Modern British History 1850 to the present

This strand of our one-year MSt or two-year MPhil in History is the equivalent of a free-standing Master’s in the history of the British Isles post-1850.

Children’s game in John Johnson collection, 1930
Election poster, 1935; Conservative Party Archives


Halfpenny Ices, John Thompson (1877)

In recent years, the history of modern Britain has been transformed by a greater awareness of the multiple and varied communities that have shaped that history, with labour history, Four Nations history, the history of women, and the history of BAME communities all prompting new interpretations of developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.  There has been controversy over the character and timing of industrial development and its impact, and lively interest in the emergence of new forms of political culture, the role of the state, in the ways in which Britain was constituted as an imperial nation, and in what it meant to be British over the course of the period.  The possibilities of oral history have opened up opportunities to explore the very recent past and the history of communities and individuals often neglected by the official record. 

Oxford has a well-established tradition of work on British political and intellectual history in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, on political culture more broadly conceived, and on the social and cultural history of the period, with particular strengths in the history of women, the history of architecture, and the history of childhood.  The outstanding print resources of the Bodleian Library are complemented by a wealth of digital resources and important Special Collections and archives, including the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera and the Conservative Party archive.

There are several Faculty research seminars focusing principally on the period (see e.g. Oxford Modern British History Seminar, Long Nineteenth Century Seminar) and TORCH networks that bring historians of the period into conversation with scholars from other disciplines (see e.g. Globalising and Localising the Great War and Rags to Riches? Experiences of social mobility.

The Centre for Gender, Identity and Subjectivity provides a hub for those working on women’s history, gender history and interested in questions of identity and subjectivity.

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods course, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography.  In weekly 90-minute classes, students will be asked to reflect upon and critically discuss current approaches to major themes in the history of the period, including for example Empire and the Imperial turn in British History, Political Culture, Class and Social Mobility, Selfhood and Identity, Nations and Regions. These themes will be related to debates over cultural and intellectual history, political thought and practice, material culture, the history of emotions, gender history and women’s history. Students will also be asked to make presentations and discuss the application to their own research topics of the research methods presented in plenary sessions.

Alongside this, in the ‘Skills’ component of the course, students will be encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to improve their reading knowledge of European languages, to attend library information sessions, and also training sessions organised by Oxford University Computing Services – so as to learn e.g. about text analysis software, GIS or statistical packages.

In the second term, students take one of a wide portfolio of Option courses.  Those particularly relevant to Modern Britain 1850 to the present typically include:


The field of this paper is the history of 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, as seen through the eyes of leading political and social theorists. The central intellectual tradition represented here is that of 19th century European liberalism. It is central because it enjoyed an undoubted cultural hegemony — although Anglophone liberalism, a rather different set of ideas, also comes into view. It hinged around the development of ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ in constitutional, political and civil law; in religion; and in academic ‘science’. Concomitantly it promoted all that was ‘bourgeois’ at the expense of what was ‘feudal’. This major tradition is represented above all by Hegel, Durkheim and Weber. Standing outside it there were of course a number of alternative points of view: most obviously radicals, romantics and socialists who dissented from, but inevitably engaged with, the hegemonic liberal position, as well as the semi-detached Anglophone tradition already noted. Notwithstanding the hiatus inflicted by Fascism, Nazism and world war, and later talk ca.1990 about ‘post-modernity’ and the ‘death’ of Marx, attempts by later 20th and 21st century writers to theorise society and politics without substantial reference to their 19th and early 20th century forebears have proven largely unsuccessful hitherto. The period covered in this course remains the starting point for an understanding of modern social and political theory.

So far as the method of study is concerned, the paper is designed for theoretically concerned historians rather than pure theorists. This historical approach should not be seen as anti-theoretical – quite the reverse – but it should be understood as a distinctive and (as we like to think) more accurate, more realistic and lifelike path to theoretical understanding. Its outer limit is the understanding of the place of ideas and intellectual tradition within societies taken as a whole, i.e. something much larger than the world of texts alone. However, its pragmatic starting point is the study of individual texts and authors deemed to be of outstanding merit and rich in meaning. The class programme tries to capture both the macro- and microscopic perspectives.

The overall aim of the course is to gain a broad understanding of the subject as a whole: let us elevate our sights just as the thinkers under study would have expected us to do. To this end there will be five “core” classes with a specified programme (as below). In the last three weeks of term you are then required to write one essay of 6-7,000 words, when class meetings are intended to service the needs raised by essay-writing. The title of the essay must be submitted to, and agreed with, the course convenor by the end of 6th week of Hilary term; the essay must be submitted on Monday of 9th week. Essay subjects need not be confined to topics covered by the “core” programme; the essay must however take in at least two distinct subject areas or bodies of literature (for examples of which see the bibliography below), which may be treated either comparatively or sequentially (or both). Of these subject areas at least one must be taken from Continental Europe. This course makes no linguistic requirement, and the use of sources in translation is entirely legitimate. However, command of a European language or languages will expand the range of materials open to you, while awareness of linguistic difference is at all times a fundamental datum of historical study. 



How have people understood the self in the past? How have they conceptualized emotions? Is there a self before 1700? How do different cultures conceive of the self and how do they understand spirituality? What is the relation between the individual self and the collective? This course seeks to understand ways of approaching the self and psychology in different times and places. It also seeks to explore ways of incorporating subjectivity and emotions of people in the past in how we write history; and to question the sociological, collective categories of analysis that historians often employ. Each session will take a particular example of a cultural context and explore how historians could write the history of subjectivity. The sessions will draw on different types of source material – diaries, letters, visual sources, material objects, travel writing, memoirs, court records, micro-historical material, oral history – and consider the problems and possibilities they offer. Four of the sessions will be on the early modern period; four will be on the modern period; however, in their assessed essay, students may concentrate on either the early modern or the modern period. The course deliberately bridges the early modern and the modern because the historiography itself does. This enables productive comparisons. 



This paper will appeal particularly to those students who wish to pursue research in modern British and Irish history but also to those who wish to study the challenges faced by multi-national states in a comparative perspective. We have strong research and teaching interests in English, Irish and Scottish history in the Faculty, and would like to draw together those students who wish to specialise in the national histories of the United Kingdom and in the comparative history of the British Isles. This paper allows to draw on our expertise in these fields and to expose graduate students to new scholarship in this area.

This paper will be taught in eight classes organised around the following topics:

  • Varieties of Unionism
  • Varieties of Nationalism
  • The Confessional State
  • Mass Politics
  • Political Violence
  • State Intervention and Social Reform
  • National Cultures
  • Empire

There will be a core bibliography, mainly consisting of key monographs, as well as a series of case studies and detailed bibliographies for each week’s topic. Each student will be expected to lead class discussion at least once during the term. The case studies will form the basis of class presentations. Given the breath of this paper, we will encourage students – particularly those presenting their research at each class - to select a variety of case studies so that a diversity of experiences from around the British Isles may be discussed.


Throughout the degree, students work towards a dissertation.  Recent topics have included:

MSt: Suburbanisation and class cultures in post-war London; The national impact of the Lanacashire Cotton Famine on popular political opinion; Ireland and the Second Boer War- Partisan opinion and the ideological agency of the Uitlander; British children on the Home Front – the experience and agency of children during the Second World War; Thatcherism and national identity in the 1984-5 Miners’ strike

MPhil: The Bullock Report and industrial strife in the 1970s; Emigration literature and the colonial girl, 1884-1914; Garveyism in interwar Britain

Faculty and Research Culture

The faculty and university have particular strengths in the history of political culture in Britain; gender history; the history of women; the history of childhood; in the history of war (including political, social and medical dimensions of warfare); in intellectual history; in Irish history; in the history of religion and in urban and social history.

Faculty postholders working in relevant fields include:

More information on our academics and their subjects, please search within our people section.

Faculty seminars bring together staff, doctoral and master’s students working in the field, to hear speakers including doctoral students, external and internal to the university. Seminars relating to this period include: Modern British History; the Long 19thC Century Seminar; Relevant sessions also occur in seminars on Irish history and the history of political thought, economic and social history, global history, the history of the book, science, war etc.

Admissions Questions

We normally take about 10-12 MSt students and one or two MPhil students in this area, but numbers vary from year to year and we are able to be flexible.  If you have any questions about our admissions procedure, please check the University admissions pages and/or contact Graduate Admissions. You can also contact any of the academics in your relevant area of study. You can filter the Academics page by period, region or specialism.