Birmingham Branch 1907-2007

Branch History

By Roy Peacock FHA, published 15th March 2011

The Branch was founded in May 1907, a few months after the Historical Association was established. The founding Branch President was Professor John Masterman, Professor of History (1902-09) in the University of Birmingham's Department of Commerce, as it was designated in those days. He was one of several historians in the Church of England and was later appointed Suffragan Bishop of Plymouth (1922-33). There were 32 members in the Branch during the first year, rising to 71 in 1914.

After a dip during the war years a new President, Sir Raymond Beasley, revived the programme and by 1921 membership had reached 177 with 38 associates. During the 1920s the programme consisted of lectures on a variety of themes and these were given by leading historians including the Branch President. Interest in local history was stimulated by an exhibition at the Public Library organised by J.H. Flint. He also organised a Publishers' Exhibition at the University which was visited by 1,200 people. Excursions and visits were arranged and were supported by the lectures of John Humphries on ‘Historical Discoveries in a Worcestershire Manor House'.

Considerable emphasis was placed on the teaching of history in schools and in the 1930s an experimental junior section for school pupils was established. This provided one or two lectures a year, together with some discussions for teachers. In 1935 the Branch hosted the Association's 29th Annual General Meeting and the Annual Dinner in evening dress took place in the University Refectory. Tickets were four shillings and sixpence!

There were no meetings from 1939 to 1941 but in 1942 a day-school on the Far East was followed by two meetings and an AGM. In 1944 the usual pattern of five lectures was resumed and by the 1950s the membership was back to a hundred. Then came the move of the Arts Faculty of the University from the city centre to Edgbaston. The Branch Committee were reluctant to leave a central venue but eventually it was decided that the link with the University was so important that it outweighed the inconvenience of members' travel arrangements. From that time to 2007 the Branch gratefully accepted the hospitality of both the School of History and the Faculty of Education. It also benefited greatly from the personal efforts of many members of the School of History. In the post-war period they included Professor Cronne, Miss Ransome, Professor Johnson and Professor Hilton.

In 1966 the President, Professor Douglas Johnson, established a new and profitable approach by working with the Dept. of Extramural Studies (later Continuing Studies). The outcome was a series of six lectures on a common theme which had an appeal not only to Branch members but to a wider audience of sixth formers, university students and extra-mural students. Since then the Autumn lecture series has been the centre-piece of the Branch programme for half a century. It has always been supported by the University's School of History and for most years the Courses Secretary has been a member of the School. What might be termed a ‘classic' year was 1969 when the theme was ‘Revolution in the Twentieth Century'. The speakers included Professor R.W. Davies, A.J.P. Taylor, Hugh Thomas, and Douglas Johnson. What other series could boast such a line-up! Those present would never forget A.J.P. Taylor entering to a crowd of over 200, some sitting on the stairs, and starting with a comment that he normally spoke to a dozen or so at Branch meetings. He then pretended to search in his pockets for some lecture notes. Needless to say, they did not exist and he spoke brilliantly for fifty minutes!

For 1970 the theme was ‘The Social Revolution of the Nineteenth Century' with Professors G.A Williams, W.M. Beresford and H.J. Perkin, together with E. P Thompson, Mrs D. Thompson, Dr John Saville and Dr D.E.C. Eversley - another exceptional line-up. And so was ‘Later Stuart England' in 1973 when we were entertained by Professors A. Woolrych, J.R Jones, G.S. Holmes, and J. H. Plumb, together with Peter Laslett, W.M. Lamont and Christopher Hill.

In 1976 the Branch was host for the Association's Annual Conference for the second time. At this time the HA had over 13,000 members and over a hundred branches. The conference took nearly two years to organise and turned out to be very successful. It was a team effort with a committee chaired by Eric Hopkins which produced a busy but enjoyable three days for over three hundred members. It lasted from 21-24 April with residence in the City of Birmingham College of Education. The lead lectures were given by Professor Douglas Johnson on the Chamberlain dynasty, Professor Jack Scarisbrick on ‘The Reformation and Society' and Professor Alec Myers' Presidential address on ‘The Parliaments of Edward III'. There was a Civic Reception at the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery hosted by the Lord Mayor and a University Reception hosted by the Vice-Chancellor.

There were no fewer than twenty seminars ranging from ‘The family in the later Middle Ages' by Chris Dyer to ‘Twentieth Century Portugal' by Richard Robinson. There were five day tours including Herefordshire churches and Coalbrookdale and thirteen half-day excursions to look at Gas Street Basin, the Stuart Crystal glass-works and other local sites. Most of the local tours were conveyed in double-decker buses and cost 50d for a ticket! The conference dinner was held at the Strathallan Hotel. After the conference Eric Hopkins was invited to join the Association's Council and he remained a member until 2000. He was elected Branch President in 1976 and remained until 1996 - a fine record.

The year of 1981 marked the HA's 75th Anniversary and the Association's President was Professor Ralph Davies, a member of our Branch. Several long-serving members had the opportunity of joining the Association's main celebration in London when Sandra Armstrong, our Secretary, was presented to the Queen. Our Branch commemoration lecture was given by Professor Michael Howard on ‘The Edwardian arms race'. In the next year for our own Branch celebration of 75 years Dr Neil Cossons, then Curator of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, was our guest speaker at a celebration dinner. The lecture series was devoted to ‘England's Century of Revolution' and was led by Professor G. Aylmer on the causes. In 1983 the year's theme was ‘Personalities of the Sixteenth Century' and we welcomed Professor Scarisbrick with our local members Eric Ives and David Palliser, and in 1988 David Starkey was our lead speaker on ‘Tudor Monarchs'.

Sixth Form conferences have been an important part of the programme. The first was held in 1968 under the leadership of Douglas Johnson. In 1982 a large crowd of students was fortunate enough to hear Professor G. Elton as the main speaker. The most recent conference was organised by Sonia Batten, Branch Secretary, in 2004 and attracted some 70 students who enjoyed a full day of talks and discussion. In 1985 we experimented with a Sixth Form Christmas lecture and this was well attended with Professor J. Scarisbrick speaking on ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries'.

Attendance by A level sixth form students at the Autumn series has always been important. In the 1993 series on ‘Europe 1789-1914' Bruce Waller's talk attracted a three figure number. However, in the last few years this contingent has been noticeably absent, largely as a result of changes in A Level History syllabuses. An attempt to encourage younger students was made in 1998 when a Branch Essay Prize was suggested by Roy Peacock. This has been held every year since then and the assessors have always been impressed by the quality of entrants. The prize was named ‘The Harris Prize' as a memorial to Professor John Harris.

Teachers' Conferences have also been held on occasions. These were organised by Sandra Armstrong and held in the former City of Birmingham College of Education. In 1981 the emphasis was on teaching A Level History, in 1982 on teaching World History, in 1987 on the place of History in the National Curriculum 7-16 and in 1989 the response to the Report on the National Curriculum. Sandra's early death was very sad and our memorial to her was the assembly of a travelling teaching kit for primary schools. We have, however, always been conscious of the fine work of the Midlands History Forum in providing regular conferences for teachers of History and our link with this group has been Win Rindl. She has represented the Branch at its meetings for many years and as Publications Officer of the Branch has sold a large number of publications at its meetings. Win is the longest serving member of the Branch committee, having been first elected in 1958.

The Branch has enjoyed excursions since the 1976 Conference, mostly organised by Roy Peacock, Branch Treasurer from that year. Places visited, often with a dinner or with wine, have included Coughton Court, Ellesmere Canal Museum, Hanbury Hall, the Black Country Museum, Baddesley Clinton, Maxstoke Priory, Castle Bromwich Hall, the Oak House at West Bromwich, Sudeley Castle and Broadfield House Glass Museum. In 1984 the Stanley Baldwin Trail included visits to Astley Hall and Wilden and was marked by a notable talk on Baldwin in the Bewdley Museum by John Bourne, later Branch President (1996-2000).

Another enterprise which was an important part of the programme for some nineteen years was the Spring Local History conference. It was arranged in conjunction with the Extra-Mural department and was very much the responsibility of Professor Eric Hopkins. A variety of themes was tackled. In 1986 it was ‘Domesday in the west midlands' and the next year ‘Birmingham in two world wars' when the speakers included Professor A. Marwick and this year's Centenary President, Bob Bushaway. Other themes included ‘Birmingham - the last Hundred Years' in 1989, and ‘What made the Black Country Black?' in 1995.

The challenge of the Millennium was met by an ambitious series arranged jointly with the Barber Institute and planned by John Bourne as President. Some big issues were considered on the basis of ‘A Thousand Years of...'. ‘History' was discussed by Jeremy Black, ‘War' by Richard Holmes, ‘Birmingham' by Carl Chinn, ‘The English language' by Tom Shippey and ‘Christianity' by Eric Ives. A similar course entitled ‘The Making of Modern Britain 1500-2000' followed in 2001 and the speakers ranged from Eamon Duffy on the Sixteenth Century to John Bourne on the Twentieth Century. The last in this venture was in 2003 on ‘The Making of Europe' from ‘Greece and Rome' to ‘Divided Europe after 1945'.

In the last six years the first point to note is the publication of a Branch magazine. ‘Retrospect' was the work of Carl Watts, President in 2000-1. His energy produced three copies of a lively magazine with locally written articles of high standing, together with book reviews and a web watch. Articles included ‘The Millennium: Counting Time in History and our Debt to Bede' by Professor Nicholas Brooks, who was elected President in 2001. The publication was helped by a development grant from Headquarters. It was ambitious but rather expensive to produce and ran to three issues.

Of the most recent Autumn lectures two series have been devoted to ‘Reputations'. In 2002-3 the subjects ranged from King Alfred to Clement Attlee. In 2003-4 the lectures included ‘Abelard and Eloise' by Dr Clanchy and ‘The Flanders Poppy' by Sonia Batten, Branch Secretary for several years. The Branch has also made a particular effort to include university students by starting an Associate Branch Membership with a low subscription. This has attracted many students towards initial membership and, we hope, towards eventual full membership.

It has been a very active century and the Branch continues with vigour and enterprise.