One of my goals in my current project on the paratextual self-fashioning of late-Victorian historians is to expand the scope beyond the “usual suspects,” that is, beyond the handful of (mostly) Oxbridge men the historiographical studies typically refer to. The overlooked nineteenth-century historians I search for were, for example, amateurs who authored books that were immensely popular in their own time but have passed into oblivion since then, or those who were dedicated to teach history as tutors in the old universities or as professors in the new civic colleges. Because of the limited interest later historians have expressed to the historical pursuits in the margins, it has been quite difficult to identify the Oxford and Cambridge history tutors or the history professors in the red brick universities in spite of the help of such detailed registers as Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men (1893). In spite of the challenges the invisibility poses, I am convinced that also the unnamed tutors and professors deserve to have their voices heard. Surely they have something to say about paratexts and paratextual self-fashioning that is worth listening. While the anonymity makes it hard to make their stories heard, unearthing their lives have revealed once more how narrowly historical pursuits and professions are often defined and how these narrow preconceptions guide our historical understanding and expectations. I for sure am guilty for assuming that a history professor was someone who published history, but one J. M. Mackay illustrates how flawed this assumption cab be.
When I began to compose the publishing record of this J. M. Mackay, I only knew that he had been a professor in Liverpool and therefore a perfect candidate for my sample: a professor, historian, and employed by one of the civic colleges. In no time I ran into trouble: I was unable to find anything about him, no biographical entries, no publications, nothing. It took some effort even to establish his full name and the basic details of his career: John MacDonald Mackay, Rathbone Professor of History at the Liverpool College from 1884 till 1914. But nothing about his scholarly expertise or publications. Surely, someone who had been a professor for thirty years should have published something about history? The mystery began to gradually unravel once I expanded my search to nineteenth-century newspapers. From the clues provided by the obituaries in The Times, Courier and Advertiser, and Aberdeen Press and Journal I was able to sketch the outlines of the life of John MacDonald Mackay, born in the 1856 in Lybster, Scotland, and died in 1931 in Inverness.
The obituaries confirmed that, indeed, professor Mackay had not publish any historical studies before or during his long career. However, when I put together the small scraps of information I was able to find, it all made perfect sense and explained how it was possible that during the nineteenth century a professor did not publish anything related to his field of expertise. To understand how this was possible, we need to turn to the puzzling life of John MacDonald Mackay.
Young Mackay grew up in Scotland where he was schooled first in Old Aberdeen and then at the Edinburgh University. In 1878, he entered Balliol College, Oxford to study the classics. His skills, though left something to hope for and according to The Times he performed “with minor exhibition.” Consequently, he was placed only in the third class in the Classical Moderations. Benjamin Jowett, then the master of Balliol, advised him to study history instead. Obviously, Jowett, a classical scholar himself, considered history less intellectually demanding than the classics were. After a brief and less successful period in Oxford, Mackay returned to his native Scotland to take a teaching job in Edinburgh. Soon after this, he was appointed to a professorship in Liverpool College. It must have been due to his years in Oxford and the experience in teaching that rendered him an ideal candidate for the job.
The University College of Liverpool was founded in 1881 and it operated as part of the Victoria University, Manchester, since 1884 until 1903 when it was established as an independent Liverpool University. The University College of Liverpool was a perfect example of the new civic colleges that were founded around this time in northern England to provide technical and commercial education for the local middle-class boys. However, as Samuel Alberti has underlined, soon the colleges began to offer liberal education as well. The local families wanted their sons also to learn about modern and classical languages, history, and literature because knowledge in these subjects was considered essential for social advancement. The circles in which the families wanted their sons to enter were largely comprised of Oxbridge graduates with classical training and therefore even elementary knowledge of English history and classical authorities was considered a valuable cultural and social asset. The civic colleges responded to the demand by introducing courses in these subjects and by recruiting teachers from Oxford and Cambridge. With his Oxford background, John MacDonald Mackay was an appealing candidate for a job that mostly comprised of teaching young men who took occasional courses in history. Judging the obituary in The Times, he was a good fit because as a teacher he “took a wide view of the objects of historical study, while encouraging research in special periods.” His students found in him an inspiring teacher and when he retired in 1914 they published a selection of essays, A Miscellany, to honor his career as en educationalist.
Apart from his educational duties, Mackay was politically active and it turns out so that this man that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has nothing to say about, was instrumental in turning the Liverpool College into an independent university, and even more importantly, in introducing a Faculty-model into the civic universities. Before the organization of the new universities became a hot topic in the 1890s, the idea that universities could be composed of faculties had been obscure in Britain. Mackay was convinced that Faculties, not the rivaling model inspired by a business world, guaranteed the freedom of thought, diversity of research, and brotherhood of its members which all he considered essential elements in a successful university. In 1895, he persuaded Senate to appoint a committee for this purpose and only a year later, in 1896, the Faculty of Arts was founded in Liverpool. This was not a self-evident outcome and Walter Raleigh, a contemporary to Mackay, gives both a graphic and hagiographic depiction of the battle in the Miscellany. In a strikingly militant and masculine fashion he paints a picture of a tenacious professor who enjoyed no leisure, songs, dance, or other social distractions. All his energies were directed to winning the battle of academia. He was often defeated, but “never faltered and never yielded,” because “by blood and temper” he belonged to the “fighting clan.” He was like “an inspired recruiting-sergeant” always on the look-out for new candidates to join “his devoted little band” which he led “up steep cliffs, under heavy fire.” Steadfastly he stood for his cause without fearing to expose himself “to the sharpshooters” who questioned the model he so strongly supported.
Although Mackay did not emulate the most typical model of a professor who was absorbed in his studies, he nonetheless left a lasting legacy. By teaching history for three decades he touched the lives of numerous students and by defending the model that he believed was the one to ensure the freedom of thought, comradeship, and scholarly diversity he profoundly shaped the future of the civic universities. Since the historiographical accounts tend to privilege those who were closely attached to the old universities and focused on the more traditional scholarly pursuits of writing and publishing, it is not surprising that at least for me the name of John MacDonald Mackay had been unknown. Taking into account how little information there was available online about him, I suspect that I am not the only one poorly enlightened about Mackay’s accomplishments. Although this half-a-day side path to the life of an obscure Victorian history professor did not add any paratextual material to my project, it certainly added a valuable piece to the picture of late-Victorian academia and the many roles history professors performed in it.
P.S An image of John MacDonald Mackay is available here.
“A Distinguished Educationist”, Aberdeen Press and Journal 10 March 1931.
“Professor’s Death at Iverness”, Courier and advertiser 10 March 1931.
“Professor Mackay”, The Times 13 March 1931, p. 16.
Raleigh Walter, “Builder”, A Miscellany. Presented to John Macdonald Mackay, LL. D. July 1914, ed. O. E. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1914).
Alberti Samuel J. M. M. “Civic Cultures and Civic Colleges in Victorian England”, The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, ed. Martin Daunton (Oxford: Oxford University Press & The British Academy, 2005): 337–356.
Crouch Christopher, Design Culture in Liverpool 1880–1914: The Origins of the Liverpool School of Architecture (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).