This post was kindly written for us by Alex Porter – Head of History, Parmiter’s School
The paradox of teaching A Level history is that you know very well your students’ education would be better served by studying topics in greater depth but unfortunately this has the potential to hamper their achievements in examination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in textbooks.
An A Level textbook can be a comfort but the range of sources provided in textbooks is very limited. This limitation is for two reasons, the first being the examiners need to hold onto some sources to base examination questions on, but also because the textbook is supposed to be just enough for the average student to get by on. In theory you could use it all on its own and get the top grade. Yet this doesn’t necessarily help make the best historians, and the best students know this. The high achievers need to be stretched and this means more sources.
As a result, many history teachers will punch phrases into Google on a regular basis in the forlorn hope that there will be some magical archive of sensibly arranged contemporary information that could be mined for use in lessons. Those that teach courses on Henry VIII will likely have found solace in the comforting embrace of British History Online. I am one of them.
I was initially searching for contemporary accounts of Henry VII in order to put together a lesson investigating the circumstances of Henry VIII’s accession. What I ended up finding was Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1: 1509-1514, an extremely rich seam of court papers and accounts from the reign of Henry VIII. It included a missive apparently from the Venetian ambassador dated 8th May 1509, in which Henry VII was described as ‘a most miserly (miserissimo) man but of great genius, who has accumulated more gold than that possessed by all the other Christian kings’.
This was perfect material. The provenance was such that it afforded the students an opportunity to consider how Henry VII might have been considered outside his realm, but also gave real meat to the idea of his wealth in comparison with others around Europe. It wasn’t long before I was reading details of the condolence note to Henry VIII from Ferdinand of Aragon.
Such information is invaluable to me in the delivery of this course. It provides me with a deeper understanding of the affairs at court in the period and allows me to drop anecdotes into lessons that pique the interest of my students. It also gives me the material needed in the delivery of lessons that go beyond the narrow confines of the set text.
Since this happy find, I have been back on British History Online more than once and not alone. My school has developed a “Bring Your Own Device” policy allowing students to safely use their phones and tablets in lessons, so I was able to encourage my students to undertake their own research in a subsequent lesson. It wasn’t long before a number of them were trawling through these records, attempting to establish the use of the term Alter Rex for themselves to see if it only ever applied to Wolsey.
With the use of websites such as British History Online and the assistance of a progressive ICT policy it has become possible not only to find extremely useful resources for myself but to encourage students to develop their learning independently. In ordinary circumstances I would be harvesting their finds as Wolsey gathered tithes but we have to change our A Level for next year and no doubt there’ll be a new set of narrowly focused textbooks to use. At least this time I’ll know where to look for some sources.
Danny asked me to introduce myself to IHR blog readers so I figured I would tell you a little bit about myself and my position as Publishing Manager for British History Online (BHO). My name is Sarah Milligan and I joined BHO four weeks ago. Before that, I was a research assistant for two digital projects, the Map of Early Modern London and the Internet Shakespeare Editions, both of which are based at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada. My background is in English literature (I did my MA degree on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese) but English and History tend to intersect quite a bit and I was a long-time user of BHO before I ever came to work here.
I only recently moved to London so I have been settling into the city just as I have been settling into the IHR. Luckily, everyone has been very welcoming and I think things are off to a good start. Here are some of my favourite things about working for BHO:
Receiving emails from readers telling me about the myriad of unique ways that they use BHO. On the one hand, having such a wide variety of readers makes it challenging to create a resource that meets all of their needs, but it is also wonderful to see BHO’s texts being searched and consulted in ways that we may have never anticipated.
The IHR encourages collaboration, both formally and informally. Whenever I have a question, I can usually pop into the office of whomever specialises in that topic and receive a quick answer. I love the sense of teamwork here.
Working in Senate House, in the heart of Bloomsbury, is pretty fantastic. I can’t help but thinking about all the great minds that have lived and worked on the streets surrounding our BHO office.
I am joining BHO at a really exciting time. We are in the middle of redeveloping our website and we are thinking about how to make BHO easier to search and more intuitive to use. We also want to develop a stronger sense of community amongst our BHO readers.
I am looking forward to letting you know about all the new developments we are working on. If you want to stay up to date on what we are up to, please follow us on Twitter @bho_history.
Last year British History Online published the complete series of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, England. To introduce these volumes for readers who may not be familiar with the RCHME, we asked a number of experts to write introductions to particular counties. Here Charles O’Brien, one of the general editors of the revised Pevsner series from Yale University Press introduces the Huntingdonshire volume. Charles revised the volume Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (forthcoming), so is the ideal person to put RCHME, Hunts in context. Charles writes:
Huntingdonshire was one of the smallest counties of England. In 1965 it was merged with the Soke of Peterborough as a new county but both were abolished in 1974 and absorbed into the newly reconstituted county of Cambridgeshire. Huntingdonshire’s identity is preserved as a district within Cambridgeshire but appreciation of local architectural identity is easily lost and so historians should still value the coverage given to it in one of the earliest RCHME inventories, published in 1926.
Nikolaus Pevsner, in his survey of Huntingdonshire for the Buildings of England series (1st ed. 1968) relied heavily on the Commission’s inventory while admitting ‘I am only too well aware of the inadequacies of my gazetteer. Anyone who studies the volume [of the RCHM] can see for himself how many timber-framed houses, how many staircases, how many domestic fitments are left, and guess from that how much more is missing for the C18 which the Royal Commission at the time …did not include’. Pevsner’s copy of the volume remains in the Pevsner Architectural Guides office at Yale University Press, and throughout the volume are his minute annotations and strikings out, indicating that the RCHME volume was in his hands as he carried out his visits during the spring of 1967.
Staircase at Stibbington Hall, 1625
A notable contribution to the Hutingdonshire volume was provided by Sidney Inskip Ladds (1867-1950), architect and local historian who became one of the authors for the three volumes of the Victoria History of the Counties of England (1926-1936). Ladds came from a local family, his grandfather was rector of Ellington, one of the many stone churches with a tall Perp spire for which Huntingdonshire is, or should be, well-known, and his father John Ladds was also an architect, with a modest living from church restorations in the later years of his life, an area of practise which would dominate Sidney’s working life. Partly as a consequence of his church work Ladds accumulated a very considerable body of knowledge of Huntingdonshire’s buildings and his voluminous files of scraps of paper recording his observations, names of architects, genealogy, recollections of incumbents and others are lodged at the Norris Museum, St Ives. Much of his close interest in buildings of every period is reflected in the coverage of the VCH volumes and clearly expressed in the RCHME inventory.
At least part of the pleasure to be taken from the RCHME volumes of the earlier period is in making comparisons between the photographs with the present day, especially the village scenes with their car-less and thus immensely spacious streets but also in the general character of the vernacular buildings of the locality many of which have been significantly altered since the early C20, if not demolished. Others are pleasantly unchanged (the interior of the Lion Hotel, Buckden of c.1500 is an example) and for churches and major houses there is little to record in the way of loss. Only a small proportion of the county’s buildings recorded by photos in the volume have disappeared, notably Conington Castle, but among the timber-framed buildings there had even by the 1960s been a higher rate of attrition and one will search in vain for some of the houses recorded in the plates section of the volume or at least deplore the often insensitive restoration to which they were later subjected, e.g. a seventeenth-century house at Offord Cluny (plate 102) which is now hardly recognisable.
Over the past year we have been running a monthly British History Online photo competition. All those photos added to our Flickr group in the previous month have been entered into a pool and scrutinised by my judicious and sharp-eyed colleagues in IHR Digital. I then aggregated all the votes to produce a shortlist, which was then further voted upon by British History Online’s academic advisory group.
This month we had two runners-up, in no particular order. One was Fountains Abbey by a veteran of the photo competition, Bill Tennent, the frantic-photographer:
This kind of geometrical, receding composition is a tricky one for any photographer and Bill has done a great job of giving us a sense of depth and space while keeping everything in balance. I also like the somewhat eerie bright green walls and column bases.
Almost everything we can see in this photograph is, or appears to be, stone – except that out-of-place window, with the light streaming through. Particularly evocative are the empty coffins, perhaps brought from elsewhere, their contents presumably scattered or reburied.
who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?
Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia, Urn Burial
The prize is that the winning photo has the glory of appearing on our British History Online homepage for a month. Our last winner, now in that prestigious position, is The Paris House at Woburn, by Jason Ballard:
The Paris House, although clearly in the English style, was built in Paris for an international exhibition on architecture held in 1878. It was designed by Gilbert Redgrave and was actually prefabricated and constructed on the site – although it is a bit more elegant than the prefabricated classrooms of my school days. It now stands in Woburn Park, and Jason has caught the character of the house and its surroundings beautifully, including the quintessentially English greens of a country that receives a healthy amount of rainfall.
It is appropriate (although entirely coincidental) that the house stands on the Duke of Bedford’s estate, because he liked it so much he had it shipped to England. The Institute of Historical Research (and the entire central University of London) also stands on estates owned by the dukes of Bedford. Most of the roads around our offices are named after members of the family: Russell Square, Woburn Place, Malet Street, Bedford Square…
We’ve very much enjoyed judging the photo competition over the past year, and we’d like to thank everyone who contributed photos to the group. Anyone is welcome to continue adding to the Flickr group, if they’d like to.
I got an email this morning from one of the readers of British History Online. It was from a 90-year-old lady in South Africa who expressed her delight at being able to read about her childhood home in Surrey. She had wanted to express her gratitude for having a resource like British History Online that evoked memories from the better part of a lifetime ago, from thousands of miles away.
This email was the first piece of feedback from a reader I’d received since taking over a few weeks ago as the new Project Manager. I’d like to think it will all be that easy – perusing nice letters from satisfied users of our collection. But I’ve learned quickly that there’s plenty of work to be done.
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Adam Crymble. Like many of you, I fancy myself a bit of a historian, be that amateur or professional. I’ve done some traditional historical work, both as a family history researcher and in an academic setting teaching Early Modern British history at King’s College London (where I did my PhD in 18th century British history). And I’ve also had a fair bit of experience building websites over the years. I’m hoping to combine those interests to continue to bring a great and expanding set of resources to you that you can trust, via the British History Online website.
Stepping into a project that’s been running for more than a decade can be a bit daunting. There’s already so much content here that I need to get my head around. So many great ideas that have already been implemented. But there’s also places we can grow. The big task for this year is to help the rest of the team put together a new website to hold our content. The web has changed a lot in the last few years, and we’re excited about the possibilities of making the website even easier to use and make the content even easier to find.
We’re also excited about a number of new partnerships we’re pursing that we hope will bring even more great historical resources to the web for the first time. I’d like to invite you to get in on the ground floor of that initiative by supporting our collection’s growth, either by subscribing to the site’s premium content (£30) or by making a donation to our digitisation fund.
2014 promises to be a great year for British History Online. I’m pleased to be a part of it, and I’m looking forward to working with you as we build the best collection of British History on the web.
Over December the IHR Webmaster, Marty, was back in his native Australia, so we decided not to have a November winner for our Flickr competition. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the BHO Manager, Bruce, left us in November and without these two technically competent people it was decided that we should leave BHO well alone.
Now that Marty is back we have pooled all the entries from November and December and chosen a winner and a runner-up.
I work in the kind of office that has a copy of English Medieval Monasteries, 1066-1540 on the shelf. From which I find that, from the fourteenth century to its dissolution, the monastery was a rest centre for monks on a 3-week rota from the main monastery in Durham, and it is “altogether a fine and memorable ruin”. From a colleague I learn, in no uncertain terms, that the correct pronunciation is finkle.
The judges particularly liked the colour palette for this photograph: the autumnal colours of the stones adding to the elegiac atmosphere that often comes with ruins.
Framing shots are always a useful photographic technique, but here the judges very much liked the contrast between the darkness of the surround and the honeyed light on the stone in the middleground. I’ve said this before in these blog posts, but I think the framing effect works particularly well in historic photographs where the frame is part of the procession towards the grand building. A lot of planning went into making visitors feel impressed, even overwhelmed, as they went through this gate, and Joyce’s photograph reminds us of that experience.
Finally, our colleagues at the History of Parliament are looking for images of MPs (including their gravestones!) or illustrations of elections. If you have any such pictures, to which you own the copyright, you could even win copies of the impressive History of Parliament volumes. You will be credited for any images used; more details here.
Nicholas Gemini, Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0
In November, behind the scenes, there was an important change at the Institute. Bruce Tate, the Manager of British History Online, left the project after 11 years. You may know that this summer BHO celebrated 10 years of operation, from which you will see that Bruce was here before the site itself, developing the technical architecture of BHO from scratch.
Other people did play important roles in BHO as it grew larger and more complex, particularly our former colleague Peter Webster, who was Editorial Controller from 2005 until 2012 and contributed a great deal. But Bruce’s work ensured that BHO developed as a robust site, able to sustain the millions of monthly pageviews it went on to attract. Since BHO also has subscribers (only £30 a year, if you’d like to sign up) it is also essential that the site is always available whenever people need to use it. Bruce’s meticulous approach to project planning and technical implementation have made that possible. It’s a tribute to Bruce’s capabilities that the rest of us never worried about whether BHO had gone offline or crashed, because it never did.
Bruce’s main character flaw is that he is a season ticket holder at Chelsea. Chelsea have had 10 managers in the time that BHO has had one, proving once again that short-termism achieves little. We plan to build on the excellent work Bruce has done by updating and improving the site over the next 10 years; we thank him for his sterling contribution and wish him well for the future.
In the latest in our series of posts on the RCHME series, we have a guest post by Andrew Minting, conservation officer in Salisbury, about the importance of the Salibury volume. Andrew writes:
If there’s one source of information I commend to those researching the buildings of the city of Salisbury, it’s the Royal Commission’s volume on the historic monuments outside of the cathedral close.
Its recent online publication is excellent news and makes the information much more readily accessible to the general public. The copy on my desk is well worn from use on a near-daily basis for many years, providing an understanding of individual buildings and the development of the city from its foundation. As an historical record of the city in the mid twentieth century, it is invaluable, including buildings that had been demolished from the 1950s onwards. In comparison with modern mapping, one can trace some of the dramatic redevelopments and losses of the last half-century – the extensive demolition to facilitate the ring road, the Old George and Cross Keys shopping malls, for example. Many buildings are brought to life through excellent detailed drawings of their timber frames, such as the Plume of Feathers, while plans showing chronological development are particularly useful for those considering the sensitivity of sites to proposed alterations.
The introduction and footnotes provide very useful pointers to all of other primary and secondary sources available, many of which are now to be found at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
One important note for those unfamiliar with the hardback version of the volume, the planned grid layout of much of the city centre led to the adoption of names for the blocks of the grid, known as chequers, in addition to street names. Where appropriate, the Royal Commission organised the monuments of the volume by chequer, rather than following the lengths of individual streets. Perhaps the most useful image for users of the online version is to be found in Plan 1, which shows both chequer and streetnames, although the Naish plan of 1716 is a beautiful alternative.
In another in our series of posts by experts in particular counties, Dr Sarah Rose of Lancaster University writes for us about the RCHME volume for Westmorland:
I would like to reiterate the comments made by Professor Dyer, written in response to the online publication of the RCHME’s Northamptonshire volumes, regarding the general importance of this series. The number of architectural features included in these volumes, dating from the prehistoric era to the 18th century, together with the sheer breadth of research conducted by the Royal Commission, make them an essential starting point for anyone interested in landscape and place, whether they be actively engaged in research or merely curious.
Since its publication in 1936, the importance of the Westmorland volume has perhaps been underscored by the absence, to date, of a VCH volume for the county. As such, RCHME Westmorland has become a vital source for those writing in-depth local studies to county-wide surveys, including Matthew Hyde’s revised volume of Pevsner’s gazetteer for the ancient counties that make-up Cumbria.(1) The RCHME volume for Westmorland is particularly important as a pioneering survey of the county’s vernacular architecture, highlighting, for example, the rich legacy of plasterwork in traditional buildings:
Cumbria’s past is currently being explored in great detail by volunteer researchers working for the Victoria County History of Cumbria project, now in its third year. The RCHME volumes are cited at a national level as an essential resource for VCH researchers. This is as true for the volunteers working on Westmorland as in any other county. The RCHME volume often serves as an initial guide to the history of major local buildings, such as the parish church, for example, but also outlines important historical features which may be less obvious to the untrained eye.
In rural areas like Cumbria, an online version of RCHME for Westmorland tackles the issue of accessibility to resources of its kind, which are invariably limited to reference libraries and archives. For VCH volunteers, many who do not live in easy distance of such facilities, this online publication should be particularly welcome.
(1) M. Hyde and N. Pevsner, Cumbria: Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness. The Buildings of England (London, 2010).
When the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments’ inventory of the city of Cambridge was published in 1959 in two substantial volumes with a separate container of plans,1 they were priced at the princely sum of five guineas (£5.25). They were out of print by the time that I paid £52.00 for my copy about 25 years later. I was conscious at the time that this was virtually ten times the original selling price but I reasoned to myself that they would never be cheaper. So I greet the appearance of the Cambridge inventory in British History Online with mixed feelings – freely accessible online publication, to the high standards associated with British History Online, is a great boon to scholarship but may reduce demand for the printed volumes and therefore may have devalued my copy!
Naturally, College and University buildings fill most of the Cambridge inventory. However, it also covers the growth of the town. Furthermore, from 1946 the Commissioners were empowered not only to make an inventory of ‘Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions’ predating the eighteenth century, as had been done before World War II, but also to describe ‘such further Monuments and Constructions subsequent to’ 1714 ‘as may seem in your discretion to be worthy of mention’.2 In the Cambridge inventory, as in the preceding one covering Dorset, this resulted in the adoption of an 1850 cut-off date3and, for buildings that could be identified as being earlier than 1850, little or no selection seems to have been applied in practice. Furthermore, as the preface observed, ‘the first half of the 19th century’ was ‘a period of notable urban development in Cambridge’.4 The result was that the volumes cover not only internationally known monuments such as King’s College Chapel, but also include some quite modest terraced houses – so modest, indeed, as to include the house in which I lived from 1991 to 2005, which had been built (it was suggested) for the “outside staff” of the larger houses in the same development.5
Such houses were sometimes recorded with almost as much care as the major monuments – the development of which my house formed a part is illustrated by a layout diagram and by internal plans of representative houses, the latter presented alongside plans of similar houses to facilitate comparison. Even so, there were times when the surveyors were virtually unable to find anything to say: after they had diplomatically described early nineteenth-century houses in Brunswick Walk as ‘pleasant in their simplicity and lack of ostentation’, they were reduced to reporting that ‘Willow Place and Causeway Passage … are even less distinguished than the foregoing’.6 Nonetheless, the recording and comparison of small terraced houses that were then little more than one hundred years old would have been ground-breaking at the time.
In some cases the survey recorded buildings that were soon to be demolished. Indeed, Willow Place and Causeway Passage have largely vanished. That small late-Georgian terraced houses should fall victim to 1960s and 1970s improvements is not surprising (they had been assessed in 1950 as “fourth class” and although, if they had lasted a few years longer, they might well have been refurbished and extended as desirable pieds à terre, it has to be said that our favourable view of Georgian domestic architecture rests in part on the destruction of its meanest specimens). Perhaps more surprising in a town that trades on its “heritage” is the loss of the ‘good brick front of 1727’ belonging to the Central Hotel on Peas Hill, where Pepys was supposed to have ‘drank pretty hard’ in 1660, and one of the secular buildings deemed by the Commissioners to be ‘especially worthy of preservation’,7 but replaced in 1960-2 by a hostel for King’s College.
As Professor Chris Dyer observed in his post in this blog on the Northamptonshire volumes, the Royal Commission’s post-war inventory volumes ‘marked a high point’ in its work that was not sustained. Since 1984 the Commission and English Heritage (into which the Commission was incorporated in 1999) have continued to record and to analyze, but have published the results in thematic volumes, rather than in parish by parish (or town by town) inventories. Theforeword to the last inventory volume, published in 1984, admitted that ‘the creation of an adequately researched and assessed inventory of England’s archaeological and architectural heritage is now accepted … as a complex and infinite task’ (my emphasis). Indeed, what seems ‘adequately researched and assessed’ to one generation may disappoint the next one. Now that Causeway Passage has vanished from the map we might well wish that the inventory had gone into a bit more detail. And, just as 1714 came to seem, after World War II, too remote an end date for the survey, resulting in an expansion of the Commissioners’ remit, the 1850 cut off chosen for the Cambridge volumes will seem too remote to those who want to study Cambridge’s later nineteenth-century growth. In practice, though, we must be grateful for what was achieved, and (notwithstanding the potential decline in the value of my printed copy) the online publication of the inventories is very much to be welcomed.
1 All footnote references are to the city of Cambridge inventory. The volumes were continuously paginated and are treated as a single entity by British History Online.