No. 1




by H. P. R. FINBERG, Head of the Department of English Local History


An introductory lecture delivered at the University College of Leicester, 6 November 1952







IN 1890 a writer in the Saturday Review expressed the opinion that "of all dull books a conscientiously compiled parochial history is the dullest." More recently an American scholar, engaged in collecting materials for a treatise on the English borough, found it necessary to consult a number of our local histories. He pronounced them to be mostly "so much dead weight on library shelves: vexatious to the student because of their disorderliness and wordiness; lacking most of what histories should contain, and containing much that histories should omit." (l)

So, on the threshold of the subject, we are greeted rather peevishly. And, it must be admitted, not without cause. Of the unnumbered books that have been written on the history of our counties, towns, and villages, few, if any, have been heard of by the general reader. There are no classics in this field, no local histories which are esteemed as masterpieces on a level with, say, Macaulay's History of England. Except when local piety, or the urgent curiosity of the professed student, blows off the accumulated dust, these folios, quartos, and octavos, fruits of so much devoted toil, are left unopened. Local history is the Cinderella among historical studies.

Nevertheless in recent years the universities have shown themselves disposed to take Cinderella under their protection: This may be just a counsel of despair; but I would rather construe it as an act of faith in the poor creature's possibilities. The first move was made as long ago as 1908, when, thanks mainly to private benefactions, a Research Fellowship in Local History was instituted at Reading. Despite the lustre conferred upon it by its first and only holder, F. M. Stenton, the post was discontinued after four years. In 1921 a Reader in the History of London was appointed at University College, London. Nine years later the University College of Hull set up a committee to promote research in the history of "the area more particularly served by the College" : that is, the East Riding of Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire. Since 1949 there has been at the same college a staff Tutor in Local History; and by establishing, in the following year, a certificate in the subject, Hull again stood forth as one of Cinderella's doughtiest champions. In each case these developments occurred within the framework of existing departments: at London, in the department of history, and at Hull in that of adult education. (2) Only at the University College of Leicester has the subject as yet been accorded a department of its own. For this reason, and also because the department set up here in 1947 is not confined to any one area, but takes the local history of all England for its province, its establishment may be considered as a milestone in the progress of anew academic discipline.

While the younger academic bodies were taking these initiatives, and the senior universities were looking on indifferently, or perhaps averting their gaze in horror, Professor Arnold Toynbee was publishing the first instalments of his great treatise on world-history. That celebrated work might seem at first sight to have little direct bearing on my theme; but the propositions on which its argument is based do in fact constitute an excellent starting-point for a discussion of local history and its relationship with other branches of historical study. Toynbee maintains that historians have been occupying themselves too exclusively with the fortunes of the national state. He shows that the life of England, and still more obviously the lives of France, Germany, Spain, have been profoundly affected at all the crucial points by forces operating from outside the national frontiers. Consequently their history cannot be understood unless we study them as parts of a larger entity. The histories of England, France, and Spain are merely chapters in the history of Western Society as a whole. This greater society is "an intelligible field of study" ; its component nations, taken by themselves, are not. Therefore historians will do well to "devote a larger share of their energy and acumen" to the study of Western Society and of the other great societies whose actions and interactions make up the sum of world-history. (3)

In urging this plea, Toynbee sometimes uses expressions which could be taken as implying that it is a waste of time to study national history. Nevertheless he would probably admit that it is normal and natural for Englishmen to take a particular interest in the history of England, and even to find it more readily intelligible than the history of other nations. For our part, we may agree with him that it cannot be fully understood in isolation from the supra-national entity of which England has formed a part. Our interest in the story of our own people does not spring only from natural sympathy: it can be fully justified on Toynbee's principles. For, as he himself points out, the national community is an "articulation" of the larger society to which it belongs; and while urging us "to think in terms of the whole and not of the parts," he observes that "different parts are differently affected by an identical general cause, because they each react, and each contribute in a different way to the forces which that same cause sets in motion." We may put it in homelier terms: it takes all sorts to make a world. If every man were just like his neighbours, there would be no employment for the biographer; and it is because nations differ that each of them has a history of its own. Therefore we study the history of Western Christendom in order to grasp the unity of the member-nations, and we study the history of the nations in order to realize their diversity. As one of Stendhal's characters observes, the verisimilitude of a story lies wholly in the details. (4)

Now it seems to me that this argument can be extended and applied with equal force to small communities within the nation. Professor Toynbee, sweeping ecumenical horizons with his telescope, exhorts the student of history to brace himself for "mental operations on a larger scale." But the telescope, as others before me have remarked, is not the only instrument that will broaden our minds and enlarge the stock of knowledge: the microscope also has its uses. And within the nation there are smaller communities which have every right to be considered as distinct articulations of the national life. One can think of hundreds of rural and urban communities which have possessed a spiritual and economic vitality of their own, and their own organs of local government. It is true that such communities are not much in evidence today. A man who lived in London all his life might never have the idea of a local community brought home to his consciousness at all. You do not feel that you are crossing a frontier when you pass from the metropolitan borough of Paddington into the royal borough of Kensington. But if you go far enough afield, you can still find local consciousness asserting itself even now at something like its old strength. Last year I spent some time exploring the Forest of Dean. Lying between the Severn and the Wye, this district has well-marked natural limits; and its inhabitants are physically distinguishable from their neighbours. They belong to the county of Gloucester, but if you come from east of the Severn they will say you come from Gloucestershire, and if you come from some other county they will say quite simply that you are a foreigner. Their principal industry, the mining of coal and iron, has been carried on ever since the Roman period. The powers vested in the Coal Commission under the Act of 1938, to grant or refuse a lease of coal entirely at their discretion, operate in all the coalfields of Great Britain with the one exception of the Forest of Dean. Here the powers of the Commission are still subject to the rights and privileges of the Free Miners of the Hundred of St Briavels. The mine-court no longer meets, but the court of verderers still holds occasional sessions at the Speech House, built for the purpose in 1670. One man with whom I had some talk began his working life as a miner, then, becoming partly disabled, opened a garage and started a service of local buses. Presently one of the big bus companies offered to buy him out. He refused to sell; so the company tried to oust him by running two buses for every one of his, with one bus running five minutes ahead and the other five minutes behind him. But his customers were not going to let a Forest man be done down by a pack of foreigners; and in the end it was the company's buses that had to be withdrawn.

The commoners and Free Miners of Dean are today what the people of nearly every English town and rural district were until the day before yesterday: a self-conscious local community. And though it may be difficult for us to grasp the fact with our imaginations, it is nevertheless true that for centuries the local community provided the normal setting in which Tom, Dick, and Harry lived and worked and played. Their bread was made from corn grown under a communal system of agriculture in the soil of the parish, and ground at the local mill. Their other material needs were supplied from the nearest market, town, and their spiritual needs at the parish church or nowhere. They thought of themselves as Englishmen, certainly; but the abiding and ever-present reality was that they were inhabitants of Plumstead or Hogglestock or Barchester.

Each of these rural or urban communities has reacted and contributed in its own characteristic way to the main currents of English history. And note that it has done so in its own good time. For its life-span is not necessarily co-extensive with that of the nation as a whole. A local community may come into existence at almost any date, lead a more or less vigorous life of its own for a century or two, or for the better part of a millennium, and then fade out again, even as the republic of Venice and the empire of Austria have faded from the map of Western Christendom. Take for example the village of Whatborough, one of the oldest settlements in Leicestershire, established as far back perhaps as the sixth century, and so completely blotted out by the enclosure movement of the fourteen-nineties that an estate map drawn in 1586 has a blank space in the centre, inscribed: "The Place where the Town of Whatboroughe stood." (5) On the urban scale, Cheltenham, transformed in the second half of the eighteenth century from a rural market-centre into a fashionable spa, and Middlesborough, down to 1831 a township of fewer than a hundred souls, now a great manufacturing city and an episcopal see, exemplify changes so drastic that we may fairly call them new creations. In our own lifetime we have seen local communities brought into being ab ovo at Welwyn and elsewhere. Not only in these organisms of recent growth, but in many a small town and big provincial city there may be found, even at this day, a strong civic spirit and a pride in local achievement. But there is not the old degree of social cohesion. A railwayman or a mill-owner today pretty certainly feels himself more closely linked in sympathies and interests and aspirations with his fellow-railwaymen or fellow-manufacturers up and down the country than with the majority of his fellow-townsmen. Moreover Leviathan, as we all know, looks with no friendly eye upon allegiances that are not centred on its omnicompetent self It may be that just as the family, once so powerful a unit, has withered into social impotence, so the local community is destined to wither in its turn. But while it flourished it yielded only to the nation, and not always even to the nation, in its hold over men's loyalties. (6)

As soon, however, as we propose to write its history, voices are raised in a shrill chorus of dissuasion. Dr George Macaulay Trevelyan makes no secret of the light in which he views the subject. He writes: "Ever since the publication of Tudor Cornwall I have believed that Mr A. L. Rowse had it in him to become an historian of high rank if he would lay aside lesser activities and bend himself to the production of history on the grand scale." (7) So the dilemma confronts us in all its nakedness: if you write local history badly, you are the dreariest of bores; and if you write it as well as Mr Rowse, it is a pity you cannot find something better to do. Then there is Professor Toynbee, who will argue that if the history of England is not self-explanatory, a fortiori neither is the history of Barchester. And we readily agree that Barchester, taken by itself, is not a fully intelligible field of study. We know, for example, that the Latin mass, which had been offered in Barchester cathedral ever since the cathedral was built, ceased to be offered there in the sixteenth century for reasons which must be sought ultimately not in Barchester itself, nor even in London, but at Prague and Wittenberg and Rome. Even so, the course the Reformation took in Barchester was not that which it took in Stockholm or Amsterdam; and Barset, though more thoroughly 'reformed' than Lancashire, was perhaps a shade less so than the eastern counties. Thus Barchester stands out as a distinct articulation, not only of the national community, but of Western Society as a whole. And if so, its history is a field of study which deserves to be cultivated for its own sake. (8) To anyone who thinks it absurd that we should labour day and night only to "chronicle small beer," let Chesterton's parable supply the answer. "'Notting Hill,' said the Provost simply, 'is a rise or high ground of the common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die. Why should I think it absurd?' "

It may be objected that so many of our English local communities being now either dead or moribund, the historian would do better to concentrate on subjects of living interest. To this the obvious answer is that the Hellenic city-state and the empire of Rome are also dead, but we do not therefore consign them to oblivion. To the historian it may be a positive advantage that he is dealing with something which has finished its course. His ultimate function is to tell a story, and every story is more readable, more shapely, if it has an end as well as a beginning.

The business of the local historian, then, as I see it, is to re-enact in his own mind, and to portray for his readers, the Origin, Growth, Decline, and Fall of a Local Community. If this principle is accepted, it becomes possible to define with something like precision the relationship between his study and other disciplines, whether academic or non-academic. The sources he must consult will be part written, part unwritten. In so far as he deals with unwritten evidences, we may style him an archaeologist. He is also a geographer, since part of his task is to elucidate in detail the process of défrichement - we have no English word for it - whereby the soil of his parish has been subdued to human purposes by gradual conquest of the primeval marsh or woodland. He is not a geologist, but he interrogates the geologist on the character of the soil and the structure of the underlying rocks, because without this knowledge he cannot rightly interpret the effects of human action upon the landscape. His contribution to historical geography demands an intensive observation of fields, hedges, roads, and water-courses. Much of his time is thus spent out of doors; but since field-work must be controlled and amplified by documentary research, he is also an assiduous visitor at libraries, record offices, and muniment rooms. He is an economic historian because the greater part of man's life is spent in gaining a livelihood, and a historian of art and education and religion because man does not live by bread alone. Though he never, I hope, utters the fatuous word 'medieval', which has even less meaning for local than for national and ecumenical history, he is perforce a medievalist because the so-called Middle Ages were the formative period in the life of most English towns and villages, and indeed covered something like two-thirds of their whole existence. But he is also a modernist, if that is the right word, because many of them survived as local communities into the age of railways and motor transport. He is thus not a specialist in anyone period; nor is his an antiquarian pursuit. Antiquary is a word of fluid meaning, but I take it to mean one who studies the monuments of antiquity - usually a single class of monument - for their own sakes. For the antiquarian the sculptures on the west front of Barchester cathedral, or the cross-legged effigies in the parish churches, are objects to be studied in relation to each other and to similar monuments elsewhere. For the historian they are particular manifestations or expressions of a social life which he is trying to reconstruct in its entirety.

It is sometimes held that local history provides a useful method of approach to national history. And it is true that sometimes a train of momentous happenings is found to have been touched off in some village whose chronicler, by revealing this fact, teaches the national historian something he might not have discovered for himself. It is also true that if the histories of all our parishes were written as they should be written, the history of England would need to be revised at many points. It may be, also, that a teacher who wishes to give his pupils something more than a 'notional apprehension' of English history will find it helpful to illustrate the Wars of the Roses by showing them the tomb of Sir William in the parish church, or the strife of Cavalier and Roundhead by pointing out the ruins of Sir Lionel's mansion. But I am quite sure that to esteem local history only or chiefly for its propaedeutic value is to underestimate it, and that to treat it as an introduction or a contribution to national history is to invert the true relationship between them. We may grant that the history of Meryton or Mellstock will help us to understand the history of England, just as the history of England will help us to understand the history of Western Christendom; but it remains true that a study of the whole will do more to enlighten us about any single part than vice versa. In other words, when we are sufficiently familiar with the European past to read English history intelligently, and when we are thoroughly well grounded in the history of England: then, and not till then, can we begin to think of writing the history of Liverpool or Lydiard Millicent or Saffron Walden. Local history is not an elementary study. It is one to which the amateur or the young student can, and often does, make a valuable contribution; but in its higher reaches it demands mature scholarship and a wide background of general culture.

Another claim that I will venture to make for it is that local history is pre-eminently a humane discipline. Let me recall here the well-known little rhyme:

The science of geography

Is different from biography.

Geography is about maps,

Biography is about chaps.

History too is "about chaps," and local history brings us nearer to the common run of chaps than any other branch of historical study. It gives us, in the language of the films, a close-up of them on their farms and in their workshops and behind their counters. It studies them as social beings, as members of a rural or urban community; but by seeking them at their home address it enables us to see them as flesh and blood, and not just as pawns on the national chessboard. The national historian, dealing with some vast agglomeration which he labels villeins, Puritans, the lower middle-class, or what you will, tends to lose sight of the human person. (9) In the preface to The Reign of Elizabeth, one of the earliest published volumes of the Oxford History of England, the author, Professor J. B. Black, says: "In the present volume we have been compelled to observe events predominantly through English eyes, or, to be more correct, through the eyes of the English government." He goes on to remark that other points of view have an equally good claim to be considered, and says he has tried to bear this in mind, "but the paramount necessity of placing the reader at the standpoint of the queen and her ministers has prevented a rigorous following out of the principle." (10) We naturally wonder who laid this necessity upon him: was it the editor, or the delegates of the Clarendon Press?

But no explanation is vouchsafed. If the reign of Elizabeth II had to be dealt with on this plan, I suppose one would begin to write its history from the standpoint of Mr Churchill, and if a general election should bring Mr Attlee into power, keep the printer working overtime to bring out a revised edition. For let us remember that the phrase "Her Majesty's Opposition" dates only from 1826; in the time of the first Elizabeth opposition was just a short cut to the scaffold. The standpoint of an angel, gazing with pity and comprehension at the antics of mortal men, is of course beyond our reach, but one can think of several purely human standpoints from which national history could be studied more intelligently than from that of the group which has contrived to make itself, at a given moment, master of the state. Local history brings us face to face with the Englishman at home, and reminds us that it is he who foots the bill his rulers have run up for him. By so doing, it restrains the propensity to worship mere power and success, a propensity which loses none of its baseness from being carried back into our study of the past.

From time to time we seem to detect, in the making of national history, an element of downright imposture. Take for example the case of Richard Strode. Strode came of a Devonshire family seated at Newnham, in Plympton St Mary; and he represented the borough of Plympton in the parliament of 1512. He was also an owner or part-owner of tin-works. It appears that two partners, William Rede and Elis Elforde, started digging for tin on Strode's land. These two were jurors for Plympton at a Great Court of the Devon Stannaries which had just reaffirmed the right, guaranteed to all tinners by immemorial custom and by charter of Edward I, "to dig tin in every place within the county of Devonshire whereas tin may be found"; and the Great Court had decreed that anyone obstructing this right should be liable to a fine of forty pounds. In order to rid himself of his unbidden guests without incurring the penalty appointed, Strode introduced a bill into the parliament of Westminster to restrain mining operations in the vicinity of sea-ports, alleging that the harbours of Devon were being choked with refuse from the mines. The bill, though it did not become law, aroused great indignation among the tinners; and at the next law-day the under-steward caused Strode to be presented at all four stannary courts for conduct subversive of the miners' liberties. The culprit was fined forty pounds in each court; but refusing to pay, was arrested "and imprysoned in a dongeon and a deepe pitte under the ground in the castel of Lidford ...the which prison," as he afterwards feelingly declared, "is one of the most annoious, contagious, and detestable places wythin this realme." After languishing there for some three weeks, he was released by a writ of privilege from the Exchequer, not as a member of parliament, but as a collector of the subsidy that had just been voted to the Crown. Before releasing him, the deputy warden required him to give bail for one hundred pounds. To secure himself against forfeiture of bail and further pursuit, Strode now complained to parliament, and persuaded it to pass a statute not only annulling his condemnation in the stannary courts, but granting immunity to him and his associates for anything done or to be done by them in that or future parliaments. (11) It is important to note that the provisions of the act are limited to Strode himself "and every other of the person or persons afore specifyed" : that is, those "other of this house" who had joined him in promoting a bill against the tinners. It was thus a particular, not a general statute; and the only question of principle involved was whether the legislative competence of parliament should or should not override that of a self-governing local body like the Stannaries. Neither the parliament which enacted it, nor Henry VIII who gave it his assent, had the least intention of making it a corner-stone of privilege. Both before and after the passing of Strode's act the sovereign claimed and sometimes exercised the right to punish members of the house of commons when they overstepped their constitutional function as voters of supply. But under the Stuarts this right became the subject of hot debate. The upholders of parliamentary immunity never shrank from using bad law and bogus history to support their claims; (12) and as one of the five members whom Charles I tried but failed to arrest was a lineal descendant of Richard Strode, the precedent of 1512 was not likely to be overlooked. Finally, in 1667, Lords and Commons, evidently persuaded that two and two make five if parliament will have it so, passed a joint resolution affirming the "Act concerning Richard Strode" to be "a general Law ... declaratory ... of the ancient and necessary Rights and Privileges of Parliament."(13) After this, it is not surprising to find even so eminent an authority as Halsbury censuring the Tudor and Stuart monarchs because they "chose to regard it" in a different light. (14)

It was said of the Leicester antiquary Thomas Staveley that "having passed the latter part of his life in the study of English history, he acquired a melancholy habit." (15) And when we consider the spirit in which our national history has all too frequently been written, we can understand the poor man's feelings. We may liken English history to a dish cooked in a vast kitchen, where the smoking fat of nineteenth-century liberalism mingles with the stale cabbage of Elizabethan no-popery propaganda and with a hundred other odours, new and old. But with local history we can escape, if we choose, into the fresh air. One cannot hope to establish a thesis of general application by writing the history of a parish, as Macaulay, for example, nearly succeeded in establishing the Whig thesis by writing a history of England. Therefore there is the less temptation to indulge in generalized passions for or against the various 'isms - feudalism, Protestantism, capitalism, and the rest. By setting us face to face with flesh and blood, local history puts a curb on those abstract hatreds which can so easily turn the heart to stone. For instance, you may hold that popery deserves the worst that has ever been said of it, and yet find it comparatively easy to acknowledge that the priest whom Burghley's police caught saying mass up at the manor-house, and who paid for it with his blood at Tyburn, was a not wholly despicable character. You may execrate the landed gentry and everything they stand for, and yet freely recognize that the present squire's grandfather was adored by his tenants and reared the finest herd of Ayrshires in the county. I am far from contending that local history will furnish us with any automatically effective antidote against partisanship. The local historian, like other men, will have his personal preferences and prepossessions. But if the milk of human kindness is not dried up within him, some fellow-feeling with "Hodge and his masters" will arise, even when he deems their conduct most perverse. You cannot paint a miniature with great splashes of blood-red.

The reasons why so many of the older local histories fail to satisfy us are now clear. The writers were content to heap up all the facts they could discover, without order, art, or method, and with no criterion for distinguishing the trivial from the significant. Their theme, if they can be said to have had a theme, was not the rise and fall of a local community, but the fortunes of one or two armigerous families. In this respect they had a perfect, if unconscious, spokesman in the late Sir George Sitwell. Mr Evelyn Waugh tells us that he was standing one evening, with other guests, on the terrace of Sir George's mansion at Renishaw. "In the valley at our feet ... lay farms, cottages, villas, the railway, the colliery, and the densely teeming streets of the men who worked there ... Sir George turned and spoke in the wistful, nostalgic tones of a castaway, yet of a castaway who was reconciled to his solitude. 'You see,' he said, 'there is no one between us and the Locker-Lampsons.' " (16) Many of the older local histories were written by country gentlemen of scholarly tastes like Sir George Sitwell, or by the parsons whom they had presented to their livings; and they reflect the interests of that class. Page after page is filled with details concerning the successive families who have been lords of the manor. Few subjects are more tedious, yet to this day the descent of the manor occupies a quite inordinate amount of space in the Victoria County Histories; and at the end one is left with the impression that nobody ever lived in the parish but the squire and his relations. In this particular, and in some others, the Victoria County Histories, planned as they were over half a century ago, must be said to embody a conception of local history which is now largely obsolete. (17) I do not mean to imply that the squire either can or should be left out of the picture. On the contrary, one of the most important questions the historian should try to answer is how far the element of lordship is fundamental in the make-up of the local community .But though genealogy, family history, is a perfectly legitimate branch of study, it is but one of many which the local historian will lay under contribution if he has taken the full measure of his task.

History, as we all know, is a Greek word meaning inquiry. Multifarious are the questions the local historian will put to himself as he tramps the field-paths or scrutinizes antique parchments. Of what condition were the men who founded his community? Were they veterans of an Anglo-Saxon war-band, maintaining themselves chiefly by the labour of the conquered Britons, or free peasants brought over to fill homesteads from which the defeated race had fled? What nucleus of cultivation did they find awaiting them? By what stages did their descendants enlarge their holdings at the expense of the surrounding marsh or woodland? What considerations guided the marking out of the manor and parish boundaries? When was the borough carved out of the manor, and for what purpose? At what date was the communal system of agriculture superseded by enclosures, and why not earlier or later? How successfully has the community withstood, from century to century, the vicissitudes of population and trade? In what degree have religious differences contributed since the sixteenth century to its disruption? Has the acceleration of transport in the last hundred years prolonged its life or hastened its decay?

Some of these questions may prove to be unanswerable. When the historian has done his best with the remainder, and with the hundred others that arise, let him muster every ounce of narrative and expository skill that he possesses, and begin to tell his tale. He may be confident that an audience will not be lacking. For as the older "glories of our blood and state" begin to wane, and the social revolution of the twentieth century brings in anew order which not all men find congenial, many of our fellow-countrymen are filled with a deeper curiosity than ever before concerning the old market-towns of England: Stamford, Ludlow, Chipping Campden - the very names are music; and the beloved villages: Castle Combe, Colly Weston, Finchingfield: all those places which embody, in varying degrees of perfection, a social life that is fast vanishing, if it has not already gone; and they are eager to hear what the historian can tell them about that life, if only he can set forth an intelligible tale.

The local historian today starts out with one great advantage over his predecessors. With all their zeal and erudition, the writers of the old school lacked a central unifying theme. At their best they produced fine works of reference, but rarely a book that could be read from cover to cover with pleasure as well as profit. Today, with a much vaster and more accessible range of materials to draw upon, the scholar who sets but to trace the history of a rural or urban community has but to keep this theme steadily in view, and every fact that he uncovers will fall into place. His narrative will take shape as a block of marble takes shape under the sculptor's chisel.

If the ideas I have tried to develop here meet with approval, they may fitly serve as guiding principles for the conduct of the department which the University College of Leicester has entrusted to my care. Indeed, they may be said to have shaped its course already under my predecessor. The "new school" - as Mr Rowse termed it in a recent broadcast - has produced no historian more widely and justly admired than W. G. Hoskins. His books and lectures are at once learned, graphic, and humane. As first Reader in English Local History he set an example which may well inspire a feeling of diffidence in his successor, particularly a successor who has spent much of his working life in other fields. But his writings, and the discussions I have had with him at various times, lead me to believe that Dr Hoskins takes a view of local history which differs only in detail from mine. It is good to know also that the department which occupies itself with national and international history has, in Professor Simmons, a head keenly alive to the value of local history. Finally, I take some courage from a backward glance at three great amateurs in whose performance there was nothing amateurish. First, John Nichols (1746-1826), to whose enthusiasm we are mainly indebted for that grandest of record-publications, the folio edition of Domesday Book (1783), and who, after publishing five volumes on The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester at a loss of as many thousand pounds, went on undismayed and completed one of the finest of the older county histories by publishing three more. Then his son, John Bowyer Nichols (1779- 1863), who superintended the publication of Ormerod's Cheshire, Baker's Northamptonshire, Hoare's Wiltshire, and a long list of other topographical master-works; and his grandson, John Gough Nichols (1806-73), who helped to found the Camden Society and edited many of its publications. Few, if any, families have done more to advance historical knowledge; and I find it inspiriting to recollect that they accomplished so much while carrying on their day-to-day business as printers and publishers: trades which it has been my fortune also to ply.

The primary aim of the department, then, will be to foster, in our own minds and in the minds of any who look to us for guidance, a reasoned conception of local history, such as will set a standard of performance by which our own work and the work of others may be judged. That conception will oblige us to demand, from ourselves and others, exact scholarship, wide sympathies, and a style of writing at once precise and vivid. We must persuade scholars that no perfection of attainment is out of place in local history; that there is room here for a Maitland's brilliantly directed curiosity, for a command of documentary materials equal to that of Stubbs or Round, and for a narrative art comparable with the art of Green or Froude. And we must convince the public at large, not that local history is a fascinating subject, for the public is aware of that already, but that scholars have at last taught themselves how to unfold its true significance. If we can do this, the coming generation will be measurably nearer to producing the classic histories of our English towns and villages that are waiting to be written.

It is with these resolves, and with a feeling of deep gratitude to the College for giving me the opportunity to act upon them, that I take up my appointed task.



1 M. de W. Henuneon, Burgage Tenure in Mediaeval England, Cambridge (Mass.) , 1914, p. 9.

2. I am indebted to the Registrars of Reading and Hull, and to the Secretary of University College, London, for the particulars given here.

3 Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Oxford, 1934- , I, pp. 17-50.

4 "Vers le milieu du récit, M. Leuwen commenca a faire des questions. 'Plus de détails, plus de détails, disait-il a son fils, 'il n'y a d'originalité et de verité que dans les détails.'" - Lucien Leuwen, 1926, IV, p. 169.

5. R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, London, 1912, p. 223. "Town" here signifies a township, or rural community. See also Studies in Leicestershire Agrarian History, ed. W. G. Hoskins, Leicester, 1949, p. 96.

6. A leading article has just appeared in The Times (27 August 1952) suggesting that measures should be taken to arrest the decay of our smaller and middle-sized country towns "in these days when transport by bus has brought about revolutionary changes in country habits."

7. Sunday Times, reviewing The England of Elizabeth, vol. 1.

8. As Professor Toynbee implicitly allows, when he declares that history, as a humane study, is properly concerned with the lives of societies in both their internal and their external aspects. "The internal aspect is the articulation of the life of any given society into a series of chapters succeeding one another in time and into a number of communities living side by side. The external aspect is the relation of particular societies with one another." op. cit., 1, p. 46.

9. "Even in the study or history a kind of acquired simplicity is needed just to see things as they are, just to see things naked, instead of envisaging them in the categories which historians have created to fit them into - attributing things to the Renaissance when the Renaissance is a mere label that historians have chosen to apply to a generation of people." - H. Butterfield, Christianity and History, London, 1949, p. 115.

10. The italics are mine.

11. 4 Hen. VIII, c.8. A schedule annexed to the act enables us to follow the affair in detail.

12. Hence the interesting design of the Lord Keeper Francis North to print and publish "all the records of state and parliament," because he was convinced that such publication would help the monarchy against its adversaries - Lives of the Norths, ed. Jessopp, London, 1890, I, p. 355.

13. Journals of the House of Lords, XII, p. 166. The Commons admitted that the statute was made "upon a private and particular Occasion"; but in the teeth of history, and by a plain misreading of the text, they asserted that it was meant to cover "all Members that then were, or ever should be."

14. The Laws of England, London, 1907-17, XXI, p. 782.

15. John Nichols, History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, 1795-1815,11, p. 677.

16. Osbert Sitwell, Laughter in the Next Room, London, 1949, p. 349.

17. A welcome announcement by Mr R. B. Pugh, editor-in-chief of the Victoria County Histories, has just appeared (see The Amateur Historian, I, 1952, p. 4). It foreshadows changes of emphasis and treatment which will go far to obviate the criticism levelled at the older volumes.