In January 2022 the Society published a new catalogue of its papers of George W. Prothero (1848-1922), historian, literary editor and President of the RHS between 1901 and 1905. The Prothero collection runs to more than 1000 items and is the largest named collection in the RHS archive.
The new 252-page catalogue, which is available on the Archive pages of the Society’s website, provides item-level listings of Prothero’s correspondence, professional papers and manuscripts, dating from the late 1860s to the early 1920s. In addition to the writing of a new catalogue, the Prothero project has included a conservation review of the collection, and the rediscovery and incorporation of 10 bundles of letters previously thought lost. The Society is very grateful to the Marc Fitch Fund for co-funding this project.
This post provides more on the content of the Society’s Prothero papers, and includes a small selection of images from each of the seven series in the collection.
George W. Prothero (1848-1922)
George Walter Prothero was born in Worcestershire, the son of a clergyman who later became chaplain-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria, and canon of Westminster. His mother, Emma Kyrle, also came from a clergy family. He was educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, where he was elected a Fellow in 1872. Later in that decade a period of study at Bonn exposed him to German historians and historical method. It was here that Prothero became committed to the ‘historical teaching of history’ (C.H. Firth); that is, the importance of understanding and learning historical practice and an awareness of the environment in which research was undertaken.
In the later 1870s, Prothero oversaw design of the Cambridge history tripos and was one of the first history lecturers appointed by the University in 1884. Initially engaged as a medieval historian, Prothero’s principal work was a compilation, Select Statutes and other Documents Illustrative of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I (1894). Two years prior to his lectureship, Prothero married Mary Frances Butcher, daughter of the bishop of Meath.
In 1894 Prothero was appointed the first Professor of History at Edinburgh and three years later took on the editorship of the Quarterly Review: a digest of articles relating to politics, literature, art, archaeology, philosophy and religion. The editorship signalled Prothero’s move from research to the general promotion of historical scholarship, on which he spoke up via a series of high-ranking appointments. These included as President of the Royal Historical Society (1901-5), Fellow of the British Academy (1903), visiting lectureship at Oxford, Boston and Johns Hopkins universities, and as co-editor of the Cambridge Modern History (1901–12).
In these and other roles Prothero did much to promote development of the historical profession in the UK, stressing the responsibilities and public service required of the modern historian. From 1917 he worked as a historical adviser for the Foreign Office and was central to preparation of extensive documentary materials ahead of the Versailles Peace Conference, which he attended from early 1919, and for which he was knighted in the following year.
Introducing the G.W. Prothero collection
The new catalogue is arranged in 7 series, each covering a different aspect of Prothero’s life and work:
- Series 1, PP/1: Personal correspondence, 1886-1922
- Series 2, PP/2: Subject files, 1866-1921, including papers relating to Prothero’s early academic career and publications; among them his papers relating to the British Academy and Presidency of the Royal Historical Society
- Series 3, PP/3: Correspondence relating to the First World War and its aftermath, 1914-1922, with British, European and American correspondents
- Series 4, PP/4: Papers relating to historical studies c. 1871-1914, including undergraduate and other notebooks, notes for his Creighton Lectures on Napoleon III, and manuscripts on contemporary international relations.
- Series 5, PP/5: Papers relating to the Bibliography of Modern British History including correspondence, notes on British and foreign libraries and archives
- Series 6, PP/6: Printed papers including newspaper cuttings, scrapbook and articles
- Series 7, PP/7: Papers relating to the deposit of the Prothero collection with the Royal Historical Society
The Prothero collection runs to 20 storage boxes, and is now accompanied online by a new ISAD(G) compliant catalogue to replace the existing paper version written in the late 1960s. The new catalogue also directs researchers to other holdings of Prothero papers elsewhere in the UK. The principal series in the Society’s collection comprise personal and professional correspondence sent to Prothero. These cover his time as editor of the Quarterly Review and President of the Royal Historical Society, and include letters from the publisher John Murray, historian Oscar Browning, and Conservative politician and prime minister, Arthur Balfour.
These letters demonstrate Prothero’s commitment to promoting History as a serious, professional discipline of wide-ranging civic value. Between 1914 and 1922, exchanges with European and North American correspondents also reveal his interest in British foreign policy and contribution to the Versailles Conference and post-war settlement.
The Prothero project is also an exercise in stock-taking and rediscovery, including 10 bundles of papers, previously thought missing, which have now been integrated into the collection. This work has the added benefit of bringing to our attention other little known papers in the Society’s wider collection, among them sets of annual event cards dating from Prothero’s Presidency onwards.
Our thanks for this work go to Dr Eilish Gregory and Imogen Evans, who undertook two-thirds of the initial cataloguing, and to the archivist Zoë Karens, who completed this project and wrote the catalogue between October 2021 and January 2022.
The Society is also extremely grateful to the Marc Fitch Fund for co-funding this project with the RHS.
If you wish to consult the Prothero collection, please contact the Society via email@example.com to arrange a visit, with priority given to RHS members.
Selected Items from Series 1 & 2
Below you’ll find a small selection of images of items in the Prothero collection, organised by series. Scroll through the selection and click on each image to enlarge.
In this first selection you’ll find letters written to Prothero between 1866 (when an Eton schoolboy) and 1920, following government service ahead of the Versailles Conference. The five items selected here from Series 1 and 2 include correspondence with the peace activist, Stephen Hobhouse, thanking Prothero (July 1918) for an article on prison reform; and from the editor of the Observer, James Louis Garvin, following publication of Prothero’s research for the Foreign Office (1920).
Earlier documents in this selection are William Stubbs’ testimonial on Prothero’s suitability to serve as a History examiner at the University of London (no date); two letters to the young Prothero (1866) on his performance in school exams and advice on future intellectual development; and a letter, from the Richard Okes, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, regarding Prothero’s application for a History lectureship in 1876.
Series 2: ‘Testimonials in Favour of G.W. Prothero’
The following printed booklet includes testimonials in support of Prothero’s successful application to become Professor of History at Edinburgh in 1894.
Those writing in support include the historians C.H. Firth, A.W. Ward and William Stubbs, the constitutional theorist, A.V. Dicey, and the eminent classicist Jane Harrison, who writes of Prothero’s ability as a teacher while she was a student at Cambridge.
Selected Items from Series 3 to 5
Items from Series 3 in the collection cover Prothero’s correspondence on the subject of the First World War. They include a letter from the mountaineer William Slingsby (6 November 1917) thanking Prothero for his condolences following the death in conflict of Slingsby’s son, Laurence, ‘ … a terrible loss to us.’ This is followed by a letter to Prothero from William E. Foster commenting on the success of Arthur Balfour’s diplomatic visit to the United States (the Balfour Mission) in 1917.
Series 4 includes the printed lecture prospectus for Prothero’s 1909 Creighton Lecture, ‘The Arrival of Napoleon III’, given at the University of London in January 1909.
Series 5 contains the 4-page printed Memorandum for ‘A Bibliography of Modern British History’ (c.1911). It’s followed by a letter to Prothero from the British Embassy in Paris, along with a permit, relating to an archive visit to the French capital in February 1914.
Selected Items from Series 6
Series 6 includes a print copy of the ‘Annual Report of the Committee of Village Children’s Historical Play Society’ (1913), of which Prothero was a Council member. The report includes photographs of children enacting historical plays.
Prothero’s international interests are again evident in his membership of the New East Committee. In August 1916 he received a letter from the Foreign Office concerning a proposal to begin an English-language magazine in Japan; this is followed by the opening section of the prospectus for this publication, The New East monthly review.
Series 7 contains papers relating to Prothero’s estate and bequest of his library and papers to the Royal Historical Society. G.W. Prothero died at his residence, 24 Bedford Square, London, in July 1922. His wife Mary died in 1934.
What’s next for the Society’s archive?
One important outcome of the recent Prothero work is the rediscovery of other materials relating to the history of the Society. These too are ripe for re-cataloguing and greater online access.
Work is therefore now underway for ‘Phase 2’ of the Society’s archive redevelopment, which will create new online catalogues for the RHS’s own papers (relating the Society’s members and activities from the late 1860s), of its predecessor, the Camden Society (from the late 1838), and the publishing and literary papers of the Tudor historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton (1922-1994).
We hope to provide researchers with new catalogues for these three collections in the coming months, once funding is secured.
More broadly, we hope this availability — starting here with new G.W. Prothero Catalogue — will bring the RHS archive to wider public attention, as an important statement on the development and membership of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical profession in Britain and overseas.