Edmund W. Gilbert and the development of historical geography

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  • Journal C$ Historical Geography, 6, 4 (1980) 409419

    Edmund W. GiIbert and the development of historical geography with a bibliography of his work

    Guy Robinson and John Patten

    The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, to examine the work of E. W. Gilbert as an historical geographer.[ll Second, and following directly from the above, to consider some aspects of the early development of the subject in England. The two aims are naturally and easily interlinked, for Gilbert was one of the leaders of the inter-war geographical community, and an early exponent of the study of historical geography as we know it to have developed from the late 1920s.

    Any evaluation of the contribution to scholarship of one so lately dead-he suffered an eventually fatal stroke at the high table of Hertford College, Oxford one evening in 1973-is a difficult task, whether by those who knew him or those who know him only by his writings. Equally, evaluation of the early development of what is now such an important branch of the subject with which he was con- cerned is fraught with difficulties. Some pioneers have, with Gilbert, passed on, leaving a completed corpus of work behind them, while others are happily not only still alive but still publishing work in historical geography. Despite these difficulties, Gilberts work in historical geography needs to be evaluated both in its own terms, and for its influence on the growth of the subject. All the more so that one major survey of historical geography in the United Kingdom fails to mention Gilberts work at a11.[21

    His early academic career gives an important background to his development as an historical geographer. For whatever his other interests-he wrote and lectured extensively on urban geography, was a pioneer of recreational geography and had an abiding interest in medical geography-historical geography was the core of his scholarly interest from his earliest days. Edmund William Gilbert was the son of a Yorkshire clergyman (Gilbert, 1977) and became an Exhibitioner of both St Peters School, York and Hertford College, Oxford. As an undergraduate there he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh. He had entered Hertford at the age of 19 to read for the Honour School of Modern History. This study of history un- doubtedly influenced his later important work in the field of historical geography. Indeed, something called historical geography was taught in the History School. An earlier form of the art, it was concerned with battles and boundaries, but maps did figure in it. He thus developed an interest in geography whilst reading History, and won the Herbertson Prize for Geography. Indeed, both he and Barbara Flux

    [ 1 ] Citations to Gilberts own work are given here with references in the text to the bibliography at the end of this article

    [2] A. R. H. Baker (Ed.), Progress in historical geography (Newton Abbot 1972) chs. 1 and 5

    0305-7488/80/040409 + 12 $02.00/O 409 Q 1980 Academic Press Inc. (London) Ltd.


    Dundas, later to become his wife, were founder members of the Oxford University Geographical Society, the Herbertson Society, in 1923. In 1924 Gilbert was awarded the Oxford Diploma in Geography with a distinction. This examination was the predecessor of the Honour School in Geography. His first appointment. too, was as a geographer when he became Junior Lecturer in Geography at Bedford College, London in 1923. Something of a polymath, his work in London was not confined to geography; at the same time he became a member of the Middle Temple and in the Bar exams obtained a first class in criminal law and procedure. His career was to be in academic geography, however. In 1926 he moved from Bedford College to become Lecturer in Human Geography at Reading University with an independent Lectureship in Geography in the Faculty of Letters. Reading as a University College had been established under that other Oxford geographer, Halford Mackinder, its first Principal. Here Gilbert founded and organized a new honour school of geography, was soon effectively head of department, and began to publish the first fruits of his research.

    Gilberts first article appeared in Geographical Teacher in 1925. This study, arising out of his early interest in his native Yorkshire on which he had written an undergraduate dissertation at Oxford, dealt with the position and site of Pontefract, a place he felt deserved more study from historical geographers than had been undertaken previously (Gilbert, 1925). Some of Gilberts developing ideas concerning the nature of what was the then new historical geography became apparent in this article. For example, he referred to the influence of physical or geographical factors upon the early development of the town as well as giving an historical account of economic growth. But his main interest in the late 1920s was upon the exploration of western America in the early 19th century. His first work on this subject was in the form of his unpublished B. Litt. awarded by Oxford University in 1928. His first published work from this research was South Pass: A study in the historical geography of the United States. This appeared in 1929 in the Scottish Geographical Magazine (Gilbert, 1929). In this article Gilbert dealt with the discovery of the Pass and its ensuing importance as an avenue of communication. He concentrated especially upon the first descriptions of the Pass and also included a geographical analysis covering the major physical considerations with regard to exploration of the area and utilization of the Pass by migrants to the American west coast.

    Gilberts interest in historical geography was stimulated further by a discussion held at the London School of Economics on January 6th, 1932 entitled What is Historical Geography i ?.[ll This was arranged between representatives of the Historical Association and of the Geographical Association under the chairman- ship of Professor J. L. Myers. The principal contributors were J. E. Morris, C. B. Fawcett, A. S. Martin, E. G. R. Taylor and Gilbert himself. In his contribution to the discussion,t21 Gilbert gave a summary of what became his major article on historical geography which was published later that year (Gilbert, 1932). He stressed that historical geography should analyse the geography of a region as it was at any given past period. This regional connotation was supported by both H. J. Wood and J. N. L. Baker and was amplified by E. G. R. Taylor, who wrotet3J

    [l] Published in Geography 17 (1932) 39-45 [2] op. cit. 43 [3] Geography (1932) 42

  • Figure I. E. W. Gilbert, from the drawing in the possession of The School of Geography, Oxford.


    The application of the adjective Historical to the noun Geography strictly speaking merely carries the geographers studies back into the past: his subject matter remains the same. To avoid confusion, however, let us introduce the term Retrospective Geography. This embraces the non- controversial History of Geography and History of Geographical Discovery with in addition the reconstruction of the General and Regional Geography (physical and human) of successive periods.

    A formal statement concerning the nature of historical geography had been made in 1930 by P. M. Roxby,tll

    Historical geography is essentially human geography in its evolutionary aspects. It is concerned with the evolution of the relations of human groups to their physical environment and with the development of inter-regional relations as conditioned by geographical circumstances. The prime objective is not to explain historical events as determined by geographical conditions. It is the criticai study of an interaction and adjustment whether exhibited in the history of settlements, land utilization, commercial and cultural relations or in the evolution and relationship of administrative units and states. As such it is to human geography what history in the accepted sense is to politics or, as it is often called, contemporary history, an explanation, so far as it can be given, of how the existing position has been reached, the demonstration of the present as a phase in the whole process of becoming.

    It was two years later that Gilbert produced his own paper dealing specifically with the nature of historical geography. His work was addressed to the question of What is historical geography?. Arguing that there was no definite existing meaning of this term, he attempted to outline the subjects included in historical geography and to formulate a satisfactory definition.

    To this end he set out four existing concepts that had been put forward as the essence of historical geography. These concepts included the history of geographical discovery and exploration, the influence of the geographical environment upon the course of history, the history of geography as a science, and the change in political frontiers. Taken separately, Gilbert felt that each fell some way short of providing an adequate definition of historical geography. None met his ideal of historical geography as the reconstruction of the regional geography of the past (Gilbert, 1932: 132). Thus he agreed with Roxby that the subject should not endeavour to make the explanation of historical events its main objective. Con- sequently he was more in sympathy with the possibilistic ideas of Febvre than with the determinism of Ratzel and Semple. He felt historical geography should combine methods of regional geography with those of historical criticism and that its practitioners should be trained in methods of historical as well as geo- graphical research. On these terms Gilbert himself was well equipped to be an historical geographer.

    He recognized that the ideas he propounded did not give rise to an entirely new conception. The work of the t