Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter

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Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) was an important British historian and religious thinker whose ideas, in particular his concept of a "Whig interpretation of history," remain deeply influential. In this intellectual biography-the first comprehensive study of Butterfield-C.T. McIntire focuses on the creative processes that lay behind Butterfield's intellectual accomplishments. Drawing on his investigations into Butterfield's vast and diverse output of published and unpublished work, McIntire explores Butterfield's ideas and methods. He describes Butterfield's lifelong devotion to his Methodist faith and shows how his Christian spirituality animated his historical work. He also traces the theme of dissent that ran through Butterfield's life and work, presenting a man who found himself at odds with prevailing convictions about history, morality, politics, religion, and teaching, a man who elevated the notion of dissent into an ethic of living in tension with any established system.
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From the Publisher
"This important and original work is an intellectual biography that focuses on the life and achievements of a major historian in mid-twentieth-century England."—Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago

“A thoroughly researched, annotated, animated exegesis of all Butterfield’s writings.”—Michael Bentley, Times Literary Supplement

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300098075
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 7/11/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.35 (d)

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Herbert Butterfield


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09807-5

Chapter One


Oxenhope and Keighley

Herbert Butterfield became a historian without intending it. It was unlikely, in any case, that as a child he knew what a historian was, let alone fantasized about being one. He would have known even less what it meant to be a religious thinker. His experience of becoming a historian, and living out his life as a historian, illustrated a doctrine he proclaimed throughout his career: history is a process of unintended consequences, or as he would say in the religious language he loved, history is a process of learning to cooperate with Providence.

Butterfield made it easy to cull certain kinds of information on his personal, academic, and intellectual life, at least from his point of view. At various times he drafted memoirs of his life and the lives of certain people close to him. He also talked about his life in interviews from time to time in the 1960s and 1970s. It was his style to scatter autobiographical references throughout his writings, published and unpublished, as he blended at least some aspects of his personal life with his intellectual life as a historian. At the same time, he seemed studiously to avoidreference to most of his nonacademic life, regarding it as irrelevant or inappropriate to mention.

Late in life he remembered vividly that from about age eight he aspired to be a writer. At that pristine age, from about 1909, he recalled, he wanted to write something good. He tells of how as a youth he would begin long stories and novels about shipwrecks and coral islands in the furthest reaches of the British Empire. He kept starting over before the old piece was finished. His literary ambitions enlarged during his teenage years, during the Great War of 1914-1918. His taste in reading switched from Treasure Island and adventure in far-off lands to books newly placed on the family shelves-nineteenth-century novels by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas. His literary productions changed as well. From the safety of his retirement he admitted being very secretive about his youthful writing, not wanting anyone to catch him in the act.

About age twelve, he recounts, he felt a second aspiration, the desire to be a Methodist preacher. His father, Albert Butterfield, used to take him for long walks after dinner, night after night, whatever the weather, along the road in front of their house. His father would talk about life, the moors, the stars, religion, and his own aspirations to be a Methodist minister. Herbert would ask questions and listen. He testified that he felt the call to preach arise within him, transferred from father to son. The desire increased in his teenage years, and at the age of sixteen or seventeen he began to preach in the Methodist chapels around Oxenhope.

None of Herbert's youthful writing or sermons remain. He claimed he was too embarrassed to save them. Yet, he carried both desires, writer and preacher, with him in 1919 when at nineteen years of age he went up to Cambridge as a undergraduate at the end of the Great War.

Either vocation would have required the education that his father had missed and the leisure from manual labour that his father once lacked. His father, as the oldest son, had to leave school at about age ten to earn money for the family. He was a wool sorter, a child labourer in an Oxenhope textile mill, probably Parker's Mill, an industrial plant with about a hundred employees.

Oxenhope was an industrial village of about two thousand inhabitants, with three woolen mills located on the River Weir running through the village and another two or three on streams nearby. The village lay in a dale, surrounded above by the bleak Yorkshire moors whose level summits rose to 1,400 feet. Haworth, where the Brontë sisters once lived, was a short walk across the moors through sheep and cattle pastures. Ancient links connected Oxenhope with Bradford, nine miles to the south, but since the opening of the Worth Valley railway in 1867, the village reoriented towards Keighley, five miles to the north. The livelihood of the village depended on the success of the mill owners, who functioned as the local elite. They owed their social position to their relative wealth and economic hegemony in this little realm at the end of the railway.

Albert's father, Aquila Butterfield, had been a worsted wool weaver, most likely also in Parker's Mill. Aquila died when Albert was seventeen, and the wages Albert earned in the mill became even more necessary to sustain the family. Herbert never knew his grandfather or grandmother Butterfield. He grew up surrounded by his father's two younger brothers, Uncle Herbert and Uncle Frank. Like his father and grandparents on the Butterfield side, his uncles lived in Oxenhope until they died.

Herbert's mother, Ada Mary Buckland Butterfield, had left her home in Leominster, Herefordshire, at age fifteen to work as a domestic servant for John Parker, the mill master in Oxenhope. People usually called her Mary. She lived in the staff quarters of the Parkers' large house which occupied a prominent site in the centre of the village. Her job included caring for Dawson, the Parkers' blind son. At twenty-three she married Albert, age twenty-five, at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on West Drive in Oxenhope on 9 April 1898, and she became a wife at home. Her father, John Buckland, was a tailor, and she had one brother, Arthur Richard, and no sisters. Herbert was taken only rarely to Leominster to see his grandfather and grandmother Buckland and Uncle Arthur.

Herbert was Albert and Mary's first child, born 7 October 1900 in Oxenhope. They brought him to baptism after two months, on 9 December 1900, at the large Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on West Drive. They named him for Uncle Herbert. His was the first entry in a new register of baptisms. Within the next three and a half years his parents had a daughter, Edith Mary, named for Parker's daughter, and another son, Arthur, named for Uncle Arthur. Herbert's birthplace was the worker's cottage in Upper Town which his parents rented when they married, one in a row of old low two-storey stone dwellings, located up the hill within walking distance of the Methodist chapel in Lower Town. It was an enduring sign of his working-class roots that Herbert possessed only one given name. During the whole of his youth he lived in the shadow of his uncle, the older Herbert Butterfield. Not until he went up to Cambridge did he finally get his name to himself. Even then he was known in the academic world as "H. Butterfield." His full name, Herbert Butterfield, did not appear on the title pages of his books until the 1950s, after he had turned fifty years old. Little did the young Yorkshire Methodist boy know of the deep history of his name, which honoured St. Herbert, the obscure Anglo-Saxon Christian hermit from seventh-century England.

During the first nineteen years of his life Herbert attached himself strongly to his family and his little west Yorkshire world. His circumstances did not incline him towards individualism. People would say about him years later that he remained very proud of being an ordinary Yorkshireman. Yet, he enjoyed looking beyond Oxenhope. He found three outlets to the wider world; the first was the mill owners, the second the school, and the third the Methodist chapel.

The wealthy mill owners in their big houses became for him a symbol of superior civilization. They acted as the closest thing the village had to a gentry. They dominated the village society, economy, and culture. Because of their relations with the wider market, they could acquire distant goods which inspired awe and marked their position of power over the lower ranks in the village. They also evoked deference, a feeling Herbert's father and the family completely internalized and acted upon. For the Butterfield family, deference to their mill owner brought tangible rewards.

Before his marriage, Albert had worked at different jobs on the mill floor in Parker's Mill. He was a loyal and diligent worker. On the side, during the 1890s, he entered into a part-time business with Amos Dewhirst to run a modest shop-Messrs. Dewhirst and Butterfield-selling stationery, books, and sundries. The shop lasted from about 1893 to 1899. It occupied a little wooden building on West Drive opposite the large Methodist chapel. John Parker, who disliked criticism from workers over wages and firings, took notice of Albert's loyalty and began to show him favour. He invited Albert into his big house and introduced him to Mary, his domestic servant and child caretaker. He then watched over the courtship that ensued. In due course, Parker gave approval for Albert to marry her, released her from domestic service, and allowed his daughter, Sarah Hanna, to act as witness for the marriage. About the time of Herbert's birth, Parker asked Albert to cross the line between capitalist and labour to work as a clerk in the mill owner's office. Part of Albert's new job was to deal with the workers on the owner's behalf, a duty Albert accepted readily. Later he became a bookkeeper of the mill's accounts and stock. The new position brought more money but not enough, which left an impression on his son. Butterfield carried with him throughout life the impression that he came from poverty. He wrote late in life, "I well remember, since my father was poor and often ill, how catastrophic the illness of the bread-winner was down to Lloyd George's insurance act of 1911."

Albert and Mary managed to move the family to a bigger house, an appropriately lower bourgeois dwelling at 17 Woodhouse Terrace, later renamed 17 Keighley Road. This was the house in which Herbert grew up. The house belonged to a row of stone dwellings at the edge of the village. It was built on a slope, with two storeys in front and three behind, and a garden which ran down towards a stream called Leeming Water. The open fields lay beyond. The new setting allowed the boy to experience what he later called the sublimity of the encompassing hills and the desolateness of the moorlands. He remembered the weather as cold and dull, requiring a fire for warmth throughout the year. Befitting the minor rise in social status, Albert and Mary dressed the boy on Sundays like a little gentleman and perhaps on special occasions and for photographs like a little prince.

The mill owner gave the Butterfields the books and music he no longer wanted. This was the source of the adventure books and romantic novels that young Herbert read. The mill owner also gave them money to purchase an old upright piano. From about age ten Herbert took piano lessons and practiced on this piano, developing an attachment to playing which lasted throughout his life. At the mill owner's suggestion, and to further himself, Albert subscribed to The Harmsworth Self-Educator, and went through the fortnightly readings that came to the house, readings in all fields, including science. He purchased W. T. Stead's Penny Poets, a series of cheap editions of Victorian poetry. With his father's encouragement, Herbert read all these things when his father had finished. The mill owner's relationship with his father gave Herbert the model of social change that he came to embrace-the diffusion of socially higher culture downward to the working classes, those above lifting up those below.

Herbert's father evidenced proper gratitude towards the mill owner, but perhaps he shared the ambivalence suggested by a folktale common to the region. Butterfield later described the tale as the earliest fireside story he remembered, and he claimed that it and others of its kind aroused his interest in the past. The story recounted a near-calamity during the construction of the railway in the Haworth-Oxenhope area during the 1860s. The builder of the railway laid out the plans on the ground. Along came a cow, and when the builder turned his back, the cow ate the plans. The episode produced great laughter among the people, but soon evoked a different attitude when the people began to look on the loss of the plans as a disaster. The tale became a ballad, with the last verse singing:

And then the local Haworth folk Began to think it was no joke, And wished the bloomen' cow might choke, That swallowed the plan of the railway.

The social effect of the story would be multiple. It would reinforce the position of the industrial entrepreneurs, the class associated with the planning and continuing importance of the local railway as the link with the larger markets. At the same time, in the record of the cow's act, it would leave a hint of the people's resistance to the hegemony of the owners. In the end, however, the wish against the cow signalled the necessity of the people's deference to the owners.

Herbert's father was demoted from his privileged place in the owner's office in Parker's Mill in the 1920s, when the mill owner gave the position to a relative. Then in 1925 he lost his job entirely when the owner closed the mill. The owner of Merrall's Mill, a bigger and still expanding woolen mill, absorbed many of Parker's workers, including Herbert's father. The new owner put him in charge of a larger staff and set him up in a bigger office. The position meant more money and higher local status. To match the move, his father took a bigger house, a finer looking, but still modest, Victorian brick terraced dwelling at 60 Rosebank Terrace, later known as 60 Station Road.

Herbert's second opening to the world beyond was provided by his schools and academic scholarships. He attended the local school run by the village council in Oxenhope from age five. It was here that he began to dream of writing, and when school was over for the day he would go home to compose his stories and novels. He recalls that he would sometimes watch the blacksmith or wheelwright at work, or enact imaginary stories, play marbles, and collect cigarette cards. He picked up the local dialect and retained a mildly noticeable Yorkshire accent throughout his long years at Cambridge. He knew how to drop his h's, as in Oxen'ope, and he enjoyed flaunting sentences like "Sam'er 'em oop an ugg'er 'em."

When he approached age eleven he faced a change of schools. Rather than send him to the nearest secondary school, his father encouraged him to try for a scholarship to the school with the reputation as the best in the region, the Trade and Grammar School in Keighley, a school for boys. He won a Scott scholarship, and the money financed his first step out of Oxenhope. He often confessed in later years that he helped himself during the scholarship examination by glancing at another pupil's paper, and he would say, "I never lost the feeling that I had started out on my career with a piece of dishonesty."

To reach his new school in Keighley, Herbert traveled northward five miles early each morning on the steam railway through the Worth Valley. At mid-day when the other boys went home for dinner, he went to the newsagent's and tobacconist's shop which Amos Dewhirst now operated in Keighley not far from the school, and in a room in the back of the shop ate his dinner with the Dewhirst family. After the meal, when the other boys played sports, Herbert, who disliked sports, usually read. He would take the train home again late in the afternoon.


Excerpted from Herbert Butterfield by C. T. McINTIRE Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Chronology xxi
1 Aspirations 1
2 Art and Science 27
3 Reconciler 51
4 General Horizons 78
5 Patriotic History 102
6 Professor 133
7 Religion 164
8 Public Figure 202
9 On War and Historiography 235
10 Master and Aggression 270
11 World Ideas, World Politics 292
12 The Top and After the Top 319
13 Going Global 334
14 Nothing but History and Religion 363
Conclusion 403
List of Abbreviations 419
Notes 421
Bibliography 473
Index 493
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