Remembering George Hare Leonard, 1863-1941

An institution is comprised of more than just buildings, hierarchies or symbols. When the University of Bristol was founded in 1909, its managers and patrons rushed to explain its purpose in terms of what it stood for: a common culture – an attitude – of excellence, improvement, and civic responsibility. But these are just fine words until they are given meaning by real people actually enacting these values, promoting and defending them.

Today – graduation day – is a very important day for University of Bristol historians. One of the ways we celebrate our students’ success is through the award of prizes for high attainment. The George Hare Leonard Prize is awarded to the graduate with the best overall performance, but who was George Hare Leonard, and what does the fact that we attach his name to such a prestigious award mean?

Photograph of George Hare Leonard, 1902, from the University of Bristol’s Special Collections

Born in Clifton, Leonard took his BA and MA in History at Cambridge, returning to Bristol to deliver the Cambridge Extension Lectures in the 1880s and 1890s. He was eventually appointed Lecturer in History at University College Bristol in 1901, rising to the rank of Professor in 1905. Only one one other candidate was interviewed for the professorial job: Frederick Maurice Powicke, who would go on to rise to the very top of his discipline by becoming Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford.

But Leonard was something special, and everybody at University College knew it. The College’s great patron, John Percival, the Bishop of Hereford, remarked in 1908 on the ‘good work’ that he and ‘the younger teachers’ were doing there. This stood in contrast, Percival claimed, to ‘older professors’ who had ‘lost touch with the working classes’. Leonard’s retention as professor came at just the right time to make a real impact, for in 1909 the College became the University of Bristol. At this institution Leonard stayed until his death in 1941.

There is much to celebrate about Leonard’s life, and his contribution to our institution, our discipline, and our city. Four highlights may serve to underline why he is worth remembering.

First, he used his professorship to reinvigorate the intellectual quality of historical studies at the College by introducing a new syllabus in the 1906/07 academic year. For the first time ever at Bristol, students were expected to become acquainted with primary sources directly, and to engage in a dialogue with their lecturers. Out went grand lecture series which tried to locate the greatness of the English psyche in the misty forests of fifth-century Saxony; in came the latest historiography, original documents, and a spirit of common intellectual purpose. These are the principles which still form the core of the degree at Bristol today, where our students are encouraged to form their own opinions, and to share and defend them in rigorous but collegiate seminars.

Second, he held a firm belief that the production of historical knowledge was an endeavor of real value, arguing that history ‘cast light on modern problems which engross the attention of all thoughtful men’. We encourage all our students to consider the purpose of what we all do and, whether we agree with Leonard or not, the willingness to engage in critical self-reflection is an important skill which we try to encourage all at Bristol to adopt. Above all we want our graduates to be self-confident in the value both of their discipline and of their own beliefs and ideas.

Third, he was strongly committed to the equality of all persons. While holding his professorship, he headed up a committee and acted as fundraiser-in-chief for the erection of a memorial to Mary Clifford, a nineteenth-century campaigner for women’s welfare, in Bristol Cathedral. This was neither an easy nor a meaningless gesture: in the 1910s, attacks on Suffragette headquarters in Bristol were widely reported in the national press. Leonard was a person willing to speak out, but perhaps more importantly, to put his ideas into action.

Fourth, he ‘gave himself heart and soul to the cause of adult education’, according to the writer of his obituary in The Times. This was an accurate assessment. Not only did Leonard frequently hold the management of the University to account on the issue of ‘educating the working men and women’ of Bristol, but he also gave up what little time he had spare to read their poetry, respond to their letters, or even go rambling with them – even if they were not registered students. At Bristol today, we celebrate continuing education and aspire to widen access as far as possible, because we see that education can have a transformative impact on peoples’ lives.

So, when we award the George Hare Leonard Prize today, we do more than just remember one of our department’s ancestors. We celebrate a great historian, certainly, but we also recognize a set of timeless values which bind us together – staff, students, and graduates alike. We celebrate both individual excellence and a collegiate spirit, the importance of rigour, but also the enduring value of historical thinking. In offering an award in Leonard’s name, we look not a committee to define our values for us, but to our own past.

Special thanks to colleagues in the University of Bristol’s Special Collections, who helped to identify some of the sources which form the basis of this judgment: Leonard’s own correspondence, that of the Bishop of Hereford, Calendars of the University College Bristol, and various newspaper cuttings.

Dr John Reeks, Teaching Fellow in History.

Bristol University to the Somme

WMB-WWI-MemorialThere are 173 names recorded on the University of Bristol’s memorial to those who died in the First World War. Captain W. J. Mason is one of these. A Lecturer in Economics, and head of the department, William John Mason was killed 100 years ago today, at La Boisselle on the Somme. He was 27.

William John Mason, 1915. Source: Imperial War Museum Collections

An LSE graduate, Will Mason was appointed to his post at Bristol in early 1914, and his role also included delivering lectures for the Workers’ Education Association at the recently-established University Settlement in Barton Hill. Mason joined the University’s Officer Training Corps at the outbreak of the war, was gazetted to the Gloucester Regiment in November 1914, arriving in France in July 1915. In January the following year he was promoted to Captain, serving with the 8th Gloucesters. Some 32 members of the university’s teaching staff were on active service by the time he was killed. An earlier report in September 1915 had outlined the University staff’s contributions to the war effort. Some 14 members of the Arts Faculty staff were listed. Amongst these, History’s Professor George Hare Leonard was spending most of his spare time engaged in YMCA work; the Lecturer in History and tutor for women students, May Staveley, a Quaker, had worked over the previous summer with the Friends Relief Commission in France; their fellow historian William Luther Cooper, who had joined the department in 1913 and would later become the University’s first salaried Librarian, was waiting to take up a commission in the Royal Field Artillery. May Staveley was also honorary secretary of the University of Bristol Women’s War Work Fund which, amongst other activities, ran the University Hostel for Belgian refugees.

Captain Mason was a ‘brilliant teacher’, reported the WEA’s regional secretary, with a ‘genial disposition’. He was one of ‘the three brilliant men of my generation’ of LSE students, recalled Baroness Mary Stocks four decades later. The University of Bristol’s Council recorded its ‘deep grief’ at the news. The 8th Gloucesters — mostly ‘untried’ men — had gone into battle at La Boiselle at 3.15 on the morning of 3 July to reinforce the attempt to take and hold the heavily fortified village. Mason was one of the six officers killed that day. The village was secured on 4 July; the battalion’s total casualties by then totalling 302 killed, wounded or missing. ‘A truly bloody scene’, recorded their commander, the village flattened as ‘if the very soul had been blasted out of the earth and turned into a void’. Into that void had gone William John Mason, and his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The University’s memorial tablet was unveiled on 4 July 1924 in the Wills Memorial Building by Field Marshall Lord Methuen, who could not resist using the occasion to offer indirect but tart observations on the recently-established Labour government. After the service a trumpeter played the Last Post, the final notes echoing through the corridors of the otherwise silenced building.

bec573b8-9bd9-4548-8aef-ae7ae4410a32

W.J. Mason included along with some of The Gloucestershire Regiment’s missing, Thiepval Memoria.l Pier and Face 5 A and 5 B. Source: Ancestry Family Tree.

Sources include Western Daily Press, 20 September 1915, p. 9; 17 July 1916, p. 4; 11 November 1916, p. 4; 5 July 1924, p. 5, National Archives, WO 95/2085/1, ‘8 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (1915 Jul – 1919 Mar)’; Adrian Carton de Wiart, Happy Odyssey (1950), pp. 58-59.