BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Empire, Gender and British Heroes, c.1885 - 2000

Unit code HIST30621
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


Why and how did societies in the past celebrate certain men and women as heroes? To answer this question we must turn our attention away from the heroes themselves to the hero-makers, to those who used heroes to achieve particular ends, and to their tools - books and portraits, speeches and sermons, statues and ceremonies. Heroes have always been made not born.

On this course students will examine how the heroes which Britons chose to celebrate expressed the attitudes of the past. We will analyse how the rise and fall of the British empire, world war, immigration, and campaigns for women's rights changed the face of British heroes. The course will introduce students to different approaches to the study of heroes: heroes as propaganda, as commodities and brands, as expressions of 'charisma'. Women and ethnic minorities rarely gained entry to the nation's halls of fame. How much changed between 1850 and 2000?


HIST30622 is restricted to History programmes, History joint honours programmes, and Euro Studies (please check your programme regulations for further details).

This module is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas. Available to students on an Erasmus programme subject to VSO approval.


This course aims to show students how the heroes which Britons chose to celebrate expressed the attitudes of the past, attitudes towards violence, class, gender and race. The intention is for students to learn how major historical developments - e.g. the rise and fall of the British empire, the two world wars, immigration, and campaigns for women's rights  - changed the face of British heroes between 1850 and 2000. Through an examination of the impact of these developments, the course also aims to enable students to learn about different approaches to the study of heroes: for example, heroes as propaganda (e.g. John M. MacKenzie), as commodities and brands (e.g. Berny Sebe), and as expressions of 'charisma' (Edward Berenson).

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to;


 Indicative course outline:*

1.         Introduction: Studying Heroes

2.         Gordon of Khartoum and the ‘Heroic Myths of Empire'

3.         Henry Morton Stanley: Charisma, the Media and Explorer Heroes

4.         Scott of the Antarctic

5.         Heroes, Masculinity & Shell-Shock in the Great War and After

6.         Florence Nightingale, Lytton Strachey, and Debunking Between the Wars

7.         Lawrence of Arabia

8.         ‘Temperate Heroes’ in ‘The People’s War’

9.         Gordon, Khartoum (1966) and the End of Empire

10.       The Death of the Hero?: Debunking, Decline and the SAS

11.       Course Review & Preparation for Exam

* This outline is indicative and may be revised.

Teaching and learning methods

Students will be required to discuss texts and questions in small groups (3-4 students) during seminars and also participate in 'whole-class' discussion.

Knowledge and understanding

  • explain why Britons raised certain individuals as heroes
  • outline and explain why heroes generated a range of meanings in different contexts;
  • use heroes to illuminate changing attitudes to gender and race;
  • assess how the expansion and contraction of the British empire shaped British culture and society;
  • assess the impact of the two world wars on British culture and society.

Intellectual skills

  • evaluate the factors which contribute to the genesis of heroic reputations;
  • evaluate the significance of heroes within national cultures.

Practical skills

  • navigate the wide range of online resources available for late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history;
  • interpret primary sources within their historical context;
  • plan, research and write effective essays.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • improve communication skills by contributing to class debates and discussion;
  • develop confidence in their interpretation of popular culture.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
In addition to the generic employability skills developed in advanced History course units (research, analysis, presentation skills etc.) the course will develop students' ability to analyse how the public images of prominent individuals are constructed, distributed and managed through written texts, visual images and material objects. Such analysis is required in a wide range of jobs from web design to public relations.
Oral communication
Written communication

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%

Feedback methods

Personalised 'feed-forward' advice will be provided on all 3 student assessments, delivered primarily through Blackboard/Turnitin.

General 'feed-forward' advice will be provided in seminars, with dedicated sessions to prepare students for the 3 assessments.

Students will also be encouraged to attend office hours to discuss individual feedback.

The 3 assessments are summative.

Recommended reading

  • Max Jones, ‘What Should Historians Do With Heroes? Reflections on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, History Compass, 5:2 (2007), 439-54.
  • Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge, 1994).
  • Geoffrey Cubitt & Allen Warren (eds), Heroic Reputations and Exemplary Lives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
  • Edward Berenson, Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men And The Conquest of Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
  • 'Decolonising Imperial Heroes: Britain and France’, Special Issue: Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 42:5 (2014).
  • Barbara Korte and Stefanie Lethbridge (eds.), Heroes and Heroism in British Fiction since 1800: Case Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
  • Max Jones, The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Maxwell Jones Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods

Source Analysis, summative, 1500 words, 20%

Essay, summative, 2500 words, 40%

Exam, summative, 2 hours, 40%


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