This site contains some of my research into aspects of local and social history, particularly in relation to Staffordshire and its neighbouring counties. Some of the pieces are fairly short, being written for amusement, while others are longer and more academic. They are divided into People, Places and Themes. There are also extracts from publications that are currently available and which can be ordered through the Online Store. These pages are regularly updated with new material. To access the content please use the drop-down menus at the top. I hope you find something of interest!
What is a local historian and what does a local historian do?
I originate from North Staffordshire and studied Local History at Keele University obtaining a Certificate of Education and a Masters Degree in the subject. I also have a Post-Graduate Diploma, with Distinction, in Archives and Records Management from Liverpool University. I have worked at the Wedgwood Museum, Staffordshire County Record Office and Shugborough Hall. I have had four books published on Local History, as well as having my research published in journals, magazines and newspapers, and have given talks to a wide variety of societies and organisations.
What is Local History and what does a Local Historian do?
The importance of place, or community, is absolutely crucial in any definition of local history, and even though the subject has had a respectable status for the past sixty years, defining those boundaries is still a subject of great debate. The area may be adapted from existing administrative boundaries, as in the case of parish or borough, or may take the form of a non-geographical boundary as with studies of communities or particular localised industries. Yet even in this case the boundaries may overlap. Boundaries may also change over time. Staffordshire prior to 1974 contained what is now the separate county known as the West Midlands. Caverswall parish, up until the rapid growth of Meir and East Vale also contained those areas until separated in the early 20th century. It has also been suggested that the boundaries of a region tend to move when viewed from different standpoints.
The origins of local history can be traced back to 16th century with the publications of the first county histories. Prior to these there were various chronicles such as ‘The Lives of St. Modwen’ (c.1115), ‘The Annals of Burton’ (13th century) and ‘The History of the Abbots of Burton’ (finished 1525). During this time history was clearly the preserve of monks, written in chronicle style mainly detailing events at Burton Abbey with little pieces of local and national events alongside. In the 15th and 16th centuries written accounts of individual places emerged in the form of itineraries, such as William of Worcester's (1477-80), and John Leland (1506-52). Celia Fiennes (1662-1741) and Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) both wrote accounts of their journeys through Britain, describing in detail the places they visited. The first county history for Britain was ‘The Perambulation of Kent’ by William Lambarde (1576), Staffordshire’s earliest survey being ‘A View of Staffordshire’ by Sampson Erdswicke (1593-1603). Erdswicke concentrated mainly on heraldry and genealogy, and has very little on towns, being primarily interested in families. These early histories were heavily biased towards family histories as it was important for the gentry to be able to prove their lineage amongst their fellow peers, and it is true to say that they were written by the gentry for the gentry. So from the 16th century there occurs a change in the way history is written from the monastic chronicles to authors writing explicitly about counties based around three organising principles – topography, antiquities, and genealogy. This happens for two main reasons. Firstly the county becomes the main unit of study rather than the saint or monastic house. Secondly they were written at a time when Tudor government became more complicated and the county became the pre-eminent organisation of local government.
Walter Chetwynd published his ‘A Short Survey of Staffordshire’ (1679-88) following the trend of the time of inheriting a previous historians work and adding bits and taking bits away, and it was not until Robert Plot’s ‘The Natural History of Staffordshire’ (1684) that the second major county history was published. During the 18th century people such as John Huntbatch, Sir Simon Degg and Richard Wilkes began their own private manuscript collections. These were people who intended to write county histories but never completed or published them. Stebbing Shaw published ‘The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire’ (1791-1801) but the two volumes of arbitrarily arranged material even at the time was criticised sharply by his contemporaries. This was the last Staffordshire survey until the formation of the Victoria County Histories group published volume one of their Staffordshire Collection in 1908.
From the mid 18th century there was a growing sense for some that it was important to record history as it was on the verge of disappearing as factories and railways were beginning to stamp out England’s rural past. But, as during the 16th century, it was still aimed at the gentry. This can be seen from how it was written - recording the nobility and their mansions rather than the peasant and his hovel. This trend existed in almost all aspects of local history well into the 20th century, when industrialisation had a major impact on the way people thought, wishing to record something of their locality before another piece was lost or changed.
The 19th century saw the development of parish histories. These were mainly written by the local squire or clergyman, recording the history of his parish, manor or village, not for the residents of that place, but for other gentlemen in other parishes. This is in complete contrast to today wherein most parish histories are usually written by the residents for the residents, and includes the evolvement of people from all levels of the social scale, something that the early parish histories never did. The end of the 19th century saw the beginnings of the English tourist industry, and so town histories also began to appear. As before, the term tourist means the gentry on their touring holidays, rather than the lower classes.
But the widening of interest in local history towards the end of the 19th century meant that it was no longer the preserve of the gentry. Local history groups were formed such as the Burton on Trent Natural History and Archaeological Society (1846) and The William Salt Archaeological Society (1879). This was when the emerging middle classes took an interest making the subject slightly more democratic. It was during the 1940s and 1950s that local history became a professional academic subject, even though a considerable amount had already been written by professional historians, including F. W. Maitland, P Vinogradoff and Sir Frank Stenton. These three individuals were the first to recognise the value of studying local communities. Their successors were G. H. Tupling, J. D. Chambers, Margaret Spufford, and perhaps most influential of all, W. G. Hoskins. It was their interest in economic history that led them to study particular places over a set period of time. It was Hoskins who founded the Leicester School of History in 1948, primarily to study small communities, not in isolation, but to compare and contrast with other communities, which he considered a key point in local history. Only by doing this can we see what is unique about a community.
C. B. Phillips and J. H. Smith acknowledged the idea of Anglo-Saxon tribal divisions and said that historians cannot easily divide the country up on the basis of political units before 1066. However, Hoskins and Alan Everrett have argued that what hisrorians should be doing in identifying these regions is to look instead at the topography, so that you define a region in terms of geographical factors. Hoskins approach was the study of landscapes, trying to see the successive layers for a particular area – Roman, Saxon, Norman, Medieval, and so on. Because of the difficulty in applying a suitable name for all of these historians chose to adopt a French word ‘Pays’, first used by Joan Thirsk, to describe the landscape unit. The argument is that topography, geology and climate all had a great influence upon the pattern of human settlement and its culture, such as its economy and social relationships. This means that today there is a highly complex picture of the different cultural regions and economies in the different pays.
Alan Rogers has said that the units of local history are not artificial ones created by the scholar; rather they are organic units, men organising themselves in many ways below the national level, forming different and often overlapping communities. David Dymond has written that for many regional studies the county is not a satisfactory unit, the different pays often do not heed county boundaries and those towns which are sited on the borders have hinterlands that extend into other shires. Charles Phythian-Adams developed the idea of identifying a community with what he termed as ‘place-led’ – geographical coherence, distinct social organisation, particular cultural observances and limited migration. This works better for smaller communities rather than larger regional units. It might be argued that studying the landscape detracts from studying people, but it is those people that have helped to create changes in those landscapes.
Taking a larger area may reveal patterns that are not obvious from a single settlement study. James Hall in his 1883 study of Nantwich said that the history of the parish is the history of the nation in miniature, the idea being that it is possible to understand the evolution of an English society simply by looking at one parish. Arnold Bennett also said the same of his native Stoke on Trent in ‘The Old Wives Tale.’ So the parish has had a very strong defence as an area of study, not just because of the rich sources of records of administration. Those that did study them recognised the parish as a community. Hoskins, in particular, considered the parish as the significant unit of study. He wrote in his study of Wigston Magna that the study of population changes is absolutely fundamental to local history.
During the 1960s social themes began to emerge, such as social structure, religious beliefs, crime and punishment, mobility, migration and urbanisation, as well as the fate of the countryside. In 1965 M. W. Greenslade and D. G. Stuart published the first edition of ‘A History of Staffordshire’, and which tackled such topics. Local history based on the 20th century is almost virgin territory. Sources such as the Lloyd George Domesday of 1910 and the 1940-43 Farm Survey continue to provide material to be analysed. County studies, while still appearing, are surpassed by the parish, or more often the town or village study.
Town and village are terms defined by geographers in the past. It is important to understand that a village itself did not generate records because they were never units of administration, so any records the local historian consults will usually cover a wider geographical area than simply the village itself. Gnosall is a large parish which contains several villages and a number of hamlets. It also contained several manors. The assumption of one manor to one village does occur, but there can be several manors to one village. Anticipating what the records might contain is part of the task of the local historian. The parish generated records because in the last century the state identified the boundaries of the parish to be the unit of local government and created, not the ecclesiastical parish, but the civil parish.
What creates a problem for undertaking a study of a particular place or community prior to 1750 are the parallel systems of governance – secular, ecclesiastical and manorial – each of which created its own records, the relationship between each not necessarily explicit. Secular, referring to the shire, hundred and borough, can be split into two groups, judicial and fiscal. Judicial containing the records of the county court or the court of quarter sessions, with fiscal covering taxation records. Ecclesiastical includes diocese, deaneries and archdeaconries, through to parishes, minsters and chapels. Their records include parish registers, church court records and probate records, such as wills and inventories. Manorial, covering lordship and service, generated two types of records, manorial estate records and the records of the manorial court.
Most local historians work from evidence to obtain conclusions, often without controlling the amount of evidence that they obtain. The assimilation of a large amount of source material is the principle professional dilemma for local historians – deciding which pieces of information are relevant. The two main methods of conducting research are question-based and source-based. Question-based involves asking a specific question which could be applied to a number of places. Source-based involves conducting research for which there are good records. Source based questions are more interesting when they include source linkage, such as comparing maps with censuses. The most useful sources are those known as cadastral sources, meaning national in coverage but local in detail, so that contrasts and comparisons can easily be made.
Local history has challenged the ways in which national history is viewed. The rise in popularity in the subject during the last sixty years has occurred due to improved access to archives, as well as increased leisure time. Along with the provision of courses run by universities, and the ease and cheapness of desktop publishing, it has enabled practically anyone to compile a local history.