Sitting Exams, Making History

Editors Note: This is an archived blog post from 15/1/2014

Examination Papers as Historical Sources

By Emily Jones

(Manchester, ’10)

(Exeter College, Oxford)

Four years after my last January exams at Manchester, I’ve been wading through seemingly endless late-Victorian and Edwardian scripts as part of my doctoral research. Aside from being far more fun to read than parliamentary speeches, old exam papers are an interesting source for historians who want to know more about the reception of ‘ideas’ (in the broadest possible sense).


Intellectual historians in particular are always asked questions concerning dissemination. How were various theories, ideas, concepts, stereotypes – or whatever word you want to use – received by the ‘general public’? Were they ‘influential’? On who? How do they become part of a common or shared vocabulary? How do we trace changing definitions of a word or term over time?

On a textual level, the online digitisation of sources has made answering these questions somewhat easier as so much primary material is now word-searchable. This has its limitations: for one, it remains difficult to demonstrate how information was received by people who did not write tracts, deliver speeches, or write letters and autobiographies. The most infamous and unsatisfactory argument is that ‘important’ ideas simply ‘trickle down’ from elite to popular culture in a vague and inevitable way.

My own attempts to trace dissemination more precisely led me back to exams at Manchester. Owen’s College (1851) joined the newly-founded Victoria University of Manchester in 1880. It was partnered with sister colleges in Liverpool (1884) and Leeds (1887) until respective independent university charters were granted from 1903. Although the exam questions set still often mirrored national and cosmopolitan intellectual and political interests, the creation of the Victoria University freed the Northern colleges from a London-imposed exam curriculum. The tutors who wrote History exams, such as Professors T.F. Tout (whose name lives on through an undergraduate prize) and James Tait, alongside lecturers such as Alice Cooke, Elizabeth Speakman and Sylvia Johnstone, were socially and intellectually engaged with wider political and scholarly networks. In 1886, for example, the Liberal politician and historian James Bryce was an examiner for a paper which, unlike in previous years, included a question on injustices in Irish history – a cornerstone of the Gladstonian argument in favour of Irish self-government (Home Rule) made earlier that year.


In the same vein, the ‘Modern History, 1714-1815’ paper for summer 1910, had two sections (out of four) which ran as follows:

  1. Contrast and comment upon the ideas of Bolingbroke and Burke with regard to party government.
  2. “The true contest is between the electors of the Kingdom and the Crown; the Crown is acting by an instrumental House of Commons.” Is this a true interpretation of the political situation in 1770?
  3. Account for Burke’s apparent failure as a practical politician.
  4. Show from his statements in ‘Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents’ and ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ how far Burke sympathised with democracy.
  5. Compare the attitudes of Burke and the younger Pitt towards the French Revolution.
  6. How far and for what reasons did the French Revolution excite sympathy in England?
  7. Explain the reasons given by Pitt to the House of Commons for making war upon France in 1793.
  8. ‘The younger Pitt was the creator of the modern Tory party.’ Discuss this statement.

All of these questions refer to, directly and indirectly, one man: the late-eighteenth century Irish Whig politician, Edmund Burke, who is now more commonly known as the ‘founder of modern conservatism’.

This was a ‘special subject’ paper, of which Manchester was a pioneer, for the ‘ordinary’ or pass BA degree. In 1904 these courses had included, for the ‘ordinary’ degree: ‘Modern History, 1815-1901’, ‘The History of the Reformation’, and ‘Economic History, 1760-1901’; an Honours student sat ‘English History, 1760-84’; and MA students could study ‘The History of the English Poor Law’. The civic colleges attracted a very different demographic of students to Oxbridge: lower social status, less classical training, more women. So whilst Tout and Tait established Manchester as a school of medieval scholarship through their published work, demand from undergraduates who preferred modern history, economics, and literature, resulted in more and more of their time being spent teaching later periods.

Still: why did a paper which was meant to cover a whole century ask so many questions about Burke?

The long answer to this is (here’s hoping) my PhD thesis, which charts Burke’s transformation into the ‘founder of conservatism’ over the course of the long nineteenth century. A small part of it, however, relates to the January 1910 general election which the Unionist party – a mixture of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists – failed to win. The sense of an impending English constitutional revolution (removal of the Lords veto, Home Rule, and disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales) further inspired an evolving literature on the meaning and roots of ‘conservatism’ as a modern political theory. This exam paper was no different.

Unfortunately the summer 1910 exam questions can’t tell us what the students actually wrote, and if we are rejecting the trickle down approach then more sources are needed. Students were not parrots: were there ‘right’ answers? There were certainly expectations: exam questions anticipated responses drawn from the student’s prescribed learning, which can be found in set textbooks, published lectures, archived tutor notes and student papers, and ‘model’ answer books. The question then becomes: how were students guided to analyse historical actors and events, and how far did they follow this in practice? As students, we trust our tutors (in varying degrees) to help us find a way to answer essay and exam questions. Universities were just one part of an educational experience which could also include schools, churches, factories, cheap editions of texts, lectures, and correspondence courses. In this case, I think learning ‘conservatism’ was a vital part of the history of the political and intellectual tradition.

Good luck!

Sources cited: The Victoria University of Manchester Calendars, (Manchester, 1886; 1904; 1910).


[The 1886-87 and 1910-11 calendars]

Further reading:

Peter R.H. Slee, Learning and a Liberal Education: The Study of Modern History in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester, 1800-1914, (Manchester, 1986).

Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900, (Chicago, 1957).

David R. Jones, The Origins of Civic Universities: Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool, (London, 1988).

Emily Jones read Politics and Modern History at Manchester (2007-10) and is now an AHRC-funded doctoral student at Exeter College, Oxford.

t: @EmilyJonesVIII


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