Manchester (with Liverpool and Chester) Branch History

Branch History

Last updated: 20th November 2015

The Branch is proud of its role in the foundation of the Historical Association in 1906.  Professor Thomas Frederick Tout and others at Manchester University had been discussing the idea of forming an Association to promote the teaching of a more relevant and vibrant form of history than was currently available in universities and schools, and to convince the educated public of the importance of history in the life of the nation.  Indeed a history of the Manchester Branch of the Historical Association would be incomplete without reference to Manchester University which played a major role in the development of economic and social history, as well as of history in Britain.

Professor T F Tout was Manchester University's fourth Professor of History 1890-1925. He had been on the verge of establishing a Manchester based history group, but on hearing that C F Firth in London was already planning a national venture, Professor Tout readily supported it, becoming in 1906 a founder member of the HA and one of its first Vice-Presidents.

The Manchester Branch was created in the same year as the national body (1906), and its constitution was framed by another famous historian, V H Galbraith.  Its inaugural lecture was given by Professor Firth, with the other lecture of its first season being by Professor Tout himself on Outlines versus Periods delivered on 9th February 1907.  Professor Tout's paper was included in the HA's fourth published leaflet.  In January 1910 he became the HA's second President, standing down after the Association's annual meeting held in Manchester in January 1912. 

Other frequent lecturers at the Manchester Branch at this time were the eminent scholar, A G Little, who was also a founder member of the HA, together with Professor George Unwin who followed his Manchester colleagues in communicating history to a wider audience outside the university.  The Manchester Branch report for 1912-13 states that ‘Professor Unwin... reconstructed a part of the medieval economic history in an interesting lecture entitled, A Venerable Tradition: Edward III, the Father of Commerce, in which he portrayed Edward III rather in the light of a step-father'.  In 1917-18, Professor Unwin addressed the Manchester Branch on Some lines of continuity between Ancient and Medieval history.  In this he was following in the steps not only of Tout and Little and but also of Manchester University's first two Professors of Modern History, one of whom, Ramsay Muir, was  a Vice President of the HA.

From these august beginnings, the Branch has remained dedicated to its mission of communicating history to as wide an audience as possible. 

It calls frequently upon the History Departments of both Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University for advice and speakers.

It operates a varied programme of lectures, walks and visits.  These take place at weekends, and in recent years have been offered also to HA members from the Liverpool and Chester regions whose Branches have closed down, resulting in the Branch now being known as the Manchester (with Liverpool and Chester) Branch. Our long list of notable speakers include Professor Anne Currey, the HA National President who gave an inspiring talk on Joan of Arc - Witch or Saint?, Sir Ian Kershaw on Why did Nazi Germany fight to the bitter end?, Professor Marianne Elliott of Liverpool University on When God took sides:  Religion and Identity in Ireland, Professor Charles Esdaile, also of Liverpool University, on Spain 1808 - Iraq 2003,  Dr Max Jones of Manchester University on Scott of the Antarctic: Explorer and Hero, and Professor Brian Maidment of Salford University on Comedy and Print Culture 1820-50.

In addition the Branch begins and ends its annual lecture programmes with popular walks and visits of historical interest.  These attract a wide range of members and visitors and cover areas such as Searching for Lowry in Salford, Exploring Worsley - "the birthplace of the 18th century transport revolution", Touring Manchester's Jewish Quarter with its museum and synagogue and Looking at Manchester's Wonderful Warehouses.

The Branch pursues a lively and energetic Schools Programme.  Since 2006 for instance, the Branch has not only organised a Manchester heat in the Association's nation-wide bi-annual Great Debate, but has organised a Manchester Schools' History Debate in the intervening years.  Schools from a wide area - from Lancaster and Bolton to Audenshaw and Wilmslow, as well as from central Manchester - have taken part.  In 2006 our Branch winner came first in the national debate and in 2009 our winner was runner-up.  In that year the Manchester heat had more schools participating than all the London branches. Topics for the Manchester Schools' History Debates have ranged from: How might British society have progressed if the two World Wars had not happened? to Tudor England and Nazi Germany are extensively studied.  Justify another period of history equally worthy of study.  Such topics have allowed Sixth Formers to widen their historical horizons beyond their A-level courses and indulge their interests in a large range of local, national and international topics.

The establishment of the Norton Medlicott Medal was the brainchild of the Branch's current President, Professor Donald Read.  Professor Read, himself a strong advocate of the wide promotion of history, wished to see the initiation of an award  to recognise excellent service to history.  The medal was designed by the medal expert at the British Museum and bears the inscription For service to history.  It was Mrs Irene Collins from Manchester Branch who, as the HA's National President, presented the medal to its first recipient, Professor Geoffrey Dickens, at the Annual Conference dinner in Canterbury 1985. Professor Dickens was selected for his distinction as a writer, teacher and administrator.  With Professor Read's financial support the medal continues to be awarded annually, with the 2011 medal recipient being Michael Wood, who has brought history to a wide audience through his  excellent TV programmes, such as In Search of the Dark Ages and Story  of England.

Over the years, the Branch has played a prominent role in a number of local campaigns: for example in rescuing the façade of the old Free Trade Hall in Manchester from demolition and, most recently, in working with the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Campaign Committee to secure a much overdue permanent memorial to the victims of the Peterloo Massacre.  This latter issue is ongoing, but the Campaign Committee and the Manchester Branch of the HA attended some useful meetings last year with Manchester City Council which expressed its commitment to the erection of a permanent memorial in St Peter's Square. 

In 2009 the city of Manchester initiated the Manchester Histories Festival.  This was held in Manchester Town Hall.  The Branch had a prominent stand which faced the centre aisle of the Banqueting Hall, attracting a great deal of attention from some 4,000 enthusiastic visitors to the event.

The history of the Manchester Branch has to include a further reference to the massacre of Peterloo which took place on 16th August 1819, and which ended tragically with 15 members of the public dead and some 650 injured after a charge by the Manchester Yeomanry and the Hussars in an attempt to disperse the throng.

On the 18th October 2008, the Branch was to hold its first lecture of the season with Dr Robert Poole, Reader in History at the University of Cumbria, giving a talk entitled Peterloo Remembered: The Massacre and the Memorial.  Interested parties such as the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Campaign committee, its members and other interested parties wished to join in, and the Branch meeting became a public meeting held in Manchester Town Hall Council Chamber to discuss the commemoration of Peterloo.  The meeting was reported by BBC TV North West News and chaired by Professor Donald Read of Manchester University who was a past President of the HA,  and committee member of the Manchester Branch.  He was also author of the book Peterloo, first published in 1958.  Mrs Irene Collins, the then President of the Manchester Branch spoke on a proposed design for a memorial, and it was after this meeting that discussions with the Campaign Committee, supported by the HA's Manchester Branch, and Manchester City Council began.

In 1996 the Branch organised and hosted the 90th Birthday Conference of the Historical Association held at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.  In the course of the three days, delegates were offered three plenary lectures and a choice of nine seminars and nineteen visits and walks.  In May this year, 2011, the Branch again hosts a national event - the Association's Annual Conference to be held at the Manchester Conference Centre.  Delegates new to the city will probably be amazed at the number and variety of historic buildings and amount of important industrial and social history Manchester has to offer, as were those who came in 1996.

The Branch today continues to support the study of history in schools and to communicate history to as wide an audience as possible though its programme of talks and visits and its interest in local historical issues.  It enjoys an illustrious past, with a number of "firsts" to its name, and hopes to fulfil an equally memorable role in the future.

February 2011