Tait, James (18631944), historian, was born in Broughton, Salford, on 19 June 1863, the second son and third child among twelve children of Robert Ramsay Tait (b. 1831/2), seed merchant, and his wife, Annie Case (b. 1835). His father came from Jedburgh, his mother from a well-known academic family. After attending a private school he entered Owens College, Manchester, at sixteen, just before it became a college in the new Victoria University. Tait was one of the first history graduates of the new university (1883), and in 1884 he went, as an exhibitioner, to Balliol College, Oxford, where his tutor was Arthur Lionel Smith, and took a first-class degree in history in 1887.
Tait then returned to Manchester, where he spent the remainder of his career. He served successively as assistant lecturer in English history and literature (1887), as lecturer in ancient history (1896), and as professor of ancient and medieval history (190219). From 1890 to 1897 he held a non-resident prize fellowship at Pembroke College, Oxford. Having retired from the chair he lived quietly for more than twenty years in Fallowfield, south of Manchester, and later at Wilmslow, working indefatigably at his research yet keeping in close social touch with the university. During these years he served (192535) as chairman of the Manchester University Press. His closest friend was Edward Fiddes, the former registrar, and their wise counsel was of great service to the university.
The keynote of Tait's life was his consuming interest in historical research, which established his reputation as a scholar. None the less he was a successful and painstaking teacher, and played a great part in the development of the Manchester history school. The foundations had already been well laid by R. C. Christie and A. W. Ward when, in 1890, T. F. Tout succeeded Ward as professor of medieval and modern history, and thus began a thirty years' partnership that deeply influenced the development of historical studies in Great Britain. Alike in nothing but their shared devotion to research, Tout and Tait imparted to their school a new quality of exact scholarship, which gradually won for it an influence out of all proportion to its size. The introduction of an undergraduate thesis closely connected with the special subject was their chief pedagogic innovation, and the weight of the experiment was borne largely by Tait. The object was to make the undergraduate course a better bridge to advanced study, and in this aim they achieved considerable success. There was a new insistence upon research, which led in turn to the foundation of the Manchester University Press. Tait's Mediaeval Manchester and the Beginnings of Lancashire (1904), perhaps his best book, was the first volume in the historical series published by the press; it was reissued in 1972 and 1991. In addition to this focus on research the Manchester history course was almost alone in including the outlines of both ancient and European history. The continuous, obscure toil of undergraduate teaching that this ambitious scheme involved hampered, but never stopped, Tait's own steady output of learned work, and retirement, when it came, was simply an opportunity for further undistracted research.
Apart from his teaching, the events of Tait's life must be sought in his writings. A man of studied moderation in speech, reticent, and disliking any display of emotion, he did what was demanded in university politics and no more. His real life lay in his study. From 1891 to 1900 he contributed a great many articles to the Dictionary of National Biography. His subjects included Richard II, Wat Tyler, and Warwick the Kingmaker. His lucid prose and scholarly standards ensured that these articles stood the test of time rather better than many other entries on medieval subjects. In the same period he began a long connection with the English Historical Review, especially as a reviewer, a role for which his critical temper suited him to perfection. It was in fact a review (October 1897) of Domesday Book and Beyond, by F. W. Maitland, that first brought him to prominence and showed him to be as much a master of the early as of the later middle ages. Already he was drawn to municipal history, but the beginning made by his Mediaeval Manchester was not at once followed up. For the next fifteen years his energy was chiefly devoted to the Lancashire volumes of the Victoria History of the Counties of England and to the Chetham Society, which flourished anew under his presidency (191525). In his retirement he returned to the borough, on which, in addition to editing the second volume of Adolphus Ballard's unfinished British Borough Charters, 12161307 (1923), he published The Medieval English Borough (1936). A definitive study that set the administrative history of English towns on a new footing, it was reprinted several times, most recently in 1999. Tait's last years showed no slackening of energy or loss of grip, and shortly before his death he completed an elaborate genealogical commentary on the Herefordshire Domesday.
The outstanding characteristics of Tait's work were its immense range and the exacting standards of his scholarship. He saw his medieval history as a whole, but with a temperamental caution confined himself severely to what could be demonstrated by exact proof. His influence, exercised chiefly through his reviews and an extensive private correspondence, was very great and brought, although slowly, growing recognition. In 1920 he was made an honorary professor and received the honorary degree of LittD of Manchester University. In the following year he was elected a fellow of the British Academy, from which in 1943 he generously resigned in order to make way for a younger scholar. From 1923 to 1932 he was first president of the English Place-Name Society, to which he made notable contributions, and in 1933 he was elected an honorary fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, and received the honorary degree of DLitt from the university. The presentation, on his seventieth birthday (1933), of Historical Essays in Honour of James Tait marked him out as the most revered figure in English medieval studies.
Tait's whole life was given to Manchester and to its university. He was unmarried, and his tastes were of the simplest. A traveller and a great walker, he ordered his life so as to achieve the maximum of continuous, unflagging study. A lover too of literature, music, and painting, he could find relaxation in reading novels and, more particularly, detective fiction. His friendships were firm if rarely intimate, and were lasting; and since he took children seriously he was a coveted visitor in the homes of his married friends. He died suddenly at 86 Altrincham Road, Wilmslow, on 4 July 1944.
V. H. Galbraith, rev. K. D. Reynolds
F. M. Powicke, James Tait, 18631944, PBA, 30 (1944), 379410 · V. H. Galbraith, James Tait, EngHR, 60 (1945), 12935 · V. H. Galbraith, In memory of James Tait, Chetham Miscellanies, new ser., 8 (1945), 12 · personal knowledge (1959) · WWW · Balliol College register · census returns, 1881
JRL, corresp. and papers | Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letters to William Farrer
R. Allan, drawing, Manchester University Press · photograph, repro. in Powicke, James Tait
Wealth at death
£26,650 7s. 1d.: probate, 9 Oct 1944, CGPLA Eng. & Wales