“In the mid 18th century the vicar [of Hayes] complained his parishioners attended 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.
“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!
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.
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 ODNBwas 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.