Papers of James Tait

Scope and Content

Papers of James Tait (1863-1944), historian. Tait's papers include correspondence, original manuscripts, notebooks, photographs and appointment diaries.

There is a substantial body of correspondence (TAI/1) with a number of Tait's fellow historians and other academics including Hilda Johnstone, Helen Cam, J H Round, Ernest Jacob, Lord Acton, Mary Bateson, Sir Charles Firth, Sir Adolphus Ward, Frank Stenton, F W Maitland, Charles Previté-Orton, A H Thompson, R L Poole, T F Tout, Goronwy Edwards, H W C Davis, Maurice Powicke, and V H Galbraith. These letters are informative on Tait's reputation with his peers, and reveal details of Tait's research and that of his correspondents. The collection contains only one letter of Tait's (to Powicke), so his own views have to be, to a certain extent, extrapolated from the letters of correspondents.

Tait played a major role in supporting the study of local history and was an important source of advice and encouragement to historians and antiquarians working on the history of North West England. The collection includes significant correspondence from William Farrer, Ronald Stewart-Brown, Ernest Axon, John Brownbill, H.W. Clemesha, J A Twemlow and Joan Varley about various aspects of regional history. In later life, Tait was also frequently consulted by younger academics and research students about their research and publications, and they too are represented in the correspondence.

Other correspondents include Tait's friends from his Owens and Balliol days including: J. W. Allen, George A Wood, Raymond Beazley, George G. Smith and Thomas Seccombe.

Overall, while correspondence in the Tait papers does not yield information of major historiographical significance, it does provide valuable sidelights on the work of professional and amateur historians, on the networks which existed for mutual support and dissemination of knowledge within the profession, and on the reputations of particular historians.

The other sections of Tait's papers include testimonials supplied for academic posts, including his initial appointment as assistant lecturer at Owens College in 1887 (TAI/2). There are also Tait's notebooks and research notes (TAI/3), which include several notebooks from his student days and early academic career lectures notes. The papers also include a small collection of photographs of Tait, often taken in informal circumstances (TAI/6). The rest of the collection comprises Tait's pocket diaries which contain little information (TAI/5), and several exam certificates from his time at Oxford (TAI/4).

Administrative / Biographical History

James Tait was born at Broughton, Salford on 19 June 1863. One of twelve children, Tait was the son of Robert Ramsay Tait, a seed merchant, and his mother was Annie Case, a member of a well-known academic family. Tait was educated privately, before entering Owens College, Manchester in 1879 at the age of sixteen. He was one of the first students to graduate (in history) from the federal Victoria University in 1883. He continued his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a first in modern history in 1887.

Shortly after graduation, Tait was appointed assistant lecturer in English history and literature at Owens College, working under firstly A.W. Ward, and then T F Tout, who had been appointed professor of history in 1890. After unsuccessfully applying for the chairs of history at Cardiff, Belfast and Manchester, Tait was appointed to a lectureship in ancient history at Manchester in 1896. In 1902 he was promoted to the chair of ancient and medieval history.

Like T.F. Tout, James Tait was a prominent member of the 'Manchester History School', and he played a central role in developing the University's remarkable reputation in historical teaching and research. Tait was responsible for introducing the undergraduate thesis, which was closely connected to the special subject, and he made great efforts to encourage research. Indeed, Tait's life was dedicated to the pursuit of exact scholarship, for which he developed a formidable reputation. Tait helped establish the Manchester University Press to encourage scholarly publication, and the first historical work it published was his Mediaeval Manchester and the beginnings of Lancashire (1904).

Although originally concentrating on medieval political history and feudal institutions, Tait's particular area of expertise was medieval municipal history. He completed the second volume of Adolphus Ballard's unfinished British Borough Charters 1216-1307 (1923) and in 1936 he published Medieval English Borough, which was to be the standard work on the subject for several decades. Tait was also noted for his deep knowledge and understanding of medieval archives, and he edited several volumes which reproduced such records including Chronica Johannis de Reading (Manchester 1914), The Chartulary of the Abbey of St Werburgh (2 vols. 1920, 1923), A Middlewich Chartulary, volume 2, edited jointly with Joan Varley (Chetham Society 1944) and Herefordshire Domesday, circa 1160-1170, (Pipe Roll Society 1949), edited jointly with V H Galbraith.

Tait was intimately involved with the organizations and publishing ventures which played a major role in the professionalisation of history during his lifetime. He wrote many articles for the Dictionary of National Biography between 1891-1900, and made important contributions to the Lancashire volumes of the Victoria County History. Tait was a frequent contributor to the English Historical Review, particularly noted for his book reviews; many of his most important professional opinions were expressed through these reviews and in his private correspondence. He was chairman of Manchester University Press from 1925-1935, president of the Chetham Society from 1915-1925 and also the first president of the English Place-Name Society from 1923 until 1932. Tait had published several works under the auspices of these latter two societies.

Tait had no great interest in university administration and politics and he stood down from his chair in 1919 to dedicate himself entirely to historical research. From 1920 he was a honorary professor at Manchester, and was also a Fellow of the British Academy. In 1933 a festschrift , Historical essays in honour of James Tait, edited by J.G. Edwards, V.H. Galbraith and Ernest Jacob, was published, which confirmed the high regard with which the historical profession viewed Tait.

Tait was a shy, unassuming man, who organised his life around his research. He lived in Fallowfield, Manchester and latterly in Wilmslow, Cheshire, where he died on 4 July 1944, at the age of eighty one. Maurice Powicke, a former pupil, described Tait’s personality as one of "reticence, composure and self reliance." Tait's commitment to his area of historical expertise, his knowledge of original sources, his carefully weighed interpretations of historical problems, and his unshowy promotion of the historical profession were greatly admired by colleagues, and he was a sought after, and willing, provider of advice and expertise to his fellow historians.


The Tait papers appear to have been subject to some arrangement before they were transferred to the Library. It is unclear whether by Tait himself or those responsible for his papers after his death. Correspondence was arranged alphabetically.

The Tait papers have been arranged into the following series:

  • TAI/1 - Correspondence
  • TAI/2 - Testimonials
  • TAI/3 - Notebooks, notes, draft articles and related material
  • TAI/4 - Diaries
  • TAI/5 - Exam certificates
  • TAI/6 - Photographs

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Tait bequeathed part of his library to the University of Manchester Library in September 1944; it is believed his papers were transferred at the same time.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Related Material

JRUL also holds the papers of T F Tout, and this includes correspondence with Tait (gb133-tft/tft/1/1155 TFT/1/1155/1-29). Tait's correspondence with William Farrer is held at Manchester Local Studies and Archives (ref. L1/58/3/451-58).


There is no full-scale biography of Tait or a detailed study of the "Manchester school of history". The most comprehensive source of biographical information is F. M. Powicke, 'James Tait, 1863–1944', Proceedings of the British Academy, 30 (1944), pp. 379–410. There is also a Dictionary of National Biography entry for Tait. Tait's festschrift, Historical essays in honour of James Tait (Manchester 1933), includes a comprehensive bibliography of his writings to 1933. Peter Slee, Learning and a liberal education: the study of modern history in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, 1800-1914 (Manchester 1986), deals with the Manchester history department during the period when Tait was active.

Geographical Names