History of the Oxford Historical Society

The Oxford Historical Society was founded in 1884 by a group of dons in memory of – and to fulfil a wish of – the Revd John Richard Green. This son of Oxford (his father had been a maker of academic gowns living in St John's Street) had written a runaway bestseller in 1874: A Short History of the English People. It has been possible for later generations to decry his efforts as those of another "amateur" in the old, literary tradition of history: he was not a university-trained historian, and his natural strengths were the narrative and the vivid character rather than the assiduous detailing of original sources.

But these critics failed to see that he was, in other regards, a modernising force, an early champion of social and cultural history, local and municipal history, who saw the lot of the common people as more important than that of the ruling elites.

"I won't divide by Kings, a system whereby History is made Tory unawares and infants are made to hate history."

He was a liberal in both politics and religion:

"England has been doing little more than carrying out in a slow and tentative way the schemes of political and religious reforms which the army propounded at the close of the Civil War."

Green's last works –The Making of England (1882) and The Conquest of England (1883) – were a riposte to his professional critics, being much more "scholarly" – though avoiding the "dryasdust" scholarship he so detested by remaining enjoyable for the ordinary reader. These works also show that he kept his originality to the end, employing both geography and archaeology in the service of history. At his request, the epitaph on his tombstone was: "He died learning".

Although his own works may now be rather forgotten, two of Green's ideas for increasing and encouraging historical scholarship survive. First, he dreamt of a popular monthly history journal. Second, his love of his city meant that he had planned a society specifically to delve into its history. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to achieve either – he died aged only 46 after decades of tubercular decline – but within two years his Oxford friends (both inside and outside the University) had established the Oxford Historical Society, and the English Historical Review was very much influenced by his ideas.

See further: ODNB entry for John Richard Green and sources listed there.

Oxford Historical Society, © 2006–2009


Registered Charity No. 1101069