This book looks at how local history developed from the antiquarian county studies of the sixteenth century through the growth of ‘professional’ history in the nineteenth century, to the recent past. Concentrating on the past sixty years, it looks at the opening of archive offices, the invigorating influence of family history, the impact of adult education and other forms of lifelong learning. The book considers the debates generated by academics, including the divergence of views over local and regional issues, and the importance of standards set by the Victoria County History (VCH). Also discussed is the fragmentation of the subject. The antiquarian tradition included various subject areas that are now separate disciplines, among them industrial archaeology, name studies, family, landscape and urban history. This is an account of how local history has come to be one of the most popular and productive intellectual pastimes in our modern society.

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This chapter deals with local history. Local history encompasses a wide range of interests, concerns and outputs, which are serious and amusing, amateur and professional. Written local history can range from a few pages of extracts about a particular place or community produced on a desktop PC to a full-length scholarly tome compiled by a professional historian and published by a university press. But the written word is only a part of the story. Modern media has altered the range and tone of local history, which can now be presented on audiotapes, videotapes and CD-ROMS, and through exhibitions and websites (which of course can be updated as work proceeds). It uses resources that were not available to earlier generations of historians, including photography and recorded oral testimony. It is studied through university certificate, diploma or MA courses, and it can be listened to for information and, perhaps, amusement at one of the numerous local societies up and down the country.

in Writing local history

This chapter illustrates the origin of local history. Where, or when, did local history start? It is an obvious question with which to begin, and one can be confident that it began with the study of antiquities, deciding on a suitable date is almost impossible. It can be tracked back as far as the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, but perhaps a more realistic starting point is with the chronicles of Anglo-Saxon monks. Yet these were isolated studies in no particular tradition, and it was only during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that something more systematic began with the first descriptive works, known by the generic name of chorographies. Overlapping with, and eventually succeeding, the chorographies were the county histories, and by the seventeenth century a tradition of writing local history had been established which still exists in an attenuated form today.

in Writing local history
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

This chapter deals with antiquaries. The concept of local history that had been planted in the sixteenth century, and had sprouted in the seventeenth, came into full blossom during the eighteenth century, before fading gently away in the nineteenth. In the course of the eighteenth century antiquarian studies started to fragment, and three separate if overlapping movements can be identified. The first was the evolution of topographical studies into travel and tourist accounts, particularly in conjunction with the picturesque movement of the later eighteenth century. The second was the development within antiquarianism of natural historical and archaeological studies. Archaeology, although still within the family of antiquarian study, was emerging as a discipline in its own right, particularly with the founding in 1770 of the journal Archaeologia. Finally, the county history grew in terms of both output and size.

in Writing local history

This chapter describes the parish and the town. If the county was the preferred unit of study, the parish increasingly came to be viewed as the practical limit of most scholars and, following loosely from this, it was only a short step towards discussion of the town as a separate place. Studies of towns inevitably began with London, particularly the great survey published by Stow at the end of the sixteenth century. No other towns were in the same league in terms of size and status, but it is no surprise to find histories being compiled of cathedral towns and some of the larger provincial towns. The business of writing such histories really took off with the expansion of the new industrial towns, as a group of historian-commentators produced detailed histories of Manchester and Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester, and smaller centres such as Hinckley. These studies were important not just as histories, but for the contemporary comment and description they included.

in Writing local history

This chapter examines how local history ran into the buffers as it was increasingly marginalised in Victorian England. In the nineteenth century, the amateurism came into conflict with the professionalisation of archaeology and history. In the process, the seamlessness of past studies began to break down. As archaeology developed into a discipline, it continued to maintain close links with the antiquaries, largely through the county societies that sprang up across the country. The professionalisation of history had a different impact. It was bound up with the discovery of a national identity, which was believed to be best studied through the national archives on a national basis. Antiquarianism seemed alien to this position. Professional historians promoted journals for disseminating their findings among their professional colleagues, and they sought to hide links they may have enjoyed with the societies. By the end of the nineteenth century, local history was marginalised: even the Victoria County History was primarily concerned with studying the nation, admittedly through the locality, but from the national records.

in Writing local history

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.

in Writing local history

This chapter deals with foundation of local history and contribution of W.G. Hoskins to it. Prior to 1945, local history struggled to maintain its credibility with the community of professional historians who concerned themselves with politics, the state and constitutional matters. Local studies were seen as a means of contributing to the understanding of these issues, but in themselves they were considered to have value only as contributions to antiquarian study. Methodologically the beginnings of a new way of thinking originated in France in the 1920s, in the work of the Annales School, and arrived in England after 1945 for a variety of linked reasons, including the founding of the Department of English Local History at Leicester University. If any one person can be said to have driven the new local history, it was W.G. Hoskins, who founded the Leicester department, and who pressed for the subject to be studied in its own right, not just as a contribution simply to national history.

in Writing local history
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The region and the community

This chapter focuses on new approaches such as religion and community in local history. Local history, in one form or another, is now one of the fastest growing and widest ranging pastimes in the UK. It engages professional historians and amateurs alike; it has entered several key stages in the national curriculum; it is taught in many university history degree courses; and it is discussed at local society meetings up and down the country every night of the week. The county retained residual significance for the cultural life of the local community, and no one questioned the significance of the parish and the town as study areas, even if the methodology, aims and intention changed, as the range and appreciation of the sources and methods developed. But what of the region? This question emerged in the context of the broader issue of how the UK had changed from a predominantly rural-agrarian to a largely urban-industrial society.

in Writing local history
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Family history, towns, landscape and other specialisms

This chapter observes that localities can be studied through various disciplines that are related to local history including family history, urban history and landscape history. These are some of the major disciplines that have come out from under the umbrella. Specialisms such as folklore, related to plough plays and similar community information, could be included in it. Specialist subjects also spin off from local history such as railway and canal history. Consequently, what was once labeled as local history is now a rather different concept. Since it seems as if almost every subject now has its dedicated followers, with their own societies, newsletters and journals, local history is an amalgam of a great many disciplines and specialities working together to uncover the past. Since it involves both professionals and amateurs, dedicated scholars and enthusiasts, it is something of a motley bunch, but collectively they are all contributing to the greater understanding of past local societies.

in Writing local history