W.G. Hoskins

(Longman, London & New York, 3rd. Edition, 1984)



This chapter deals with the basic requirements/tools for the practice of local history. To place local events in a wider context one must have a basic knowledge of national history. In addition the local historian may need to draw on any or all of the following areas: political, ecclesiastical, social, economic and military history, extending over a period of, perhaps, 1,500 years. Access to Latin translation may be necessary as, before the 16th. century, nearly all documents were written in Latin and most legal documents continued to be until the early 1700’s. He should know the requisite sources, where to get them and how to interpret them. He should read earlier histories of the area/community if they exist. He should obtain the 1" geological and OS maps of his chosen area and, if a rural parish is being studied, the 1" sheet for the surrounding countryside. For study of a town the 25" (1 : 2,500) OS map and the 1/500 plan are required. A placename dictionary and Saxon land charter, if either exists, is extremely useful. The Domesday Book will be a major source. The appropriate theme is the origin, growth and, perhaps, disintegration/decay of the village, town or parish community. One will study population growth, land ownership, population movements. In reconstructing past communities it is better to work backwards in time stating with the more accessible, comprehensible 19th. century.




Here Hoskins traces the history of local history in England beginning with William of Worcester (1470’s) and John Leland (1506-1552), both really topographers who took all of England as their province. County histories began with William Lambarde’s history of Kent in 1570 and continued with Carew’s Cornwall (1602), Dugdale’ Warwickshire (1656) and Thoroton’s Nottinghamshire. These early county histories were written or commissioned by country gentlemen and so focused on the history of the descent of landed property and the genealogy of the county families. This bias continued when a new breed, the parson joined the ranks of local historians in the 18th. century, becoming the dominant group in the 19th. Altho’ town histories began to appear early with Stow’s survey of London in 1598, growth in this area was slow, towns surveyed were generally seats of bishops and so concentrated on ecclesiastical history or were studied for the light they could throw on national history and so were treated as "national history writ small". This changed with Maitland’s studies of borough history in the 1890’s. As the mass of record material available to the local historian increased and as the concept of what constituted history widened the focus was narrowed to the parish, the smallest field in local history. The chapter finishes with some criticism or local history writing. These include the charge that, especially during the 19th. century when the author was likely to be the parson, the preoccupation with landed properties/families continued. Another problem is the preoccupation with facts without any awareness of problems/reasons/analysis.







Hoskins recommends, as a starting point in the study of the history of village, parish or small town, the reconstruction of the largely self-contained world of the early 19th. century, when local communities were mainly self-sufficient. This was a "hand-made world, a slow world, a world without power, a world in which all things were made one by one". In many cases, beginning in the 1800’s, these communities have largely disintegrated. This reconstruction can be carried out by using :-

(1) Local directories, which usually give information on size and location plus a list of the principal inhabitants, tradesmen and craftsmen. These are available over the 100 years or so since about 1830 and, while not giving a complete list of inhabitants, offer a partial picture of the social and occupational structure of a place. (2) Census Schedules give a complete list of people and from 1841, (on a 10-year basis), age and occupation while population figures are available from every census since 1801. These can be used to analyse population trends, movement of individual families and their tenure in the location. This can be supplemented with information from the Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, from taxation returns and from manorial records where they exist. (3) Old newspapers, where they exist, can be an invaluable mine of local material. Advertisements may be very revealing. Newspapers are essential for the writing of the political and parliamentary history of a town, for information on its topography, i.e. new buildings and streets and who built them, for trade, say ships visiting a port town, for social events. (4) Oral history and reminiscences are very important but must be carefully checked. (5) Local records: printed and manuscript include churchwarden’s accounts, accounts and records of overseers of the poor and vestry minutes. Te quantity and quality of these records are very uneven. (6) Parliamentary papers cover an enormous range of subjects but one may find useful information on emigration, education, public health, housing, agriculture, working of the poor law, local industries, etc. (7) Maps these include the 6" OS maps for parishes and the 6" and 25" OS maps for towns. There is also, from 1855 onwards, the 1/500 town maps which give extreme detail. Many areas have tithe maps from the 1840’s, (when the Tithe Commutation Act was passed), giving names of owners/occupiers of land, names of farms/fields and acreage. These are housed in the parish, diocesan and central records. (8) Land tax assessments. Most counties have a complete set of detailed parochial records from 1780 to 1832 and these give essential information about the distribution of land in the parish at that time. Comparison with the census gives information on the landless population. (9) Illustrations. These include old photographs, drawings, engravings and old post-cards. (10) Diaries, Letters, Account Books. Old diaries and letters may present a more truthful account of an event or person than the official, edited record. On the other hand the account, being personal, may be biased or subjective. Old account books give information on prices, goods, housekeeping, materials, etc. (11) Auctioneers’ catalogues and Sales notices. Catalogues of sales of land with plans and maps have been issued by auctioneers for since the early 1800’s and are particularly valuable where they relate to the break up and sale of the large estates.




For most places in England the first documentary record will be the Domesday Book (1086) altho’ a few places may have the much earlier Saxon charter. However, parts of the country were not covered at all by the Domesday Book, other places may not be included because they were founded later and others may be included silently under another heading. In this last case the place name may help, (but one must be aware that names may have changed with the different settlement waves), or clues may be available from archaeological evidence. Having established when a settlement, (a parish, village or town), originated then one should examine first the 1" geological map to see why that location, e.g., drinking water, suitable soil, etc. The placename meaning may be helpful too in establishing the reason for and antiquity of a site, as may a study of the distribution of churches, i.e., of mother and daughter churches. The manorial organisation was superimposed at a comparatively late date on a countryside originally divided into large estates but was more or less fully developed by Domesday. Manor boundaries may or may not coincide with parish boundaries. If a Saxon charter is available then one may see the relationship of the large pre-Conquest estate with the later manor(s). Some manors listed in Domesday may have been absorbed later into a larger one; some new ones appear at a later date. Once the origin and extent of the manor has been established then one should trace the descent of the lordship of each and note the impact of the manor and of manorial divisions on the parish/village. It should be noted that often the manor was not in complete ownership of the land but had ‘free tenants’ who paid a token rent. An estimate of the free tenant acreage may be obtained from the tithe award of the 1840’s altho’ many changes may have occurred meanwhile. A lot of land in England at some time belonged to the church whether to monasteries, bishops, cathedrals or parish clergy and the grants were often copied into registers called cartularies. In 1535 a Crown survey of all ecclesiastical property in England and Wales was carried out. This Valor Ecclesiasticus was published by the Record Commission in 1810-1834. Each manor existing then was described briefly in Domesday. From 1216 to 1649 there exists the Inquisitions Post Mortem, a return, on death, of the property of each Crown tenant, often accompanied by a rudimentary survey, the Extent. Further, from 1500’s on, surveys of the bigger, more important manors may exist. Manor court rolls may have information on tenants and succession, while parish rate books can be an invaluable source as they may have detailed assessments for the church rate or poor rate for 17th. and 18th. centuries. Surveys for enclosure, whether private or Parliamentary are essential sources too. Land usage, as opposed to ownership, may be gleaned from a number of sources, including tithe maps and awards, reports to the Board of Agriculture (1793-1817), probate inventories of the 16th. & 17th. centuries, (a detailed list of all goods and chattels produced for the Probate Court), farm accounts and manorial rentals and surveys.




Generally the existing fabric in most parish churches shows few or no traces of the first building on the site. In many cases, because the right to baptise was a jealously guarded privilege, the font is the best clue to the date of the first building. The architectural history may be researched thro’ various sources, each with there limitations. These include the Domesday Book, did not record all the churches, the Taxation of Pope Nicholas IV of 1291 and the 13th. century Bishops’ Registers. Other sources are indulgences issued by the bishop to those helping in church building/repair, churchwardens’ accounts, records of visits of bishops and archdeacons, diocesan Faculty Books, (post 1600), detailing alterations and fittings, records of the Incorporated Church Building Society, (founded in 1818), and, also for that period, The Builder (1842 on) and The Ecclesiologist (1841-1868) and 19th. century newspapers. Also the local historian should try to relate changes/building/rebuilding to other events, e.g., agrarian history. While the size of a church at building may bear little or no relationship to population, the walling up of a portion of a church may be evidence of a population decline. An essential part of the church history is the list of incumbents, whether they changed or were continuous over the Reformation and if they were absentee. The value of the benefice, (tithes, glebe lands, offerings), may be gleaned from such sources as the Taxation of Norwich (1254), the Taxation of Nicholas IV (1291),the Inquisition of the Ninths (1341) and the Valor Ecclesiasticus (1535). Information on the nature of the worship is hard to come by but some can be got from the churchwardens’ accounts and from the visitation books of bishops and archdeacons. Nonconformist churches tended to keep their own records. There is a vast amount on schools. In medieval times they were generally associated with religious houses or chantries. From 1562 on clergy and schoolmasters had to give evidence of religious orthodoxy. This evidence is in the Subscription Books in diocesan records. From 1604 teachers were licensed by the bishop and so visitation records are valuable also. In some cases Oxford and Cambridge noted their students’ schools. In the 17th. & 18th. centuries many schools were founded/endowed by private persons and the information is found in the reports of Charity Commissioners. Subjects taught are listed in diocesan records. Associated with the foundation of the National School system are 2 complete surveys done in 1816 and 1835. These should be consulted as well as the parliamentary papers. School ‘log books’ should not be overlooked.




Some towns are of Roman origin, some date from Anglo-Saxon times, some are medieval and many arose with the Industrial Revolution from 1750 onwards. For pre-15th. century towns one should query their precise location and origin by asking questions regarding soils, strategic positions and, above all, water supply. One should consider the immediate site and the town’s wider setting in the countryside. Besides where and why there one should attempt to answer when a town was founded and where exactly its nucleus was. Many towns evolved gradually from agricultural villages without any particular plan or foresight but often the lord of a rural manor supplied land, and often building materials, and granted a charter of rights to encourage town growth or development as a source of income. Next is the question of where the original inhabitants came from and what kind of people they were. Some answers may come from a study of the borough records and the earliest property deeds and tax assessments, both local and national. Often suburbs grew up early around the outside of walled towns, inhabited mainly by labouring classes. The growth of towns, how quickly, in what direction and why may become clear from studying large-scale plans of streets and buildings and by taking into account old and existing street names, e.g., Fish St., Milk St., Wheeler Gate, etc. Spread of a town in a particular direction might have been blocked for a long period by, say, a landowner not willing to allow development or by the presence of open fields or commonage. An estimate of the degree of suburban growth may be made from the Hearth Tax assessments. In the 1700’s many of the big houses with gardens in the town centres were vacated by their owners and handed over as tenements, the grounds often being built on for low cost housing. The houses themselves should be investigated, both existing and those of past centuries as revealed by the records. Here probate inventories are the best source. In a cathedral town the church archives may be a fruitful source also especially for leases which often had a brief description of the property.




Of interest here are how people made a living, their trades/crafts, wages, working conditions, what they bought and the cost, how they spent their leisure time, their education, their health. Collecting this type of information is easier for the bigger town. Some idea can be had by studying the register of freemen, which sometimes gave details of their occupation, Apprenticeship Books, and conveyances, leases, etc. Street names, derived from occupations, give valuable clues also. The occupation of the mayor and council members give clues to the dominant trades/occupations in a town and how these may have changed over time. The question of wages is difficult but, again, easier for the larger town where information may be obtainable from Receiver’s/Chamberlain’s/Stewart’s accounts. These give income and expenditure of the town plus details of wages and prices paid often backed up by vouchers/bills. How the town under study is faring in relation to other towns in the area and size class is of interest. This may be approached by comparative tax yield of various towns for 1334, 1524 and 1660 (or a subsequent poll tax). [Hoskins, in Appendix I, gives a comparative table for the leading provincial towns of England from 1334-1861, based tax assessments, population figures and Hearth Tax Assessments. Valuable economic and social information can be found in probate inventories, especially rich for the 16th. & 17th. centuries. Port Books and Custom Accounts tell us of the range of merchant’s goods. Lists of debts are particularly valuable. Wills should be located and studied as well. Tax assessments may be used to build up a picture of the social structure of a town, again especially the larger one. The first really useful one is the lay subsidy for 1524-25, (from which Ireland was exempt), which shows that by then there was an unequal distribution of wealth and that a considerable wage class already existed. After 1546 these are less useful as they included fewer and fewer people. Hearth Tax Assessments, especially those which included the name of those exempted on poverty grounds, are also useful for the purpose of reconstructing the social hierarchy, particularly for the first ¼ of the 16th. century and the third ¼ of the 17th. A similar exercise can be done for the 19th. century by using the census schedules of 1841-1881.




This chapter deals with ‘visual evidence of the past’ and makes a strong plea for getting out and walking the area noting archaeological sites, buildings, boundaries, etc., so as not to depend solely on documented evidence. Every local history should begin with a chapter entitled ‘The face of the Parish/Town’ including a map of landmark buildings and other sites. First one should establish the boundaries of the ancient ecclesiastical parish, sometimes, but not always, coincident with the civil parish boundaries of the OS map. Here, and throughout the chapter, Hoskins recommends Field Archaeology: Some Notes for Beginners, issued by the OS, as an indispensable handbook for this type of fieldwork. In the field, one looks for remains of the Roman period, especially roads and villas. In the Anglo-Saxon period land charters were often issued by king or magnates to religious houses or other magnates, often giving detailed boundaries especially from the 700’s on. These can be traced and re-established using the 2½" (1:25.000) map, leading later to the 6" (1:10,560) or 25" (1:2,500) maps. If it applies to a monastic estate there may be a later survey. The same methods can be used to trace medieval parish boundaries. From this period one may look for adulterine castle mounds, remains of moated homesteads (mainly 13th. & 14th. century) and sites of deserted villages and hamlets. Fenced parks, some dating from the 12th., but many from the 13th. & 14th. centuries, have disappeared but often their boundaries may be located. Some were surrounded by a massive earthen ditch, some by a paling, some by a stonewall. Early industrial sites may be identified by such clues as remains of pottery/tile kilns, traces of mining for iron, lead and silver, glass furnaces and salt-making. One should study aerial photographs if available but be careful in their interpretation. Other items may be drove roads and salt ways.




Every village probably has houses of 4 or 5 different centuries. This will be established only by a thorough examination of outside and inside. All buildings should be described from the church and manor to the railway station and the farmhouses and cottages. First one should make a scaled plan, listing rooms and special features, (e.g., lintels, fireplaces, windows), and supplemented with photographs. Pay particular attention to wall thickness; an abrupt change indicates differences in date. Differences in level may have the same inference. In particular note materials from which the house is built. Dates on buildings may be misleading as they may not relate to time of original building but to, perhaps, a major alteration. Style, especially in rural houses, may not be a totally reliable guide to age as vernacular building often remained unchanged over 2 or more centuries. Internal plans varied with social class, from one region to another and with type of farming. In considering peasant buildings one should consider 3 aspects, viz., (i) Aesthetic : use of materials, choice of site; (ii) Cultural : they express social and economic changes in the countryside and are a memorial to a past peasant culture rarely recorded; (iii) Constructional : details of the site, type of soil, shelter, water supply. In longhouses animals were housed in one end. In larger farms with more produce and animals one finds a fortress-like, single opening, closed courtyard system especially characteristic of arable farming. In a pastoral system the (open) courtyard had many openings giving animals ready access to pasture. Town houses add some other considerations. From the 1200’s space was valuable so houses were often built with the gable to the main street, with a long narrow site, often with cellars and up to 4 to 5 stories. Behind these there was more space and here we might find the houses of less important people, the craftsmen and artisans. Backing up the visual evidence are the documentary sources. These include Probate Inventories, generally for about 200 years to middle of 18th. century and containing details of house contents, tools, crops, etc. Glebe Terriers & Faculty Papers, covering buildings, lands, tithes, etc, from end of 16th. century thro’ the 17th. & 18th. The somewhat later Faculty papers cover structural changes in church or rectory and often contain detailed plans. Photographs/Drawings, particularly where they can be found. Manorial Surveys, were not done to describe houses but sometimes do so should be checked out. Hearth Tax Assessments, one can infer information re size and number of fireplaces. Maps & Plans, where they survive they give only the ground plan. These include the tithe maps of the 1840’s and the enclosure maps mainly of 1750-1850. Private estate maps may be available. Newspaper Advertisements. In many parts of England remains of industrial buildings exist including knitters’ and weavers’ cottages, (with long upper windows for maximum light), small workshops, early water-power mills, lead mills, etc. Information on these sites can be found in tithe maps, in private estate papers and in the records of industrial concerns.




The study of population changes is of fundamental importance. Over many centuries the majority of parishes were more or less self-contained, living of their own resources and using money only for the few items they couldn’t produce. However, their natural resources, including land, were fixed and, barring introduction of a new industry or discovery of minerals, increasing population led to increased pressure on land. This was evident by the early 14th. century, relieved by the advent of the Black Death, to appear again in the 17th. century, aggravated by the engrossing, (aggregation of several small farms under a single ownership), of farms. This contributed to transatlantic emigration in that period. Estimates of medieval population are difficult because of the paucity and difficulty of interpretation of sources. The Domesday Book gives households, which may give a population estimate using a multiplier of 5. [It is interesting to note that in areas of partible inheritance population density tended to be higher]. Other sources include the Hundred Rolls of 1279, which have detail for only a few areas, the Poll Taxes of 1377-1381, which are more comprehensive, and Manor Extents and Surveys for the 13th. & 14th. centuries, where they exist – these must be treated with caution because of double counting. Very little is available for the 15th. century. For 1524-1801, when the first national census was done, we have a variety of records. These include parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which should date from 1538 but often do not start before 1558. These, where complete, can be used to estimate population by getting the average annual rate of baptism for a 10-year period and multiplying by 30. [Marriage and death figures are much too variable]. Baptism figure become less reliable by early 1700’s because of the increase in non-conformity which must be adjusted for. Other sources may be available such as returns under the Act of 1695, tho’ rare, which imposed duties on births, marriages, burials, bachelors and widowers, or the ratebooks of churchwardens or of the overseers of the poor. These may be found from the late 1500’s on. Sometimes episcopal visitations give estimates of parish population. Apart from all these local records sources such as the assessments for the great subsidy of 1524-25 give a fairly comprehensive record of households and, hence, population estimate for rural parishes while the chantry certificates of 1545, listing communicants (‘houslings’), i.e., over 15’s, give population assuming <15 year olds make up 40%. In 1563 all bishops of England and Wales were required to return total of the number of families in their dioceses. Few of these survive. Muster Rolls are another source, listing all able-bodied male between 16 and 60. These numbers may be multiplied by 6 or 7 to estimate total population. Similarly the Protestation Returns of 1642, when all males >18 years were required to subscribe to an Oath of Protestation, may be useful as well as the poll/wealth tax returns of 1660 covering all persons >16 years. Households were enumerated under the Hearth Tax Assessments of 1662-1689. Very little is available for the 18th. century a time when non-conformity was spreading rapidly, large areas were being industrialised and there were dramatic population changes. From 1801 at 10-year intervals, except 1941, there are national census data. There is very little information on health especially prior to the 19th. century. Some information can be got from burial registers, which began only in 1538, and some larger town may have passing reference to plagues and epidemics in their records. By examining burial records over several years one may identify years of plague and other illnesses, in some cases time of year and duration and, perhaps, if confined to, say, the lower social class. A major item, of course, is the Bubonic Plague or Black Death which entered England in August 1348 and disappeared in 1666. For the 19th. century local newspapers are a valuable source of information as are certain Parliamentary Papers, especially the report of the Select Committee on the Health of Towns with Minutes of Evidence (1840), the Report of the Poor Law Commissioners on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842), and the report of the Royal Commission on the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices (1844-45).




First Hoskins debunks the popular notion that until recently people, especially farmers, remained rooted in one small location. It is rare to get a run of a hundred years in one parish for one family. In fact there is good evidence for mobility of both town and rural populations as far back as the 12th. century altho’ movement was generally only over a radius of only 5 – 10 miles. This chapter discusses the study of the distribution of English surnames and the movement of people through the study and compilation of lists and their changes with time. The listings of names which are available and their pitfalls/drawbacks are discussed. Examination of one class, say farmers, or at one time period can lead to erroneous conclusions. For modern studies one can use the telephone directory which has the advantage of being alphabetical and includes some 30% or so of the population. The electoral register is more comprehensive but more difficult to use. Comparing White’s Directory of 1850 for Devon with the 1851 census showed the former, often considered a very useful source, as being of little use in that it excludes so many people. A study of a single family with a distinctive name led to the conclusion that "one must gather surnames from every conceivable source, and at all feasible periods, before making generalisations about the distribution of even straightforward family names". An interesting point is that nationally surnames in England are about 16%-17% locative (i.e., derived from the placename), but this proportion may be far higher in areas with a highly dispersed early settlement. Locative names are associated with landowners, occupational with traders and artisans and nicknames, often bizarre in nature, with serfs. (No example was given of the last). Referring to sources, even the ‘fullest’ tax assessments can turn out, when checked against other records, to cover only a minority of the population. As an example, at Leicester the 1327 subsidy lists 105 taxpayers but local tallage rolls list between 300 and 400 payers in the same period. In the 19th. century the census schedules, especially for 1841-1881 can be used for surname distribution. A good way to present family names and to analyse their distribution and changes in their distribution is by plotting them on maps.




A good approach to local history is to devote oneself to the close study of a limited period, perhaps, the 19th. century and earl 20th., with abundant sources, requiring no knowledge of Latin or old handwriting, but a time of enormous change and transformation. However, Hoskins makes other suggestions such as extending our knowledge of Roman roads, or mapping prehistoric and later trackways, or Anglo-Saxon estate boundaries. One could do a study of all the ancient, (i.e., medieval and earlier), church sites in the county, their location and why; and which are mother, which daughter-churches. Another fascinating study might be that of the street names of an old town, elucidating their meaning altho’ this calls for special training. A similar study could apply to field-names. This might involve going back to the tithe maps of the 1840’s because of name changes or corruption. Another task could be to compile a catalogue of all the old maps that cane traced for the county, including those below the county level, i.e., parish map, estate maps, town plans. A very useful exercise is to index old newspapers. A list of master headings is given on pp 251, 252. Another suggested task is the compilation of a dictionary of local biography from the obituaries of local worthies. Finally Hoskins suggests reconstructing the old town of, say, 100 years ago.




Here Hoskins offers some thoughts on writing up your findings. We are exhorted not to "over-estimate the mental equipment and the power of attention of his reader. He will endeavour to write for experts and examiners, and forget that even these luckless and criminal classes are human". There are further bytes of wisdom but, perhaps, we should go along with what guidance we will get from Dr. Prunty et al.