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School of Geography

History of the School

The following text is an abstract of Robin Butlin's paper "Geography at Leeds: The Early Days" which was presented at the School's 80th Birthday celebrations.

Leeds University was one of the earliest of British universities to establish a school of geography (in 1919). The late and immediate post (First) World War period saw the establishment of honours courses at Liverpool (1917), Aberystwyth (1918), University College, London (1919), Cambridge (1919), and Leeds. Various types of geography, including commercial geography, had been taught at the Yorkshire College (which preceded Leeds University) and in the university in the Economics department before 1919, reflecting an earlier and broader European interest in the use of geographical knowledge as an aid to national and international trade.

The early, inter-war years of the Leeds school of Geography were characterized by small numbers of staff and honours students, very few research students, and limited resources and range of topics covered. Nonetheless, interesting research was undertaken and published by such staff as Charles B. Fawcett (who moved to University College, London in 1928), an expert on economic and political geography, Kathleen Morgan, a climatologist, and Albert.V. Williamson, a human geographer (appointed 1922, and head of department from 1929). Through this period there were strong links with the Geographical Association and with the North-Eastern Railway, for whom lectures on railway geography were given. Diploma courses and summer schools were also run. There was a student Geographical Society which encouraged lectures and field excursions.

The second phase of development was that after the Second World War, when staff and student numbers gradually expanded, and a more modern curriculum developed, including fieldwork. We can gain a good idea of the life of the department and university from the Student Geographical Society publication "Orbis", copies of which are held in the University archive. The appointments of Fred Fowler, Maurice Kirk, Gordon Smith, Olive Othen, and Ann Priestley in the period 1945-6 were followed by those of R. F. Peel (as professor of Geography, in addition to A.V.Williamson, who was Head of Department), Glanville Jones, Bob Eyre and John Palmer, in the period 1951-53. Many of the current senior or recently retired staff of the school were appointed in the 1950's and 1960's, and a major third phase of development can be identified, following the appointment of Bill Birch as Professor and Head of Department from October 1967, leading to a number of significant staff appointments and the development of the research emphases which characterize the School at present.