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Natural History and the VCH

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Every so often we get an enquiry about a natural history entry in a VCH red book. Largely completed before the First World War, the general volumes in each county series include natural history and provide a fascinating snap shot of the local ecology a century ago. The first natural history editor, Aubyn B.R. Trevor-Battye, recruited some of the most eminent naturalists of the day to write entries outside of his specialities. Notably the Revd T.R.R. Stebbing wrote the entries on crustaceans for all 40 counties.

Entries are often idiosyncratic and sometimes slightly bad tempered! Colbran J. Wainwright, in the introduction to the Lepidoptera section of Warwickshire Volume 1 (1904), bemoans the fact he has to rely on the Rugby School Natural History Society for a particular area as these are “..merely schoolboys’ records and naturally very untrustworthy”. Despite “many absurd errors which made one distrustful of the whole list” he admits that “no schoolboy is likely to be wrong about a species like Zeuzera pyrina, L.” and includes the reports “excluding the most improbable ones”.

Zeuzera pyrina. Photograph taken by Olaf Leillinger.

Zeuzera pyrina. Photograph taken by Olaf Leillinger.

Whilst the charm of the writing alone often makes the chapters worth reading, there is still much valuable ecological knowledge to be gained. One of our more surprising requests came from the Kazkhstan Entomological Society looking for information on a particular spider (Sardinidion blackwalli). The researcher had found a reference to the entry in The Victoria History of the County of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely: Volume 1 (1938) but could not find a copy in any library in Kazakhstan, Russia or Finland. In these cases we are happy to assist individual researchers when we can. For more on red book publications see our website www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk.

This post was kindly written by Rebecca Read, VCH Administrator.

Shropshire volume launched

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On Friday 24th October 2014, the eighth volume of the Victoria County History of Shropshire series was launched in Shrewsbury. Shropshire Volume VI, part 1, is the first of a two part treatment of the town and Liberties of Shrewsbury and is the first volume published in the Shropshire series for 16 years.

The launch took place in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. The largest of Shrewsbury’s medieval parish churches, designated as redundant in 1987 and currently in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, St Mary’s provided a dramatic setting for the launch of the volume and the second of 2014′s Marc Fitch Lectures.

Trevor Rowley (Kellogg College, Oxford) delivered this autumn’s Marc Fitch lecture which comprised reflections on his seminal work, ‘The Making of the Shropshire Landscape‘ forty years on from its original publication.

The lecture was preceded by an address from the incoming VCH Director, Professor Richard Hoyle whose introduction to both the Shrewsbury volume and the Shropshire series detailed his plans and aspirations for work in the county to begin again in earnest and included a call for pledges of financial support and assistance in forming a County Committee to move the project forward.

Professor Hoyle presents the Mayor with a copy of the volume.

Professor Hoyle presents the Mayor with a copy of the volume.

Upon the conclusion of the lecture and following a short break for wine and refreshments, attention turned to the formal business of launching the volume. Speaking on behalf of the numerous contributors to Volume VI, part 1, Dr Bill Champion gave a lighthearted account of the long and, at times, turbulent gestation of the Shrewsbury volume. We were thrilled the Mayor of Shrewsbury, Beverley Baker was able to join us and Professor Hoyle presented a copy of the volume to her.

The event was excellently attended, with more than 100 people present to see the volume launched; a number no doubt inflated by Professor Hoyle’s interview on BBC Radio Shropshire the previous day. In addition to the Mayor, County Archivist and numerous members of the Shropshire local history community, it was especially pleasing to see so many who have been associated with the VCH Shropshire project to date, including Shrewsbury volume contributors Bob Cromarty, Barbara Coulton and Nigel Baker, former County Editor George Baugh and Reverend Canon D.T.W. Price, who was Assistant to Shropshire’s first County Editor, A.T. Gaydon in the late 1960s. After this successful event we now must turn our attention to the completion and publication of Volume VI, part 2. Keep checking our website for news and updates on this volume.

Copies of this volume are available directly from our publisher, Boydell & Brewer.

 

Professor Richard Hoyle appointed as VCH Director & General Editor

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Professor Richard HoyleThe IHR is pleased to announce the appointment of Professor Richard Hoyle to the position of Director and General Editor of the Victoria County History. He will join the University as Professor of English Local and Regional History from 1 October. Joining us from the University of Reading, where he is Professor of Rural History, Richard is one of the leading economic and social historians of early modern England, and notably of rural society. Richard will bring a wealth of erudition and experience to the role as we move the VCH into the future.

How do you read a series like the Victoria County History?

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The benefits of a digitised volume.

“In the mid 18th century the vicar [of Hayes] complained his parishioners at800px-Noisy_Cockeral_(6880838548)tended cock-fights, swore, & rioted in the churchyard during Shrove Tuesday services. At about the same date he was having trouble both with his choir, which upset the congregation by singing the wrong psalms, and with the bellringers, who rang the bells during the services and spat from the belfry upon the seated congregation.” A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 4 (1971)

Many volumes (165 to date) of the Victoria County History are digitised, online and free to view at British History Online. For many readers and collectors the joy in a red book comes from the in-depth and thorough investigation of a particular parish in a particular county; perhaps the county in which the reader resides or where they are originally from. There is much to be gained in reading the history of place this way but quite often I prefer another…

As Publications Manager I am responsible for communications including the set-up and maintenance of our Twitter account (@VCH_London) and sourcing our Facts of the Day for our website. I regularly use our digitised volumes for work such as this as I am able to search thematically, with key words, across a county set. Searching in this way allows me to find relevant material to focus tweets and facts to current events, important dates or special occasions. Sometimes the returns on these searches can be quite quirky such as the opening lines of this blog taken from a quick hunt for Shrove Tuesday facts. Colourful extracts such as the above from Middlesex volume 4 often reveal ways of life or practices now extinct or only distantly remembered yet they are often somehow familiar too.

How about…

A 16th-century witch feeding her familiars“For the first few months of 1579 Fisherton parsonage was the home of Simon Forman (1552–1611), astrologer and quack. Fisherton is also associated with two witches: Agnes Mills, widow, hanged for murdering by witchcraft William, son of Edward and Agnes Baynton, in 1564…” A History of Wiltshire: Volume 6 (1962) 

…perhaps not so familiar an event (!) but fascinating nonetheless. All red books contain detailed footnotes and our digitised versions are just as thorough, enabling the reader to follow up their research with the primary source if they want to delve even deeper into a particular topic.

So, next time you have a few minutes to spare I urge you to dip in-and-out of our online digitised volumes, you never know what you might find!

Contributors to the VCH

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Professor Christopher Elrington editing VCH texts in the old General Editor's office at the IHR.

Professor Christopher Elrington editing VCH texts in the old General Editor’s office at the IHR.

William Page was the first famous and influential General Editor of the Victoria County History. He succeeded H. Arthur Doubleday of the founding publishers, Constable & Co., who had had sole editorial responsibility from 1900 until Page became joint editor in 1902. Page spent 32 years as General Editor until his death in 1934, setting a precedent for longevity in post which meant that between 1902 and the retirement of Christopher Currie in 1999, the VCH had only five General Editors: Page, L.F. Salzman, Ralph Pugh, Christopher Elrington, and Christopher Currie. The requirement for the General Editor to coordinate the work of increasingly complex county organisations, while acting as an academic figure head, prompted a change in the role, which was combined with that of Director of the VCH, with Professor Anthony Fletcher and Professor John Beckett each holding the post for five years. Whilst work has continued for the last four years under the leadership of the Executive Editor Elizabeth Williamson, we are very pleased that the Institute of Historical Research is again looking to appoint a General Editor/Director to guide the VCH into an exciting future.

Alongside the General Editor/Director the red book series has also greatly benefited from the scholarship of a multitude of notable contributors. The consultants brought in by Doubleday to oversee the chapters in general volumes included the Romanist Professor Francis Haverfield, and J.H. Round whose knowledge of Domesday Book was very well employed in the series. Page’s reorganisation of the VCH office in 1904 meant that many of the general chapters were subsequently written by younger scholars, including Frank Stenton who was to become one of the finest medieval historians of the 20th century.

When the VCH was revived in 1933, work began on a new basis with parish histories produced by county teams, and far fewer general volumes which had, nevertheless, much material by established scholars. W.G. Hoskins signed up Rodney Hilton, Joan Thirsk, J.H. Plumb and Jack Simmons to write chapters in the general Leicestershire volumes, and although he wrote little on the county himself, he contributed to Wiltshire volumes, as did Lawrence Stone, Eric Kerridge, F.M.L. Thompson, E.M. Carus-Wilson, Julia de Lacey Mann, Maurice Beresford, Joel Hurstfield, and S.T. Bindoff, and two eminent archaeologists, Stuart Piggott and Barrie Cunliffe. Contributors to Cambridgeshire included H.C. Darby, Helen M. Cam, Herbert Butterfield, and Edward Miller. Asa Briggs was amongst the Warwickshire authors, while A.G. Dickens and the distinguished regionalist, G.C.F. Forster contributed to the volume on York.

You can read more about the history of the VCH and the people who have contributed to the series since 1899 in our publication The Victoria County History 1899-2012: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration available now from SAS publications.

VCH and the Marc Fitch Fund

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Dr Tristram Hunt delivering his lecture; 'Aristocracy and Industry: the Sutherlands in Staffordshire'.

Dr Tristram Hunt delivering his lecture; ‘Aristocracy and Industry: the Sutherlands in Staffordshire’.

The Victoria County History’s association with the Marc Fitch Fund is long-standing and we are indebted to their loyal support of our project at both national and county level. As Publications Manager for the series I am used to seeing Marc Fitch’s name in our volumes but who was this man inscribed in so many red books? The ODNB was able to help.

Marcus Felix Brudenell (Marc) Fitch (1908-1994) was born in London although from a long descent in Essex. The Fitch family had been highly successful cheesemongers and grocers in the City (obtaining royal warrants when trading as Fitch & Son) and, after a period abroad, Fitch went into the family trade becoming a director by 1930. During the Second World War Fitch saw active service in Africa and the Middle East as a member of the intelligence corps. Upon his return to England he moved to Olivers, a Georgian house in Stanway, Essex. Wishing to learn more about his new home Fitch began to investigate the local archives. You can read more about the history of Olivers on BHO.

Though not an academically-qualified historian (having been sent abroad after school by his father to learn of business rather than go to university) Marc Fitch was a man of learning and continued to develop a keen interest in genealogy and history, actively participating in the field. He was treasurer, then Chairman, of the British Record Society (1949-1967) and his own research work is clear to see in many of the society’s volumes. Over his lifetime business had made Marc Fitch wealthy but his love of history (especially that of localities) meant that when friend Francis Steer brought to his attention the lack of financial support for publishing in Sussex, he set up the Marc Fitch Fund (1956) to enable archaeological, historical and genealogical titles to be published. It is from this fund that the VCH has benefited greatly; recent volumes could not have been published without its support. A fitting testament to his life-long work in history was the establishment of the Centre for English Local History at Leicester which enables students to study for post-graduate qualifications specifically in English local history.

Another element to the Fund’s support is our lecture series. The popular annual Marc Fitch lecture has become something of a staple in the VCH diary. For many years it was held in London (usually at the IHR) and speakers have included Linda Colley, Roy Strong, Simon Thurley, Michael Wood and David Starkey. In 2013 it was agreed that the Fitch lecture should move around VCH counties and we aim to organise three per year. So far, Tristram Hunt MP spoke in Staffordshire and Christopher Dyer in Northamptonshire. In 2014 we are looking forward to Fitch lectures in Derbyshire, Shropshire and Durham. Please check our website for announcements.