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Writing Local History$

John Beckett

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780719029509

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719029509.001.0001

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Local history and national history, 1880–1945

Local history and national history, 1880–1945

(p.88) VI Local history and national history, 1880–1945
Writing Local History

John Beckett

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter illustrates local and national history between 1880 and 1945. During this time, the subject matter of local history was recognised either as national history at the local level or the study of places through their economic history. Professional historians saw themselves researching and writing the history of the nation from the public records. Their interest in local history went only as far as searching for suitable examples to illustrate national history. The Public Record Office was their laboratory, and the English Historical Review was their scholarly journal. Local history stagnated intellectually, and its flag was kept fluttering only through the local societies. It was not until after the Second World War the great majority of counties had a record office, and it was only when a new range of material became available that local history took on new dimensions and began to escape the stigma with which it had been cursed since the late nineteenth century.

Keywords:   local history, national history, economic history, professional historians, English Historical Review, Public Record Office

Between the 1880s and the Second World War local history enjoyed something of a schizophrenic existence. The societies flourished, turning out record series volumes and annual transactions, touring their counties (transferring from ‘brakes’ to motor buses in the process), and attracting new members to join in their research sections. In other words, they continued the associational tradition in the form established during the nineteenth century. Archaeologists maintained links with the societies, participating in, and keeping track of, the local digs organised by the societies. By contrast, historians, mindful of Professor Freeman's suggestion in 1884, maintained a lofty distance, while always hoping that relevant illustrations would be found to help with the business of writing national history. Local history flourished, but at the same time it was frowned upon, hence the schizophrenia. We can identify three consequences. First, professional historians working in a local context had to justify their work in national terms, because their findings could be used only to test nationally conceived ideas and arguments relating to politics, constitutional matters, and the government of the state. Even the Victoria County History had to be justified in terms of the national framework, and researched in the national archives. The exception to this generalisation was in the newly-formed discipline of economic history. The second consequence was that the county societies operated in isolation from the mainstream of academic history, although often with tacit if not implicit support from professional scholars. The third, slightly more problematic consequence, was that the subject made relatively little progress in methodological terms.

The study of the village

Marginalisation made little or no sense, but for reasons which were not necessarily obvious to contemporaries. The first of these was connected to the study of the village. In the late-1870s England entered what turned out to be a long period of agricultural depression, which (p.89) came to an end only with the Second World War. This posed obvious questions for economists, but equally it raised interesting new questions for historians. Marx, Arnold Toynbee and others argued that from about 1760 England had gone through an agricultural revolution, and that the essence of that revolution had been the destruction of open field farming, the enclosure of commons and wastelands, and the consolidation of small farms into large ones to produce an efficient agricultural sector which fed a growing population. But where and when, it was asked, had the open fields originated, and what was the significance of enclosure both in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries? If these questions could be answered it might be possible to understand more clearly why a seemingly efficient post-1760 agricultural system had apparently become highly inefficient. The key to unlocking this particular question seemed to be the ‘village community’. If this could be properly understood, the longer term development of agriculture might become clearer.

The importance of the village was initially stressed in the 1850s, particularly in relation to European communities. Two early studies were those of Erwin Nasse, first published in German in 1869 and in English in 1877, and Sir Henry Maine's Village Communities of 1871. Maine argued that the original form of landownership and cultivation had been the co-proprietorship of self-governing village communes. While some commentators branded him — much to his horror — as an agrarian radical, because his book lent support to the land nationalisation movement, he argued that the study of the English village was vital for an understanding of what had happened to rural society in the later decades of the nineteenth century.1 His work was closely followed by Frederic Seebohm's The English Village Community, published in 1883. Seebohm attended Maine's original lectures, and he also accepted that the village had to be viewed in the long term. Where the two scholars parted company was over origins: Maine argued for the concept of an early medieval village community, while Seebohm traced the communal features of medieval agriculture to the Roman villa.2

Seebohm saw his work as that of an economic historian: ‘to learn the meaning of the old order of things, with its “community” and “equality” as a key to a right understanding of the new order of things, with its contrasting independence and inequality’.3 Like Maine, and other late nineteenth-century historians, including F. W. Maitland and Paul Vinogradoff, he saw in the study of the village community a way of understanding and coming to terms with the problems of his own society.4 Vinogradoff worked originally on feudal (p.90) relations in Lombard Italy after graduating at Moscow University in 1875, but he came to London in 1883, and from his work in England's medieval archives came studies of feudal tenure and the development of the manor.5

The work of these historians from Maine to Vinogradoff was not about politics and nation states. Like all good history at the time, it was thoroughly grounded in the sources, but these were often local rather than national records. Similar studies continued in one form or another beyond the First World War, notably in C.S. Orwin's study of Laxton. This Nottinghamshire village had come to be recognised as the only place where open fields survived in the context of a functioning manor court, and consequently it was seen as a suitable subject for investigation in the hope of finding answers to some of the agrarian issues then under discussion.6 Other historians, recognising that the study of the village was producing useful new insights about the state of rural society more generally, began to look at questions concerning the origins of England's towns and boroughs. Maitland's Domesday Book and Beyond was not just a study of medieval Cambridge, but a pioneer of urban history when it appeared in 1897–98.7

The irony in all this, was that professional historians in the universities were so concerned with states and nations, that they were marginalising local history just at the time when it was becoming clear that careful study of the locality was an important means of understanding national issues. Of course, this emphasis on the local as the key to understanding broader historical issues, reversed the Freeman doctrine that saw local history only as illustrating the wider issues on which professional historians had pronounced. Not surprisingly, it cut little ice with the professional historical world. The view that local history was useful only in the service of national history had other consequences, of which the most obvious was its absence from the mainstream of higher education history teaching as the university sector expanded in the twentieth century. The first formal act of recognition of local historical studies by a university was at the University of Reading, which in 1908 instituted a research fellowship in the subject for Frank Stenton. Many of the subjects he researched were essentially on local themes and depended on exploring local material, but Stenton did not regard himself primarily as a local historian, and when he was promoted to a chair in 1912 the fellowship was allowed to lapse.8 Local history developed instead in the context of the new discipline of economic history and, within universities, adult education.

(p.91) Economic history, local history and adult education

Economic history is often dated from Arnold Toynbee's Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England, published in the 1880s, but until the First World War it was considered to be largely an offshoot of economics. Subsequently, until the 1960s, it developed a stronger orientation towards history through the Workers Educational Association and the extramural departments of universities. R.H. Tawney (1880–1962) contributed to the debate about the English village with his book The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912). He wrote in the preface that in his view economic history should shed light on the presuppositions about social expedience which influenced statesmen and humble individuals alike. His interest in the humble individuals led to a lifelong involvement with the WEA, notably through pioneer classes in Longton in Staffordshire and Rochdale in Lancashire. Partly as a result of his influence, economic history developed with a strong sense of place, whether in relation to local, urban, county, or regional roots.9 Local people wanted to hear about national history in its local context, in contrast to university undergraduates who were taught that local history was relevant only as an exemplar of national history.

The result of this growing interest in economic history at the local level can be seen in studies published during the inter-war years. One of Tawney's students at Rochdale was A.P. Wadsworth, editor of the Manchester Guardian, a local man with serious academic credentials. Throughout the inter-war years he was publishing scholarly articles on different aspects of the history of Rochdale and its surrounding area in the Transactions of the Rochdale Literary and Scientific Society. Wadsworth's interests ranged through coal mining, the woollen trade, pre-parliamentary enclosure, and the development of industrial workshops in the area.10 His major book, The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire, 1600–1780, was jointly written with Julia de Lacy Mann, Principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford, and published in 1931. G.H. Tupling's work on the agrarian history and industry of Rossendale, Lancashire, was another pioneering local study in the economic history tradition. Tupling wrote the book because he wanted to know why and how a domestic woollen industry was superseded by the factory cotton industry.11 Like Wadsworth, Tupling was a regular contributor to local journals, particularly articles in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society on the early modern history of Lancashire, markets and fairs, the early metal trades, and the beginnings of engineering. Another pioneering (p.92) book to come out of Lancashire was Frank Walker's Historical Geography of Southwest Lancashire before the Industrial Revolution (1939) which examined how the different physical geographies of south-west and south-east Lancashire had influenced their histories.12

Similar studies in other areas included H. Heaton's The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industry (1920), A.H. Dodd, The Industrial Revolution in North Wales (1933), and W.H.B. Court, The Rise of the Midland Industries, 1600–1838 (1938). These scholars tended to be outside of universities, or like Tawney to spend much time beyond their boundaries. L.L. Price, Reader in Economic History at Oxford 1907–22, seems from his surviving papers to have ‘spent most of his time either lecturing or examining away from the university’.13

When universities were involved, the link was with their adult education tuition. By 1928 there were ten extension courses in local history outside London: four in Nottingham, three in Cambridge, two in Leeds, and one in Oxford. Hull joined this group in 1930. In Nottingham, local history was promoted through the Department of Adult Education, founded in 1920. David (J.D.) Chambers, who graduated in 1920 from the History department, was immediately appointed staff tutor with responsibility for local history. The awkward relationship between traditional historians and local and economic history — Chambers was to become first Professor of Economic History at Nottingham — is neatly summarised in his early career. In addition to being appointed staff tutor, he started doctoral research. His teaching, together with the influence of Tawney and other WEA tutors, led him in the direction of economic history, and he began work on a thesis, which was eventually completed in 1927 as ‘Nottinghamshire in the period of the Industrial Revolution’.

Chambers found his inspiration among the amateur scholars who had attracted Tawney, Price and others into WEA lecturing. In particular, two men, both schoolmasters, influenced Chambers: Arthur Cossons and W.E. (Bill) Tate. The three men shared common interests. Chambers recalled having ‘many contacts with both of them’ during these years. They made contributions to the book which Chambers wrote on Nottinghamshire. Tate compiled the list of Nottinghamshire enclosures, which served as the prototype for studies of each English county that he assembled during his lifetime.14 Cossons contributed to Chambers’ book a map of transport links into Nottinghamshire. His own work on the county's turnpike roads appeared in 1934, the forerunner of a series of studies in years to come compiled on the same principles (although not quite so extensively) as Tate's work on enclosures.15 His son Sir Neil Cossons, formerly (p.93) Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of English Heritage, recalls that ‘some of my earliest boyhood memories are of interminable Sunday afternoons when my father's smoke-filled study was also full of “J.D”, of Bill Tate, or on occasion both’.16

By contrast with these easy relationships, Chambers recognised that the academic community was unlikely to look favourably on his chosen topic, and when in 1932 he turned his thesis into a book, Nottinghamshire in the Eighteenth Century, he went to some lengths to meet potential critics who might criticise his failure to write national history. He wrote in the preface that the book was ‘essentially an attempt to use local history in the service of general history, and it is addressed to those students and teachers who regard local history in the light of a means, not an end’. He acknowledged that ‘the general purpose and the method of this book differ somewhat from those of most other books of its kind’. This was, he argued, because ‘it attempts to show the movement of local history during the period preceding the Industrial Revolution on the background of national history, and local material that cannot be related to the facts of national history either as an example of, or as an addition to, existing knowledge has been generally excluded’. Here then was a clear statement of intent, followed with the assertion that ‘the study of local history has lately made rapid progress … because it brings the student into touch with particular aspects of general history’. And to make sure the point was taken, he added, ‘finally, it should be said, this work makes no claim to be a contribution to antiquarian lore’.17

Despite this obvious attempt to set the record straight in advance of the main chapters of the book, it is difficult to see quite what Chambers meant, or to believe that his heart was in the preface. Which facts, one would like to know, did he omit because they were not relevant to general history? In reality the book is a sound scholarly study of Nottinghamshire, set in the context of economic history as it was understood in the 1920s. What it lacks is any discussion of the towns, and a chapter on transport was omitted for reasons of space, but this hardly amounts to censorship on behalf of national history. Chambers undoubtedly recognised the ambiguity in writing local history purely in the service of general history, doubtless because of the influence on him of amateur scholars.

Nor is it surprising that Chambers seems to have endured an uneasy arrangement with his Nottingham supervisor, the Oxford-trained historian Leonard Owen, who understood history in the context of the nation. Two cultures had developed, and where they came into conflict there was no real meeting of minds. A.C. Wood, another member (p.94) of the Nottingham History department, edited Transactions of the Thoroton Society from the 1920s to the 1950s, and he was aware that fellow professionals might disapprove of his editorial berth. In an article he published in 1945, he inadvertently revealed just how aware he was of the need to protect his back: ‘it is a sound principle for the local historian always … to see that his work fits into the larger frame of national history, never to forget that his county or town forms part of a greater unit’.18 What this meant in practical terms was vividly demonstrated by Wood in his History of Nottinghamshire, published in 1947. Although conceived as a single volume history of the county from the Romans onwards, its structure owed nothing to Dugdale or the concerns of economic historians. It was, in fact, no more nor less than national history written in a local context. Consequently chapter headings included ‘Baronial Turbulence and the Monastic Revival’, ‘The Reigns of Henry II and his sons’, ‘Tudor Nottinghamshire’, and ‘The Early Georges’. Even more oddly, or so it seems today, the book ended somewhat abruptly with the 1832 Reform Act because, or so Wood claimed, ‘it is hardly possible after 1832 to isolate county history for separate treatment’. In his view ‘henceforth the history of Nottinghamshire was inseparable from that of the larger unit, nation and empire, to which it belonged’. Wood's version of county history was reflected in the subject matter, with an emphasis on political, religious and administrative issues. There was little on trade and industry, and hardly anything on the lives of the ordinary inhabitants of the county. For Wood national history and professional history were one and the same thing, but the vital point here is not that local history could be seen as contributing to national history, but that it was accepted only in this role.

Nor was Wood being oversensitive to the likely criticisms of his fellow professionals. In 1948, giving his inaugural lecture at Leicester University, Professor Jack Simmons argued that ‘a true understanding of England's past can be attained only by studying local and national history side by side. It is clearly not useful to embark on a study of local history wholly by itself, with the county or town or village one is examining for one's widest horizon’.19 Simmons, like Wood, was reflecting a line of thinking that hardly changed before 1945, in which local history was regarded as serving a means to a national end. Wood emphasised this subordinate role when he wrote that ‘it enables us, piece by piece, to check or correct the sweeping statements of those who handle the wider field’.20 Among professional historians, local history was saddled with justifying itself in national terms, if it was to be justified at all.

(p.95) The Victoria County History

The relationship between local history and economic rather than political history was also apparent with the founding in 1899 of the Victoria History of the Counties of England, known from that day to this as the Victoria County History or, colloquially, the VCH. The VCH was not conceived as local history, but as a contribution to national history through the study of local communities. In turn, this form of study reflected late nineteenth-century ideas about writing a definitive unified account of the history of humanity. These were the years of what we would today call mega-projects, such as the original Dictionary of National Biography, started in 1882 under Leslie Stephen's editorship, to write brief biographies of notable British people for what was announced as a Biographia Britannica. It was completed by 1900, but supplements were added through the twentieth century until it ran to 36,000 entries and about thirty-three million words.21 A similar project was the New English Dictionary, sponsored by Oxford University Press. The VCH had similar hopes, including a ‘modern Domesday’ listing all owners of estates of five acres or more, and architectural descriptions of all the major buildings alongside the topographical histories. In fact, the domesday was never undertaken, and listing of buildings became less significant with the foundation in 1908 of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments.22 Yet it is not surprising in this optimistic atmosphere to find the founding fathers claiming that ‘owing to the thoroughness of the work, it is safe to say that it is a definite finality in English local history, and that its value will not diminish’.23

The overall plan for the VCH envisaged two types of volume for each county: general volumes with chapters on natural history (including geology), pre-history, Roman and Anglo-Saxon remains, ethnography, Domesday Books, architecture, natural history and earthworks. They were to include a transcription of Domesday entries, and to have sections on political, ecclesiastical, maritime, economic and social history (including archaeology, education, industry, sport, architecture and population). There were also to be topographical volumes giving accounts of the history of each parish, topic by topic. Each volume was to include maps. This was perhaps a little too optimistic. Ethnography was never covered, and few general articles on architecture were published, but some new subjects were included from time to time, including schools by 1901. The intention was to provide every county, and each parish through the topographical volumes, with an authoritative history, with these histories (p.96) representing, collectively, the history of England. The driving force behind the VCH, Herbert Arthur Doubleday (1867–1941), suggested that the collective account of the localities would provide ‘a National Survey … tracing … the story of England's growth … into a nation which is now the greatest on the globe’.24

Doubleday planned a new history of each county, to a uniform scheme, employing professional specialists to write general chapters, and other staff to compile the topographical volumes. The number of proposed volumes ranged from eight for Yorkshire to two for Rutland. London was included within Middlesex. The overall plan envisaged 160 volumes, to be researched, written and published in six years. Somewhat optimistically, Doubleday anticipated a profit of £250,000.

Some counties had their own editors, including the distinguished local historian R.S. Ferguson in Cumberland, founding editor of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society in 1866, and William Farrer in Lancashire. Farrer seems to have agreed to abandon a scheme of his own for a Lancashire history in order to work with the VCH, and eight volumes were produced 1906–14. Ferguson planned a four-volume history, with himself as editor and contributor, although he died in 1900 before any of the volumes were printed, and his place was taken by Canon James Wilson, vicar of Dalston, a medievalist, who saw two volumes into print in 1901 and 1905.25

Since it was recognised that the county histories of earlier generations had made mistakes which were all too often recycled, the intention was that these new studies should be written from original sources. Doubleday appointed subject editors to write or organise the writing on topics in which they were specialists, and the intention was that they should contribute on their subject for each county. Hercules Read and Reginald Smith were appointed editors for ‘Anglo-Saxon remains’. For the parish studies, the abortive Lincolnshire project, whereby Bishop Wordsworth wanted his clergy to write the individual parish entries, suggested how future schemes might progress.26 However, in Lincolnshire, Rev. William Oswald Massingberd, Rector of South Ormsby, complained that ‘we have a large county, a huge mass of records, very little done, & very few workers’, although he subsequently became the driving force behind the VCH in the county, and it collapsed with his death in 1910.27 Rev. J. C. Cox, whose parochial history guide was the basis of much VCH work in the early years, was a firm supporter of the VCH in Derbyshire, for which two volumes were published in 1905 and 1907. This success may have been to the disgust of another local antiquary, John Pym Yeatman, who (p.97) condemned the VCH as ‘a wild project, doomed sooner or later to utter failure’.28

The problem with employing the clergy was that they lacked the money, if not the time, to search the records in London. Those with the means would often employ one of the record agencies which grew up in the capital, and Doubleday decided that record searching needed to be centrally organised if progress on the VCH was to be maintained. He used Hardy and Page, a leading London record agency firm. William Page (1861–1934) was soon brought into the structure of the VCH, partly to supervise and train the female historians and classicists recruited by the agency to search the archives. Once they had done the research it made sense for them to draft parish histories. Not everyone appreciated the role of women in the VCH. In 1904 the Secretary of the Public Record Office wrote to the general editor of the VCH complaining about ‘the presence of so many ladies employed on the Victoria County History … [who were] causing great inconvenience to the general public’.29 Their potted histories were checked by local editors. In 1904 Page became sole editor, a post he retained until his death.

In a number of respects VCH volumes were progressive, laying considerable emphasis on archaeology, having sections on economic history, and insisting on official records being methodically searched and buildings scientifically examined. At the same time, the project had a distinctly dated feel, seemingly being aimed at ‘the country house and parsonage market for local history’.30 Local committees were set up in each county, and bore all the hallmarks of a Victorian society. They were usually headed by an aristocrat — preferably the lord lieutenant — or a bishop. In Devon the initiative was taken by Sir Roger Lethbridge, who sought out the lord lieutenant, Lord Clinton, at the Hotel Metropole in Cannes, to persuade him to take a lead. An impressive local committee was formed, although few if any of the members were capable of contributing to the project except in the form of cash, which never materialised in any quantity.31 The role of the local committee was to raise money, seek out local editors and contributors, and ‘gain access to private collections of MSS’.32 As such, the whole VCH scheme was designed to appeal to the local gentry in much the same way that the earlier generation of county historians had done. The 1904 manifesto emphasised how it was a private enterprise founded on an appeal to the local patriotism of those seen as potential sponsors and patrons. By subscribing in advance, they would have their names included in the last volume for the county, to preserve for all time the record of their patronage.33

(p.98) Work on the VCH got off to a flying start. The first volume, on Hampshire, appeared in 1900, eleven had come out by the end of 1904, and a further twenty-seven were published between 1905 and 1907. This was good progress, but counties were not necessarily as pliable as Doubleday and Page might have hoped. In Northamptonshire, the county committee began by arguing that Morton's transcription of the Northamptonshire section of Domesday Book had been ‘carelessly executed’ that Bridges’ work had been completed before many sources were known and before the advent of a scientific approach to historical development; and of Baker's work they claimed that only a fragment remained. Consequently all the previous histories were discounted, and work started from scratch. Volume 1, published in 1902, dealt with natural history and early man through to the Northampton Survey of the twelfth century. Volume 2, published in 1906, covered ecclesiastical history, religious houses, early Christian art, schools, industries, forestry, sport and ancient earthworks. This was not untypical.

By 1907 the VCH was running into some of the problems which had beset the county historians, particularly problems of finance. Page was forced to look for economies, so he dropped the articles on feudal baronage, and decided to use junior workers to write general chapters, so avoiding the delays of concentrating authorship in the hands of a few experts. The experts were now simply to vet the work undertaken by others. Page still hoped to see around sixteen volumes published yearly, but the project was in trouble and work had to stop. Financial support organised through the publisher W.H. Smith saw a revival in 1910. Eight volumes were issued in 1911 and fourteen more in the three succeeding years, so that 74 were in print by 1914. Among the nine counties completed by 1914 was Bedfordshire, in three volumes 1904–12, with an index 1914. It owed much to the eighteenth-century tradition of the scientific study of the local environment with sections in volume 1 (1904) on geology and natural history as well as prehistory, Anglo-Saxon archaeology, Domesday, ecclesiastical history, and religious houses. The hundreds and parishes were handled in volumes 2 and 3. Berkshire also finished before the First World War.34

Although dated to our eyes, in their own time VCH volumes broke new ground with their chapters on economic and social history and industries. They were based on research in public and private archives, and included major chapters written by well-known local antiquaries. For the two Nottinghamshire volumes (1907 and 1910) William Stevenson wrote on earthworks, Rev. J.C. Cox on religious houses and forests, and Frank Stenton on Domesday. Sections were also written (p.99) by paid research assistants. They were often women, and Miss Hewitt and Miss Locke were acknowledged in the Nottinghamshire volumes. As with Nottinghamshire, a number of other counties also managed one or two volumes before 1914, including Cornwall, Essex (where J.H. Round was prominent in editing and writing the two volumes published in 1903 and 1907), Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Surrey. Suffolk set up a county committee in 1907 consisting of local nobility, gentry, mayors and leading churchmen together with several practising historians. Two volumes appeared in 1907 and 1911, partly researched by Lillian Redstone, but nothing further has taken place. Surrey managed four volumes 1904–12, with an index in 1914.35

Hampshire, the first county to be completed, ran to five volumes when it was finished in 1914, Hertfordshire to four and Lancashire to eight. Buckinghamshire was completed 1905–28 in five volumes.36 County Durham produced volumes in 1905, 1907 and 1928, the latter covering the city of Durham and the south-eastern portion of the pre-1974 county. Various contributions were complete when publication was suspended. Three general volumes on Kent were published 1908–32, and Northamptonshire produced volumes in 1902, 1906 (two), 1930 — with sponsorship from James Manfield, the shoe manufacturer and local philanthropist — and 1937.37 Other counties made less progress. In Cheshire work began in 1904 on a series of four volumes. Various chapters were written on natural history, geology, forestry and agriculture, as well as contributions on ecclesiastical history and religious houses, but work was abandoned, some typescripts were returned, and others lost.38 At one time the whole project seemed in danger, and in 1920 completed but unpublished articles were returned to their authors, which is why Sir Frank Stenton's introduction to the Lincolnshire Domesday eventually appeared in 1924 as part of the Lincolnshire Record Society's edition.39 Having survived the post-war crisis, in 1932 the VCH became part of London University's Institute of Historical Research.

Huntingdonshire was alone in producing the whole series during the inter-war years, 1926–38. Some general articles were written before 1909, but work restarted only in 1924 when Granville Proby (1883–1947) agreed to underwrite it, and a number of contributors were signed up to bring about a collaborative enterprise. Sussex began with two volumes 1905–7. Four topographical volumes followed between 1935 and 1953. Warwickshire volumes appeared in 1904 and 1908, but not again until in 1935 the county was selected for a pilot project. Subventions from the county and borough councils allowed (p.100) the appointment of Philip Styles in 1937 as part-time topographical editor. Five volumes followed and in 1969 the series was completed. Five Worcestershire volumes were published 1901–26.40

In April 1938 the 100th volume of the VCH appeared, with no sign of Doubleday's anticipated profit. It was sixty volumes short of the original plan, it was already thirty years overdue, and it was suffering the same problems as local history more generally in terms of its acceptance within the community. Since, as far as the academic community was concerned, anyone working within a local context, or a recognisably non-national context, had to justify their approach in terms of the national agenda, the VCH had to adopt an unhappy compromise. It emphasised the importance of the national archives for the study of the parish. Researchers worked in the Public Record Office, and successive editions of Cox's booklet on how to write a parish history emphasised the importance of documents in the national archives. The last of these editions, the sixth, appeared in 1954, and was in reality a complete rewrite by R.B. Pugh, the general editor of the VCH. Pugh emphasised the standard VCH way to write a parish history, with significant emphasis on the public and printed record sources. Half of his book was devoted to a commentary on public records, but he did then note that ‘the county record office ought to be a frequent place of resort for every parish historian’.41

This balance would not have seemed unusual in the inter-war years. H.M. Barron's Your Parish History: How to Discover and Write it (1930), took a similarly top-down approach in terms of the records and, like Cox, stopped in the seventeenth century. Joan Wake's How to Compile a History and Present-Day Record of Village Life (1925), was ‘written for the Women's Institutes of Northamptonshire’. It discussed church and county records, but also included sections on the Public Record Office, the British Library and the Bodleian Library. The stress was on the importance of public records, and in an era when there were still relatively few local record offices this was not entirely surprising. Ye t there were signs that local history could stand on its feet without being seen purely contributing to national history. The Historical Association had started producing local bibliographies before the First World War. In 1925 it formed a Village History Committee, and in 1928–29 this became the Local History Committee. It produced a local history bibliography. Then, in 1938, the National Council of Social Service began publishing a series of local history leaflets through a sub-committee which became the Standing Conference for Local History in 1948, the predecessor of the modern British Association for Local History. These green shoots would burst into flower after 1945.

(p.101) Record publishing

Record publishing flourished between 1880 and 1945. The Hampshire Record Society was founded in 1888, and the Bedfordshire County Records Committee was established in 1898 to take steps to preserve the records then kept in the county muniment room at Shire Hall. Various extracts from these were published in 1907–11. The Thoroton Society began a Record Series in 1903 with an edition of seventeenth-century Bishops’ Transcripts, but subsequently, and as with similar series in other counties, there has been a particular strength in medieval materials. The Devon and Cornwall Record Society was set up in 1904, record publishing began in the early years of the twentieth century in Middlesex, the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society began publishing in 1913, and the Norfolk Record Society dates from 1930.42 Professional historians were happy to be associated with record societies, which enjoyed academic respect from the time of their formation in Victorian England. In Lincolnshire, the importance of the Cathedral and the diocese of Lincoln, attracted numerous scholars to active membership of the Record Society, founded in 1910 by Canon Charles Wilmer Foster (1866–1935). He was personally associated with one of the most important volumes produced by the Record Society in the early years, Lincolnshire Domesday and the Lindsey Survey (1924). The introduction, written by Stenton, was originally intended for the VCH. Foster was also a driving force behind the establishment of the Lincolnshire Record Office, which involved persuading four independent authorities, the City of Lincoln and the three county divisions, to entrust their records to the dean and chapter, ultimately to become the archives office.43

Stenton, as a professional historian, saw his interests in a national context, although he had roots in Nottinghamshire where he had a house at Southwell. But his work on Lincolnshire was important, and Kathleen Major — herself an academic historian with strong Lincolnshire roots and contacts — has written that Stenton's ‘continuous interest [as] one of the most eminent historians in the country was of great value to a local society’.44 Another outsider with academic credentials who played an important part in the Lincolnshire societies was Professor Alexander Hamilton Thomson (1873–1952), who, significantly, had begun his teaching career as an extra-mural lecturer at Cambridge. After the First World War he taught at Newcastle, and then at Leeds, where he held the Chair of History from 1924 until his retirement in 1939.45 Ultimately these historians had links to record societies because they published material which would be of value to (p.102) the historian of the nation, even if the records themselves were primarily local.

Although the record societies were the guardians of publishing, many other sources were put into print by private and public bodies. Independent record publishing ventures in Nottinghamshire included Robert White's Dukery Records, published in 1904, while Nottingham Corporation took it upon itself to publish extracts from its own records. The first volume of Records of the Borough of Nottingham, edited by William Stevenson and covering the period 1155 to 1339, appeared in 1882, and a further five volumes were published before the First World War. The series eventually ran to nine volumes covering the period to 1900. Other authorities also put part or all of their records into print.

A slightly different initiative was that taken by W.P.W. Phillimore. The son of a Nottingham doctor, he took the name Phillimore from the family of his maternal grandmother, and after education at Oxford he became a successful London lawyer. But his passion was records. He was a lifelong campaigner for records preservation. He believed that the original documents should be conserved, but that access should be made easier by the printing of transcripts. To this end he founded the British Record Society in 1888, and wrote a letter to The Times advocating the provision of county record offices by the new county councils, the first use of the term. He sent clerks and volunteers around the country to transcribe parish records. At his death in 1914 he had covered 1,200 parishes from many counties in 200 volumes.46 The best known were the Phillimore Marriage Registers series. Phillimore wrote, edited and published local and family histories for many years before he established Phillimore and Co in 1897. To popularise amateur interest he wrote How to Write the History of a Family. The company continued to operate after his death. In the 1960s it was acquired by Dr Marc Fitch, re-financed and re-located in Chichester to provide more space and reduce over-heads.47 Phillimore was also a founder of the Canterbury and York Society.

Between about 1880 and the Second World War, professional historians saw themselves researching and writing the history of the nation from the public records. They might join, and play a major role in the societies, particularly the record societies, but their interest in local history went only as far as searching for suitable examples to illustrate national history. The Public Record Office was their laboratory, and the English Historical Review their scholarly journal. Local history stagnated intellectually, and its flag was kept fluttering only (p.103) through the local societies, and Adult Education and WEA classes. The subject matter of local history was recognised either as national history at the local level, as with Wood's Nottinghamshire, or the study of places through their economic history, exemplified in the work of Wadsworth, Heaton, Chambers and others. Moving the subject on was complicated by the problems faced by the would-be researcher. The emphasis on the national archives in the Public Record Office was partly a simple practical issue; indeed, Chambers’ work on Nottinghamshire demonstrated the problem of accessing the local sources which were critical to an understanding of local societies. His book was based on a combination of secondary sources, printed records, and some primary sources, but he does not seem to have had access to private papers, and one of the problems facing local historians before 1945 was to locate and gain access to local primary sources. It was not until after the Second World War the great majority of counties had a record office, and it was only when a new range of material became available that local history took on new dimensions and began to escape the stigma with which it had been cursed since the late nineteenth century.


(1) E. Nasse, On the Agricultural Community of the Middle Ages, and Inclosures of the Sixteenth Century in England (1872); H. Maine, Village Communities in the East and West (7th edn, 1895).

(2) F. Seebohm, The English Village Community, Examined in its Relations to the Manorial and Tribal Systems and to the Common or Open Field System of Husbandry (4th edn, 1905).

(3) Seebohm, English Village Community, vii.

(4) J. W. Burrow, ‘“The Village Community” and the uses of history in late nineteenth-century England’, in N. McKendrick (ed.), Historical Perspectives. Studies in English Thought and Society (1974), 255–84.

(5) P. V inogradoff, Villainage in England (1892); The Growth of the Manor (2nd edn, 1911).

(6) C.S. and C.S. Orwin, The History of Laxton (1935); idem, The Open Fields (1938). For subsequent studes: J.D. Chambers, ‘The open fields of Laxton’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 32 (1928), 102–25; J.V. Beckett, A History of Laxton: England's Last Open Field Village (1989); Philippa Venn, ‘Exceptional Eakring: Nottinghamshire's other open field parish’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 94 (1990), 69–97.

(7) F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, Township and Borough (1897).

(8) Stenton's local work included the chapter on Domesday in vol. 1 of the Nottinghamshire VCH, part authorship of the Place Names of (p.104) Nottinghamshire (1940), J.E.B. Gower and Allen Mawer (eds), and Documents Illustrative of the Social and Economic History of the Danelaw in the British Academy Records of Social and Economic History series (1920), as well as vol. 18 of the Lincolnshire Record Society series in 1922.

(9) R.H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912); Stephen K. Roberts (ed.), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003), 43–7, 59–76.

(10) A.P. Wadsworth, ‘The history of the Rochdale woollen trade’, Transactions of the Rochdale Literary and Scientific Society, 15 (1923–25), 90–110, idem, ‘The early factory system in the Rochdale district’. TRLSS, 19 (1935–37), 136–56; idem, ‘The history of coal mining in Rochdale district’, TRLSS, 23 (1947–49), 105–13.

(11) G.H. Tupling, The Economic History of Rossendale (Chetham Society, 86, 1927). Julia de Lacy Mann was not the only woman researching and writing local economic history in these years. Other examples were Gladys Thornton who, on the basis of a Ph.D thesis, wrote A History of Clare, Suffolk (1928), which is an introduction to the Suffolk cloth trade; and Mary Lobel, The Borough of Bury St Edmund’s: A Study of the Government and Development of a Monastic Town (1935); ECH, 373.

(12) ECH, 226.

(13) T.C. Barker, ‘The beginnings of the Economic History Society’, Economic History Review, 30 (1977), 3.

(14) W.E. Tate, A Domesday of English Enclosure Acts and Awards (ed. Michael Turner, 1978). Tate's county handlists are set out, 4–5.

(15) A. Cossons, Coaching Days: The Turnpike Roads of Nottinghamshire (1994 edn); idem, The Turnpike Roads of Leicestershire and Rutland (2003).

(16) John Beckett, ‘The guardian of the nation's heritage: Sir Neil Cossons, OBE’, East Midland Historian, 10 (2000), 18–22. Tate and Cossons published six and five articles respectively in Transactions of the Thoroton Society. Tate's were mostly on enclosure, and his first book was his handlist of Nottinghamshire enclosures which appeared in the Record Series in 1935: W.E. Tate, Parliamentary Land Enclosures in the County of Nottingham during the 18th and 19th centuries (1743–1868) (Thoroton Society Record Series, 5, 1935).

(17) J. D. Chambers, Nottinghamshire in the Eighteenth Century (2nd edn, 1966), xxiv.

(18) A.C. Wood, ‘Local History’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 49 (1945), 86. My emphasis. A.C. Wood, A History of Nottinghamshire (1947).

(19) J. Simmons, Local, National and Imperial History (Inaugural Lecture, University of Leicester, 1948, published 1950), 7. This was the first ever inaugural lecture given at University College, Leicester, and Simmons was the first holder of the chair of History.

(20) Wood, ‘Local History’, 86–8; Wood, History of Nottinghamshire. Ironically some of A.C. Wood's own work would now be classified as economic (p.105) history, notably his major article of 1951 ‘The history of trade and transport on the River Trent’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 54 (1950), 1–44.

(21) H.C.G. Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the New Dictionary of National Biography (1995); Keith Thomas, Changing Conceptions of National Biography: The Oxford DNB in Historical Perspective (2005).

(22) R.B. Pugh, ‘The Victoria History: its origin and progress’, in R.B. Pugh (ed.), General Introduction (1970), 3; ECH, 28–31.

(23) From the 1904 manifesto reproduced in C.P. Lewis, Particular Places: An Introduction to English Local History (1989), 55.

(24) VCH Hampshire, 1 (1900), vii. These claims were in the advertisement printed in what was the first published VCH volume.

(25) ECH, 102, 224–5.

(26) ECH, 251–3.

(27) ECH, 254–5; C. Sturman (ed.), Some Historians of Lincolnshire (1992), 42–3.

(28) ECH, 113.

(29) Lewis, Particular Places, 54–7.

(30) Ibid., 56.

(31) ECH, 122.

(32) Pugh, Victoria History.

(33) K. Tiller, ‘The VCH: past, present and future’, Historian, 42 (1994), 18.

(34) ECH, 38, 51.

(35) Ibid., 149, 369, 382–3.

(36) Ibid., 58.

(37) Ibid., 141, 212, 300.

(38) Ibid., 82.

(39) C.W . F oster and T. Longley (eds), The Lincolnshire Domesday and the Lindsay survey (Lincoln Record Society, 19, 1924).

(40) ECH, 206–7, 392, 408, 428–9.

(41) R.B. Pugh, How to Write a Parish History (6th edn, 1954), 25.

(42) ECH, 38–9, 89, 173, 276, 285–6.

(43) A personal account of the setting up of the archives, and the personalities involved, is given in F. Hill, ‘From Canon Foster to the Lincolnshire Archives Office’, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 13 (1978), 71–3.

(44) Sturman, Some Historians, 59.

(45) Ibid., 55–66.

(46) John Beckett (ed.), The Thoroton Society (1997), 12.

(47) LH, 27/2 (1997), rear cover.


(1) C. Pooley and J. Turnbull, Migration and Mobility in Britain Since the Eighteenth Century (1998).