By V. H. T. Skipp


[Extracted from Finberg, H. P. R. and V. H. T. Skipp Local History: Objective and Pursuit David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1967, pp. 87-102.]


I first became actively interested in local history eleven years ago, in 1955, when I was appointed head of the History Department at a new Birmingham Comprehensive School. I decided that I would like to introduce some local history into the syllabus - not just the history of Birmingham, I thought, but also something about Sheldon, where the school itself was situated, and where most of the children lived. In the present century Sheldon has become a mere suburb of Birmingham, but for a thousand years before that it had existed as a separate little village, a local community in its own right. The medieval parish church was still there. So were the manor-house, the village school, two of the village inns, and several black and white farmhouses and cottages. I wanted to get the children looking at these survivals from the past in their own neighbourhood and learning to make sense of them.

Unfortunately I could find out very little myself about the history of Sheldon. Apart from a not very helpful account in the Victoria County History, and a few cursory references elsewhere, nothing appeared to have been written about the place.

On the other hand, visits to the County Record Office at Warwick, the Birmingham Reference Library, and, above all, to the parish church, with its well-stocked parish chest - these visits soon proved that there was no shortage of original source material.

I decided that the only thing to do was to write my own local history. However, I had not got far before it became obvious that if I was going to rely exclusivelyon myown spare-time labours, this task would take a very long time indeed. My pupils, I thought, would have left school, married, and produced children of their own, before I had much to tell them about the history of Sheldon. It was then that an alternative occurred to me: what was needed was to tackle the work, not on my own, but with the help of a group.

To begin with I tried this approach with my school historical society. But its members were all under thirteen, and although considerable progress was made in some directions, the difficulties of undertaking other aspects of the work with such young children soon became apparent. So in 1957 under the auspices of the Extramural Department of Birmingham University, I started the 'Discovering Sheldon' research course with adults.

Thirty-five people enrolled on the first evening, and twenty-nine of them were still with me when work was concluded three years later, with a specially built travelling exhibition and the publication of a brief parish history. (1) In 1960 new 'Discovering' classes were opened to cover four parishes adjacent to Sheldon, namely Bickenhill, Elmdon, Solihull, and Yardley .Of these the Bickenhill course has already been completed, again with an exhibition and the publication of a parish history. (2) This means that at the present time a compact block of five adjoining north-Warwickshire parishes have been, or are being, brought under scrutiny, the area involved amounting to rather more than 26,000 acres. These 'Discovering' courses, which are all under my own direction, have been planned on uniform lines. The intention in each case is to study, as far as the limitations of time and material will allow, the development of a local community over the centuries in all its aspects, topographical, economic, social, political, cultural.

We also hope that when the individual parish histories are finished we shall be able to prepare several comparative studies - a discussion of the agrarian history of the area from the Anglo-Saxon settlement to the present day; an analytical examination of over three hundred local inventories which have already been transcribed; a study of poor law administration in the area, and so on.

Now I realize that this kind of project could only be carried out in highly favourable circumstances, such as one finds in big cities and conurbations. In Birmingham we enjoy many advantages which - though they can hardly be unique - are not necessarily found elsewhere.

In the first place, we have no recruitment difficulties whatever. We get the numbers that an extensive project requires, and we also get the right quality of student - people with a good general academic background. My Sheldon group included twelve schoolteachers. Three had degrees in History, and just as usefully, one had a degree in Geography. In addition there was a works manager, an engineer, and an accountant. On other courses I have had various other types of business people, a solicitor, a farm bailiff, a professional photographer, a journalist, a doctor.

Another respect in which we are lucky at Birmingham is that, on the whole, we find it fairly easy to get hold of the documentary material that is required. In every case, the contents of the parish chest have been made available by the incumbent, though this has meant holding meetings in the church, or in some adjacent building - not always the warmest or most comfortable of places in mid-winter.

Provided we observe certain safeguards, both the Birmingham Reference Library and the Warwick Record Office have been prepared to arrange long-term loans of some types of documents - deed collections, Poor Law Union minutes, parochial records. With other material this is not possible, but then we make a series of visits to the repository itself, if necessary on Saturday mornings.

For documents at the Public Record Office, and other central archives, the University provides a generous annual allowance, so that photostats and microfilms may be obtained. For projecting microfilm we use an ordinary film-strip projector, supplied by the University.

Every 'Discovering' course begins with a series of lectures to initiate people into the work. But there-after we break down into a number of small research teams, each engaged in a particular aspect of the overall study: for example, population, the topography of the parish, place- and field-names, the care of the poor.

At the end of each year's work, reports of the various investigations are put in duplicated form for distribution to members; and it is on the basis of these reports that the parish history is ultimately written.

The reports are often lengthy, containing far more material than finds its way into the history; so that each course produces about a hundred pages of typescript each year. We do the typing ourselves, but the Extra mural Department undertakes the duplicating, as well as providing paper and duplicating skins. The University is also prepared to finance the publication of the histories and pay for the building of exhibitions. Money from the sale of the books goes back to the University, the price being so arranged that a sell-out produces a small profit.

Finally, being on the doorstep of the University, we are well placed for extra-tutorial help. If good work is to be done, it is important that students should be fed with plenty of general background material, particularly on the social and economic sides. Accompanying the research sessions, therefore, we run a series of lecture meetings and some of these are addressed by University lecturers, speaking on a wide range of specialist topics, stimulating the students, and gradually opening up the wider perspectives which are so essential in local work.

Here, then, are some of the ways in which teamwork in local history is 'featherbedded' in Birmingham. In remote rural areas few or none of these advantages may obtain; in which case, local projects may have to be correspondmgly less ambitious. This does not mean that, in their own way, they may not still be well worth doing. At the same time I would like to urge that where wider opportunities exist, local groups should attempt work which is as advanced and as ambitious as possible.

This brings me to the central issue: What is the place of team-work in the writing of local history? My own view is that it ought to occupy an extremely important place. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the future progress and development of local history itself could well be seriously inhibited unless ways and means are found of utilizing the tremendous reserves of amateur interest and amateur talent which we all of us know to be available.

In some respects what is happening in local history today seems not dissimilar from what happened in archaeology about a hundred years ago. I realize that, for all sorts of reasons, it would be dangerous to press this analogy too far. Nevertheless, provided we bear in mind that it is only an analogy, it may help us to appreciate - more starkly than we could perhaps do otherwise - what is the actual situation in local history at the present time.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a salutary revolution was taking place in the study of archaeology. Before this, from all accounts, archaeology had been little more than a kind of treasure-hunt indulged in by the squire, the parson, and the local gentry. When you dug, you dug for gold - or at least for some rare and tangible artefact.

Then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a new and more serious concept of the subject began to gain ground. The purpose was no longer to dig merely for artefacts, but rather, by careful observation and recording, to reconstruct the whole history of the site being excavated - with the additional aim, beyond this, of finding out as much as possible about the people who had built the structure, and lived there. Henceforward plans and sections and soil samples were just as important as things for the mantelpiece - or even for the museum. A post-hole or a drain could evoke as much enthusiasm as a gold stater or the most exquisitely proportioned pot.

Now, like the old-style archaeology, local history in the past used to be very much the prerogative of the parson and the squire. Moreover, it was essentially a treasure-hunt. The gold in this case was a fastidiously documented descent of the manor; a family pedigree going back to the Conquest - often not so fastidiously documented; the history of the family coat of arms. Meanwhile, as in the old archaeology, the actual site of the treasure was largely ignored. That is to say, there was an almost total neglect of the history of the local community itself.

Happily, over the last few decades - and thanks especially to the teaching of the Leicester school - all this has begun to change, so that now, at last, a new concept of local history is gradually establishing itself which is characterized by infinitely wider aims.

The concern today is not only with the descent of the manor and the fortunes of the local big families, but also, and equally, with the history of the husbandman, the village craftsman, the cottage, and the pauper down the centuries. And with the history of the place itself - its changing landscape, its fields, its industries, its lanes, its houses. The aim, in short, is nothing less.than to reconstruct the full history of the town or vlllage: to produce, as it were, the biography of a community.

To the extent to which all this is true, local history is currently emerging, almost, one might say, as an entirely new field of study - just as archaeology emerged as a new field of study about a century ago. So far the parallel I have drawn relates to aims. But I would suggest that, associated with this, there is a second and equally important analogy, this time regarding method.

Because of the ambitious nature of its objectives, and the enormous amount of work entailed in their pursuit, the new archaeology had to train and utilize large numbers of amateur workers. What archaeologist would dream of excavating a Roman settlement on his own? Clearly, this is work for a team of people; some of them, it is to be hoped, almost as experienced and skilled as the directing archaeologist himself, others mere novices.

And surely - to a considerable extent, and for similar reasons - this is the situation with the new local history. Only those who have tried to work through the Leicester formula - to reconstruct the history of a local community in all its aspects, from its foundation down to the present day - only those who have tried to do this can have any idea of the amount of work that is involved.

Let me give an example. One of the first jobs we do when we start work on a parish is to take the mid-nineteenth-century tithe map and award and produce from this a series of four maps: one, showing the land-ownership about 1840; a second, the land occupation - the farms; a third showing land utilisation - arable, pasture, or meadow; and a fourth showing all the field-names.

This series of maps, when completed, gives a really thorough understanding of the topography and the tenurial situation in the parish as it was a little over a hundred years ago. Because of the tendency for field-names and-quite often-ownership and occupation units to persist unchanged over the centuries, these maps also provide an ideal basis from which to begin working out the medieval topography. I would hesitate myself to tackle a local research without the tithe award behind me, and without producing these four maps from it.

But consider the work that is involved. The largest of our parishes, Solihull, has over 3,000 fields. To make and colour the four maps took a team of eight people a full year of course time, that is to say, forty-eight hours. The inference is that one research worker would have taken not far short of four hundred, or, on the basis of a forty-hour week, ten weeks.

Or take population. In all but one of our parishes, before we could start population work, it was necessary to transcribe the complete baptismal register at the very least. Again, here is a year's course time, for anything from six to ten people, depending on the size of the parish. And these are just a couple of the preliminary jobs. Relatively speaking, they don't amount to much more than the archaeologist stripping off his turf.

In his preface to Discovering Bickenhill, Professor Finberg estimated that the task of producing that book would have taken a solitary historian anything up to five years, if he could have given his whole time to it; and anything up to ten if he had pursued it in the intervals of other work. The group had completed and published its research in the space of three.

Some may feel that speed is no recommendation. If standards were in jeopardy, this would indeed be true. But I am postulating an efficiently organized and professionally controlled type of research in which standards are not in jeopardy. Furthermore, there are over ten thousand ancient parishes in this country, all of which, ideally speaking, need studying and re-studying along the lines which are being laid down by modern scholarship. In addition, there is almost limitless scope for wider regional studies. With this kind of future programme, it seems to me that it is in the very logic of the situation that the new local history - like the new archaeology before it - needs to be developed as a group activity.

If amateurs working in groups are going to make a significant contribution to the new local history, clearly we have to think of them as organizing themselves in many different ways. The W.E.A. or extramural class, about which I am mostly speaking, is only one of them, though probably it is better suited than any other for the comprehensive investigation of individual local communities, for the writing of town and village histories.

Another type of organization which has much useful work before it is the local history society. As well as the part such bodies play in fostering general interest in the subject, they are admirably placed to promulgate regional and county studies of various kinds. One thinks, for instance, of the piece of work done by the East Yorkshire Local History Society on 'Parish Registers and Illiteracy in East Yorkshire.' From 1754 marriage registers required the newly-weds either to sign their names or, if they could not write, to make their marks. By counting the marks and signatures year by year it is possible to form some idea of the progress of literacy. Individual members of the East Yorkshire Society worked on different parish registers and counted the marks and signatures. Then this material was collated centrally and the results were written up and published in pamphlet form.

Literally dozens of useful surveys could be carried out in a similar way. Nor would this kind of work in any sense quarrel with the parochial studies being undertaken by local groups. On the contrary, it would greatly aid and augment them. The more regional publications there are available, the easier it is for the local group to place its own town or village in its proper context and perspective.

Yet another possibility is the organizing of group work on a national scale. The recently launched Cambridge Demographic Research project represents a pioneer effort of this kind; and it is feasible that the Standing Conference for Local History could encourage similar nation-wide investigations through its County Committees.

So far I have been stressing the enormous future scope for team-work in local history. Before concluding, I ought perhaps to mention some of the requirements which need to be met and some of the difficulties which will have to be overcome, if such team-work is to be really successful and effective.

One of the most urgent needs is to discover and train suitable research directors. Everywhere the demand for local history research courses greatly exceeds the supply of tutors. Not only that, but many of the tutors who are being used by the W.E.A. and extramural Departments have little understanding of how to tackle local projects.

In a good number of classes, nothing more is attempted than the transcription of documents for its own sake. In others, some effort is made to extract facts, but because the tutor himself lacks the necessary background and judgement, he is unable to instil these qualities in his students. The result is that everyone is overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of material - and either nothing is written up at all, or, if it is, what results is an exceedingly ill-conceived, ill-digested, and amorphous compilation.

The day is past - or ought to be past - when a bit of palaeography, a bit of medieval Latin, and a 'manors and castles' interest in local history, fitted people to conduct research courses in this subject. As Professor Finberg emphasizes, the new local history is a highly advanced and complex discipline (3); If we accept this, surely it must ultimately be the task of the universities to train professionals in this sphere - as they already train professional archaeologists. Until more universities follow Leicester's example and accept this responsibility, far too many local groups are bound to languish and falter for want of proper guidance.

Closely associated with the need for fully trained research directors there is the need to work out and perfect a whole series of basic techniques for use in the various branches of the subject.

Each community is unique and will present its own difficulties and problems: At the same time, many of the issues that need to be investigated are common ones. How do you estimate population totals before the first decennial census? What dangers and pitfalls have to be avoided in endeavouring to do so? How can an assessment be made from the parish registers of the extent of immigration and emigration at various times? How can you estimate the expectation of life in former centuries? How do you set about systematically reconstructing the medieval topography of a village by the use of the mid-nineteenth-century tithe award and medieval deed material?

Once methods have been worked out and disseminated for tackling these and the many other problems, amateurs will have little difficulty in applying them. rchaeology has only been able to use amateur workers to the extent that it has because it has got its own basic techniques firmly established. In local history, as in archaeology, the existence of standard techniques will ensure, not merely that the right questions are asked; but also that they are answered in the right way and with the proper safeguards. Indeed, on the level of data collection and analysis these techniques should do much of the amateur's thinking for him. At the same time, scope will always be left for an original and creative response to the material, particularly when the time comes for synthesis and presentation.

Good research directors, good techniques; the other thing required is good amateur workers.

Here the recruitment of suitable people is important, but still more important perhaps is to cut down the wastage of experienced amateurs; to try to see that once people have been trained they are not lost to the work.

What happens, all too often, is that adult students take part in one local research, lasting two or three years - and by the end of it they really are beginning to get to grips with the disciplines involved. Unfortunately, that is the end of it. Either there is no second course for them to join - or else, if there is, they lack the inclination to join it.

We have found with the 'Discovering' classes that one of the great merits of studying a block of parishes is that students are able to pass on to a second and even a third course. Twenty-one of the twenty-nine finishers at Sheldon joined the Bickenhill, Elmdon, Solihull, or Yardley groups. Half a dozen of them joined at two places. This meant that when we started these new courses we already had a sizeable nucleus of trained people who could help the others to pick up the work. Ten of my students are now in their ninth year with me; three have assisted from time to time with tutorial work.

It is possible that this idea of studying a group of parishes could help towards building up effective research teams in rural areas, particularly if the initial class were put on at a place which was reasonably populous and where one could be sure of getting a good initial recruitment.

Of course, left to themselves, many amateurs would have no inclination to join a second research. Most of them don't start off with a general interest in local history; they start with a particular interest in their own town or village. Before they will want to study another local community, apart from their own, this excessive parochialism has to be overcome, and their perspectives widened. But then that ought be one of the objects of a good local history course in any case.

Lastly, what about the serious practical difficulties that at present beset many local groups? I refer to things like the difficulty of gaining access to documents, financing publications, and so on.

My own belief is that these problems will gradually be overcome as the level of work done by amateur groups is improved, as public appreciation of this work increases, and as academic opinion learns to take the new local history more seriously.

A remarkable extension of archive services has occurred over the last twenty years, and if public interest continues to grow, the future may see still morre being done to improve the availability of documentary material. Microfilm and photostat facilities might be further extended - perhaps on a loan basis. Better staffed, the record offices would no doubt be prepared to accommodate adult groups in the evenings. Even a mobile archive service could conceivably be developed, so that in rural areas the mountain could go to Mohammed.

Similarly, as the new local history gathers momentum, the universities, trusts of various kinds, even perhaps local government authorities may show an increasing readiness to supply the comparatively modest financial assistance that local groups require.

In all these matters, we have to remember that it is still early days. The tenets of the Leicester school were not fully enunciated until 1952. It was not until the early 'fifties that the pioneer adult education groups began their researches; their publications have only been appearing for about ten years. Obviously this has not been long enough to overcome all the practical difficulties. Nor would it be reasonable to expect that the techniques of team-work have yet been perfected. Nevertheless, I imagine that most professional historians who are interested in local history would agree that this movement has made a promising start. However right or wrong I may have been in my detailed assessments and prognostications, I am myself convinced that it has before it an extremely promising future.



1. V. H. T. Skipp, Discovering Sheldon, Department of Extramural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1960.

2. V. H. T. Skipp and R. P. Hastings, Discovering Bickenhill, Department of Extramural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1963.

3. page 44.