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He was Ford's lecturer in English history in 1900, was elected FBA in 1903 and became Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in succession to Frederick York Powell in 1904. Tout, who was professionalising the History undergraduate programme at Manchester University, especially by introducing a key element of individual study of original sources and production of a thesis.
Firth's historical work was almost entirely confined to English history during the time of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth; and although he is somewhat overshadowed by S. Gardiner, who wrote about the same period, his books were highly regarded. Firth's attempts to do likewise at Oxford brought him into bitter conflict with the college fellows, who had little research expertise of their own and saw no reason why their undergraduates should be made to acquire such arcane, even artisan, skills, given their likely careers.
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They saw Firth as a power-seeker for the university professoriate as against the role of the colleges as proven finishing-schools for the country and empire's future establishment.
Firth failed but the twentieth century saw universities go his and Tout's way.
He also edited the Clarke Papers (1891–1901), and Mrs Hutchinson's Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson (1885), and wrote an introduction to the Stuart Tracts, 1603–1693 (1903), besides contributions to the Dictionary of National Biography.
In 1909 he published The Last Years of the Protectorate.
Born in Sheffield, he was educated at Clifton College and at Balliol College, Oxford.