local history

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local history in medieval England chiefly took the form of histories of particular monasteries and their estates. A good example is the Abingdon Chronicle, c.1160. More comprehensive local history was provided by William of Malmesbury, whose Gesta pontificum (c.1125) has the earliest (though brief) historical/topographical accounts of a number of English places. In the mid-15th cent. William of Worcester made fuller descriptions of many more.

The Itineraries of John Leland (not published until 1710) were a similar but grander enterprise, part of the Tudor ‘discovery of England’. He failed in his intention to complete a history of England arranged by shire, but William Camden's Britannia (1586) did provide such an account. An English translation (1610) and extended editions by Gibson (1695) and Gough (1789 and 1806) gave Britannia a long and useful life. William Lambarde's A Perambulation of Kent (1576) began the noble series of English county histories. The title is significant. Writing a county's history and describing its present state (‘chorography’) went hand in hand. William Dugdale's Warwickshire (1656) set a new standard for county histories. Characteristic of such works was a commanding interest in the genealogies and lands of the gentry who patronized, and often wrote, them.

Such major histories followed as Francis Blomefield's Norfolk (1739–75), Edward Hasted's Kent (1778–99), and Robert Clutterbuck's Hertfordshire (1815). Few of these works were completed without a mighty struggle and financial peril. Plans for most such works from the 16th cent. to the 19th have left nothing behind, but at best a book covering part of the shire, more frequently a collection (often extensive) of manuscript materials, sometimes just a prospectus.

Parallel to the county histories were those of towns. The true founder of urban history in England is John Stow. His Survey of London (1598) retains the value of great learning and close observation. Other studies followed as, for example, William Somner's of Canterbury (1640). In this field also, major research such as that of John Kirkpatrick (c.1686–1728) on Norwich remained unpublished. On a lesser level, White Kennet's history of Ambrosden (1695) was innovatory as a study of ‘parochial antiquities’.

In the 19th cent. there was far more local history of most kinds. No doubt this was broadly in consequence of increases in population, wealth, and literacy and decreases in printing costs. Much was done by new local societies concerned with history and historical publication. The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne was a pioneer. Its journal, Archaeologia Aeliana, has been in continuous publication since 1822. From the 1840s many comparable societies were founded, usually on a county basis. Their journals impress. For example, Norfolk Archaeology (1847 on) demonstrates not only the learning of its contributors but also the excellence of Norwich printing and illustration. Such a provincial production more closely resembles a modern historical periodical than any produced nationally until the English Historical Review (1886). Local learning could now draw on the sources made available by the Record Commission (1802–37), the Rolls Series (1857–96), and, from the 1850s, via the new Public Record Office. Some 19th-cent. societies were concerned to publish records relating to their counties but the main movement for the foundation of county record societies came in the next century, Lincolnshire (founded 1910) and Northamptonshire (1920) providing important models. The clergy of the Church of England were important in all this, not least because of the force of the new interest in the medieval church and its buildings.

In the Victoria County History, inaugurated in 1899, old and new worlds married fruitfully. The project was to cover the whole of England, county by county, and, within the county framework, parish by parish. This was the near institutionalization of the collective ambition of local historians over 300 or so years. A new element was the presence of contributors such as John Horace Round, men of a new breed, trained in history at a university. One of these, Frank Merry Stenton, was appointed, at Reading, to a post of an unprecedented kind: ‘Research Fellow in Local History’. Like his predecessor of 1160 he devoted himself to the early history of the abbey of Abingdon. In the 20th cent. the pursuit of local history was transformed by its study in universities. Particularly from the 1960s a flood of studies of all kinds appeared. The most influential of the university historians was William George Hoskins. His The Making of the English Landscape (1955) changed the understanding of our past. Hoskins was an English original: learned, opinionated, radical, conservative. His contributions were the introduction of a sense of landscape, for which shire-historians had found no place, fox-hunters though they sometimes were, and the capacity to see local history as a yeoman looking up, rather than a squire looking down. Much of his academic life was spent at Leicester, where he founded a school of local history.

Though local history became increasingly professionalized, the 20th cent. saw an enormous development in ‘amateur’ interest also. This was partly because local records became more readily available with the provision of professionally staffed county record offices. Such provision began to be made in the 1920s and 1930s. Fast development came in the decades after the war of 1939–45. This was the period in which local studies came to play a part in the school teaching of history. The most numerous users of the new record offices were in search of their own ancestors. The magnetism of genealogy is as strong in the 21st cent. as it was in the 17th and draws far more people.

James Campbell


Currie, C. R. J., and Lewis, C. P. (eds.), English County Histories, a Guide: A Tribute to C. R. Elrington (1994);
Finberg, H. P. R. , The Local Historian and his Theme (Leicester, 1952);
Simmons, J. , English County Historians (East Ardsley, 1978).