This post first appeared on our British History Online blog. British History Online is currently making freely available all the inventory volumes of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England:
Following the publication of the RCHME, Essex volumes on British History Online, the architectural historian James Bettley has kindly written a guest post about the value, and limitations, of these volumes. Dr Bettley’s revision of the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Essex was published by Yale University Press in 2007; he was also one of the contributors to the Victoria County History of Essex, Volume 11, published in 2012.
The Inventory of Historical Monuments in Essex
The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) covered Essex in four generous volumes, published between 1916 and 1923. Essex was larger then than it is now – the south-west corner was cut off in 1965, to become the London boroughs of Barking, Newham, Havering, Redbridge, and Waltham Forest – but nonetheless the number of pages devoted to the county is a fair indication of the quantity of interesting buildings still to be found within its borders.
The fieldwork was carried out before the outbreak of the First World War, so it would not be unreasonable to question the value of an inventory that is now nearly a century old. But for those of us who work daily with historic buildings – and for those who only very occasionally wish to find out about an individual building – the Essex volumes remain an invaluable source of information. The descriptions of the major buildings, especially churches, are more detailed than Pevsner’s could be, and because they are written in fluent English, with a minimum of specialist terminology, and follow a standard format, they are easier to follow than the often impenetrable descriptions of the later statutory lists. Nearly all the parish churches, and selected secular buildings, are accompanied by a plan that shows the different phases of building, and there are numerous photographs taken in what was arguably the heyday of architectural photography. The maps are still often the best way of locating an individual building. And for those who wish to know more, the investigators’ original notes, often with additional plans and photographs, can be consulted at the National Monuments Record in Swindon.
Of course, the volumes have what seem to us now to be shortcomings. The brief was to cover buildings ‘from the earliest times to the year 1700’, extended in 1913 to 1714; any building (or any alteration to an older building) after that date was usually just described as ‘modern’. Moreover, works of this kind are only as good as the current state of knowledge, and timber-framed houses (especially plentiful in Essex) were assumed to be 17th, or sometimes late 16th, century, unless otherwise stated; most are now known to be considerably earlier. But that does not detract from the overall value of the descriptions.
The volumes have also become monuments in themselves. They record buildings that no longer exist, such as Little Horkesley Church
destroyed by a stray bomb in 1940; or the interior of Castle Hedingham, before it was ravaged by fire in 1918. Many of Essex’s country houses are of later date than 1714, but Albyns, Belhus, Hallingbury Place, Marks Hall, Shortgrove and Weald Hall
all now demolished, are described and illustrated as they were at their period of greatest extent.
The circumstances surrounding the compiling of the volumes are also of historic interest, as Rachael Lazenby’s post mentions. But there was another aspect to the work that was not covered in the surprisingly interesting Report that was printed at the beginning of the first Essex volume. In the Report one of the investigators, Captain R. E. M. Wheeler, is congratulated on his commission in the Royal Field Artillery. Wheeler was to become better known as the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, and in his biography Still Digging (1955) he gives an account of his first day’s probationary work in Essex with the senior investigator, J. Murray Kendall, in 1913. They met (with their bicycles) at Liverpool Street Station and began with what Kendall called ‘a Little Reinforcement’ – a ‘double whisky in new milk’. This was followed with similar reinforcement upon arrival at Dunmow, before starting work at Stebbing, where Wheeler’s realisation that he knew nothing about the items he was being asked to describe was consoled by a third reinforcement at the White Hart. What with that, and the outbreak of war the following year, it seems miraculous that the volumes ever appeared at all.