth were concerned with the history of the Indian subcontinent. The latter used the records of the India Office held in London, comprising the archives of the East India Company and sources relating to the pre-1947 government of India.

Geographical analysis of the subjects of IHR PhD theses, 1921-2021

As the chart illustrates, students have looked widely for archive material to support their research. European subjects have been the subject of one sixth of theses. In 1930 Mihailo D. Stojanovic completed his research on Serbia in international politics, 1875-1878 using material held in Belgrade and Vienna. Ann Imlah used archives in Switzerland, France and Britain for her thesis. This formed the basis of her later book, Britain and Switzerland: a study of Anglo-Swiss relations, 1845-1860. Albert John Walford’s study of the Argentinian politician, The political career of Bartolome Mitre, 1852-1891, completed in 1941, was one of eleven theses on the Americas. William Henry Scotter researched International rivalry in the Bights of Benin and Biafra, 1815-1885, completed in 1934, as one of the six students who worked on African history.

Students of British history were told firmly in that same first edition of the Bulletin that ‘the student of social and economic history can no longer afford to neglect local sources.’ The Bulletin admitted that students would encounter problems, not the least of which was a lack of finding aids. This was likely to leave the student ‘very largely in the dark as to the material awaiting his researches.’ One assiduous past PhD student, Gladys Thornton, was undeterred and used local sources extensively for her thesis on a History of Clare, Suffolk, in 1928. She found churchwardens’ accounts located in Clare Church (shown on the left), including an immense store of local records, in what she called the ‘church chest’. She even gave a description of this in her thesis, ‘[it] measures roughly six by two feet and stands two feet high, [it] is nearly full with unsorted miscellaneous papers.’

The Bulletin claimed that printed lists of what archives held were extremely rare and ‘official custodians sometimes display an amazing ignorance of the documents in their care.’  These rather harsh words are unrecognisable to the researcher in 2021 as the professional staff at local record offices and other repositories and libraries have made immense strides to document their collections and to make their catalogues available on-line. The digitisation of material and the willingness of archivists to provide photographs and scans of documents has been particularly welcome in a period when physical access to records has been limited.

Newspapers have been a rich source for several students. For his thesis, The passing of the education act of 1870: a study of public opinion, 1843-1870, completed in 1932, Eric Everard Rich used the Times and the Annual Register to provide general background for his study and as a source for the views of contemporary educational associations. The usefulness of the Annual Register appears to have been limited, as Rich noted that it ‘was much more interested in the weather than in education.’ His overall conclusions sound remarkably prescient in the media age of the twenty first century,

The difficulty of studying public opinion is that it often fails to find expression in the contemporary papers, though it influences the working of administrative systems…it is easy to find the opinions of the governing classes, but the opinions of other classes must largely be second-hand evidence.

Eric Rich noted his restricted access as he could only study past copies of the Times in the British Museum Library on Saturday afternoons. His work would probably have been made easier today given the availability of searchable databases of digital newspapers and digitised publications on sites such as the Hathi Trust.

The modern student also has access to word processing facilities and readily available software to create databases, spreadsheets, graphs and charts, such as the one at the beginning of this blog. Another thesis using newspapers, The development of commercial advertising in Britain, 1800-1914, completed in 1979 by T. R. Nevett, involved a painstaking count and categorisation of advertisements in a random selection of twenty local newspapers and the London Morning Chronicle in the nineteenth century. His analysis of advertisements shown here was a manually calculated, hand-written chart added into the text of his thesis.

Occasionally theses give an insight into the student’s experience of their sources and methods. Eric Rich was a part-time student. On competing his thesis in 1932 he remarked that it had taken up the greater part of his leisure time ‘during the last five and a half years’. He found it particularly difficult to pursue his research because many of the libraries were closed when he was free.

Marjorie Reeves, later a tutorial fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford, gave a more positive account of her time as a PhD student in her retrospective memoirs. Her thesis on a medieval mystic, Joachim of Fiore, was completed in 1932. Much of her research was undertaken at the British Museum Reading Room, where she experienced ‘the sheer joy of tracking down [each] rare pamphlet’. She queued up with the other readers to get to her seat at 9am each day but was able to enjoy a cup of tea in the afternoon in facilities, which seem to have been made available only to Reading Room users.

The last hundred years have seen immense changes in the range of historical sources available and how they can be accessed. The methods of the present-day student have benefitted from the information technology revolution. But, in many respects, the process of historical research and the development of doctoral students has remained unchanged. Marjorie Reeves had a supportive supervisor, Edmund Gardner, Professor of Italian at University College. ‘At our first meeting’ she noted, ‘He declared he knew little about the Abbot Joachim…he listened enthusiastically as I reported on each fresh discovery.’ She described the excitement of locating a particular source which ‘revealed just the clue one was seeking’ allowing the researcher to see ‘the jigsaw pieces come together.’ She concluded that ‘finding unanswered questions for oneself …is the key to creative research.’

End Notes

IHR theses are listed in the IHR Library catalogue under the name of the author.  Some are available on platforms such as Proquest or Ethos. More recent theses are available on SAS-space.

Image of Clare Church By Oxyman, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Ann Imlah, Britain and Switzerland, 1845-60: a study of Anglo-Swiss relations during some critical years for Swiss neutrality (London, 1966)

T.R Nevett, The development of commercial advertising in Britain, 1800-1914 (PhD thesis, 1979)

Marjorie E. Reeves, Studies in the reputation and influence of the Abbot Joachim of Fiore, chiefly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (PhD thesis, 1933)

Marjorie E. Reeves, The life and thought of Marjorie Reeves (2003)

Eric Everard Rich, The passing of the education act of 1870: a study of public opinion, 1843-1870 (PhD thesis, 1932)

William Henry Scotter, International rivalry in the Bights of Benin and Biafra, 1815-1885 (PhD thesis, 1934)

Mihailo Stojanovic, The Great Powers and the Balkans, 1875-1878 (Cambridge, 1939)

Gladys Thornton, A history of Clare, Suffolk, with special reference to its development as a borough during the middle ages, and its importance as a centre of the woollen industry in the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries (PhD thesis, 1928)

Albert John Walford, The political career of Bartolome Mitre, 1852-1891, (PhD thesis, 1941)


Diane Clements completed her MRes in Historical Research at the IHR in 2018. She is now in the final stages of completing a PhD with the institute: ‘Peer to peer’ lending?: the market in annuities 1777-1813. Her research has been supported by the The Veale-Straschnov Award for Doctoral Historical Research for Mature Students, which was awarded through the IHR.


This blog is part of the IHR centenary project, From Jazz to Digital: exploring the student contribution at the IHR, 1921-2021.