Images of the department across the years

Our History

The Department of Geography has over a hundred years of fascinating history. We have contributed significantly to the growth of Geography as a discipline and to our understanding of our world today.

Establishment and Consolidation

The department was founded in 1908 under the leadership of the distinguished polar explorer and Social Science expert- Robert Neil Rudmose Brown.

The students in the early days were predominantly local- in keeping with the founding ethos of the University as a civic establishment catering for the city. Throughout the early days the department devoted itself to the development of their subject in Sheffield and played crucial roles in establishing geography as an essential subject in schools.

Image of departmental staff in 1924The inter-war period saw a massive temporary expansion of the University as a whole and Geography shared this growth. By 1920 there were 50 students taking courses in the department. These students studied ground surveying, lab based cartography practicals, interpretative exercises and landscape analysis based on maps.

With the arrival of Alice Garnett as an Assistant Lecturer in Geography in 1924, students began to graduate with a degree certificate naming Geography as their subject of specialisation. 1927 saw the first Honours graduations in Geography.

When the Second World War was declared the University increasingly turned to offering courses and programmes of lectures to armed forces personal stationed locally- and in considerable numbers.

Image: The department photographed in 1924-5, in the Firth Court quadrangle. Rudmose Brown is on the middle row, second from the right and the newly appointed Alice Garnett is bottom right.

1945-1970

In 1945 Rudmose Brown retired and David Linton was appointed as Professor and head of department. The University of Sheffield set out to become a national institution- and it saw Geography as playing an integral part in its expansion. By 1947 student numbers in the department had doubled to reach 108.

Students were trained in practical methods, air reconnaissance interpretation and the study of foreign topographic maps. There were separate courses in climatology and geomorphology and under Linton’s influence the British Universities Geomorphological Group was founded in 1958- with the intention of creating a systematic landform survey of Britain.

There was also a growth in regional geography, for which a number of world regions were studied. Field work also became increasingly important in the education of a geographer with local field teaching introduced straight after the war and residential overseas field classes brought in for the first time.

In 1958 the department celebrated its golden jubilee with a reunion attended by 200 former and current students and staff. By 1960 the department had achieved its early aspiration of being a truly national department- with students coming from London, Kent and the Isle of Whight.

Image of Alice GarnettIn 1962 Alice Garnett became the second woman in Sheffield to be appointed to professorship and only the second female geography professor in Britain. As Head of the Department she rapidly expanded the department- with 401 students being taught in the department by 1967. She left a legacy of the next generation of geographers and one of the biggest departments in the University.

Shortly after Alice Garnett’s retirement, and largely due to her campaigning-the department moved into its own purpose-built building.

Image: Alice Garnett

1970-1994

Image of students in southern spain 1980With the rise in quantification throughout the discipline, and of process studies in physical geography- the period from the late 1960’s saw geographers being taught a new set of techniques and analytical methods to replace the emphasis on landscape and regional interpretation. By the mid 70’s, statistical analysis became the main ‘geographical’ technique.

Sheffield geographers came from everywhere. Two particular students from this period have recently become the only Sheffield geography graduates to be awarded honorary degrees by the University; Vanessa Lawrence in 2001, Chief Executive of the Ordinance Survey, and Stuart Peach in 2007, Air Marshal and Chief of the UK Defence Intelligence Survey.

During the late 1980’s the department grew the amount of international opportunities available to its students including a Junior Year Aboard scheme (to exchange students with US universities) and an ERASMUS office for European exchange.

In 1994 the 3000th student graduated.

2000 - Present

In 2001 regulations for both degrees were separated and students specialised in either Human or Physical Geography. Despite this, the department became increasingly inter-disciplinary and attracted academics from both human and physical geography with varied research backgrounds.

In 2002 the Worldmapper Project was launched by a group of our academics and the Geographical Association. The project redraws world maps so that the sizes of countries on them are proportional not to their land area but to the share of a particular total that they represent.
From 2004 the department began to diversify and internationalise its field trips for undergraduate students, with trips to European cities and further afield to California, Namibia and New York.

Image of world mapper map

Today we are a World Top 25 geography department (QS rankings, 2014) – continuing to be at the forefront of human and physical geography teaching and research. Together we make up a dynamic and vibrant international community of geographers, committed to discovering our changing world.

We are always interested to hear your stories and memories from the department. If you wish to send in photographs or a written piece please e-mail Geo-alumni@geography.ac.uk

​Extracts taken from the department's centenary publication; White, P. (2008) To Understand Our World​. Department of Geography, University of Sheffield.

Professor Paul White became a member of the Geography department in 1974. He is now Deputy Vice-Chancellor, but continues to teach undergraduate geographers in the department.