Information for current undergraduates

Michael Flinn Collection

Michael Flinn Collection of Economic and Social History.


Michael Flinn was a member of the academic staff of the University of Edinburgh from 1959 to 1978, when he retired from his Personal Chair in Social History. He served for two years as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in the mid-1970s. He died in 1983. A full obituary was published in The Economic History Review.

Like a number of other important economic historians of his generation, Flinn came quite late into a permanent full-time academic post. Leaving school at the age of 18, he worked for four years for a firm of cotton exporters. This was followed by war service in the Royal Artillery, after which he enrolled for a History degree at the University of Manchester then arguably one of the three great centres of teaching and research in Economic History. Thereafter, for more than a decade, he taught History at grammar schools first in Stockton-on-Tees and then in Isleworth in Middlesex with a two year gap between them when he was an Assistant in History at the University of Aberdeen. This teaching experience was important to his subsequent development (and to the Flinn collection) in several ways. Above all, it gave him a huge range of interests and expertise which he first used to write highly successful school textbooks on The Economic and Social History of Britain, 1066-1939, first published in 1961, and, after various revisions, still in print at the time of his death. Second, it gave him time to undertake his first serious piece of research, a MSc on British overseas investment in iron ore mining, 1870-1914, the start of a life-long interest in the iron and coal industries, including several major works of high scholarship, notably Men of Iron: the Crowleys on the early iron industry, which Saul calls a first class work of scholarship which set the standard for business histories for years to come. 

Third, his school teaching experience stimulated a commitment to highest quality teaching, which needed to be both accessible yet demanding on his students. The first year course in Social History which he was heavily involved in initiating rapidly developed into a popular student choice, while his final year honours course on British population history challenged the many students who did it to produce work of outstanding quality; some of the undergraduate dissertations which were written as part of its assessment pioneered new ground to the extent that they became for many years the only available sources on some key topics of Scottish population history, and are cited as such in several published works. 

Flinn very early in his career had recognised that one of the problems in teaching economic and social history was a lack of accessible reading material for students. Starting with his own The Origins of the Industrial Revolution (1966), and including his British Population growth, 1800-1850, he persuaded Macmillan to publish a series of 'Pamphlets' (actually short books mostly of 20,000 to 30,000 words) called Studies in Economic and Social History; he himself edited the first 24 of these and the series is still marketed, now under the Cambridge University Press imprint.

Flinn's Population pamphlet and his honours course marked a significant addition to his principal research interests, though he went on publishing on coal right up to the end of his life. Already in 1965 he published a long introduction to Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Poor, followed in 1968 by Public Health Reform in Britain (1968). More importantly, also in 1968, and stimulated in great part by work going on in England in The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, and supported by the SSRC, he, together with Christopher Smout and Rosalind Mitchison from the Department of Economic History and several research assistants, began work on by far the most ambitious project on Scottish population history that has ever been undertaken anywhere in the world. The principal output of this work was a major CUP book, Scottish Population History from the 17th Century to the 1930s (1977). The project was one of the first pieces of large-scale historical research in Scotland to make extensive use of the newly available computing technology. Flinn led the project throughout and in particular wrote most of the section on the 19th and 20th centuries, much of which had never systematically been looked at before, and the book as a whole remains the standard reference work on many aspects of Scottish population history even today.

One important residue of this project was the archive of its research material, including punch cards, computer printouts, manuscript notation sheets and correspondence from parishes and archives around the country. The archive also contained the record sheets for baptisms, marriages and burials for several dozen parishes. Each of these consisted of a separate sheet for type of event for each year onto which, on a month-by-month basis were recorded the number of events, subdivided into a number of sub-heads. This is a unique Scottish resource, and the rest of the archive also contains much material that provides invaluable time-saving summaries and tabulations of primary source material. The Scottish Population History Book notes (p. xiv) that 'This additional material has been preserved … and will be available for use by researchers in the Department of Economic History of the University of Edinburgh.' And indeed it was all preserved and has been quite heavily used by students and by researchers over the years. When the Department moved to the Medical School, the punch cards and some of the printout and photocopied papers were not retained, while the rest of the material was transferred to the University Library.

Flinn took early retirement from the University in 1978, and went on to publish The European Demographic System, 1500-1820 and to complete a posthumously published 500 page work on the history of the British coal industry from 1700 to 1830. He died suddenly in 1983, 'at the peak of his intellectual powers (Obituary, p. vii). 

When Michael Flinn died, his family was left with a very large collection of books, journals, photocopies and offprints. They retained the copies of his own books and articles, and some of his friends and academics who had worked closely with him were allowed to select items for themselves. But the bulk of the material remained and the family consulted a number of people no longer associated with the Department about its possible future. They wished it to be available to staff and students in the University. The gift was made to the current members of staff of the Department and their successors. It came to Edinburgh, with its own bookcases, and these were placed in the Department's seminar room, which was named 'The Michael Flinn Room'.

Precisely as intended by the donors, some of the material in the collection was quite heavily used by staff and students right through to the early 2000s. Additions were also made to the collection through donations from members of staff. When the Department moved to the Medical School building some limited pruning took place, especially of some of the journals which were by then easily available on-line. The photocopies were also destroyed because to hold them was arguably breach of copyright, though this was a pity because some of them contained Flinn's perceptive and often pungent marginal comments. At the same time some material from earlier staff donations, which had been held in the Class Library, was added to the collection, which now resides in the Student Research Room (Room 2m.25 upper level) of the William Robertson Wing. It should be noted that the ownership continues formally to reside with the current Economic and Social History group in accordance with the wishes of the donors.

Even after some losses and limited pruning, the breadth the collection continues to show Flinn's huge range of interests and enthusiasms. Some of the material is still of use as supplementary copies for students on undergraduate courses, but what is particularly of value are some of the items in Flinn's special areas of research interest (notably for example on 1930s demography), many of which are not held by the University Library. Some of the foreign publications, again notably in demography, are not available anywhere else in Edinburgh, a few perhaps being unique in any collection in Scotland. Among other interesting items is a very large collection of G D H Cole's trade union history writings and of the works of Webbs, mostly originating in the Marwick donation.