BA Ancient History and History

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Empire, Gender and British Heroes, c.1885 - 1985

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST30622
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
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 promoted 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. Politicians, religious leaders, writers and artists celebrated heroes, usually promoting elite white men as a national ideal. Students will examine how the heroes which Britons chose to celebrate expressed the attitudes of the past. We will analyse how far the rise and fall of the British empire, the development of the mass media, 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 BAME Britons rarely gained entry to the nation's halls of fame. How much changed between 1885 and 1985?


HIST30621 is restricted to History programmes, History joint honours programmes (please check your programme structure 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.


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 1885 and 1985. 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).

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able

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


Intellectual skills

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

Practical skills

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

Transferable skills and personal qualities

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

Employability 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.

Assessment methods

Online Discussion Boards  0
Coursework Essay 50%
Essay 50%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Discussion Board







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
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Maxwell Jones Unit coordinator

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