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Victoria County History


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!

‘Locality and Region’ – the Victoria County History seminar at the IHR

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220px-Edmundbeingmartyred05Adam Chapman is Editor and Training Coordinator at the Victoria County History office in London. In between bringing VCH volumes to press and creating training material for volunteers his own research is into the Wales and England in the later middle ages.

The Victoria County History as part of the Institute for Historical Research has its own seminar series, with the theme of ‘Locality and Region’ held at Senate House, London on alternate Tuesdays .The idea is that the seminar welcomes all those who are interested in the relationship between local and national history and who wish to share ideas, viewpoints and work in progress.

Some of the speakers are contributors to the VCH, but most are not, and this allows them to make some points about the work I do for the VCH and about what we publish. The VCH has been around for so long that one speaker described early volumes (available on British History Online – http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=153 ) as ‘a primary source for local history’. She had a point; one of the unique features of the VCH is that its histories go right up to the ever moving present. Since the VCH started in 1899 many of the volumes published before the First World War, for example record communities, buildings and local economies that have changed beyond all recognition and it is only right that the VCH gives researchers an opportunity to present their work.

This is one way in which the VCH makes a contribution to the wider academic world, and part of my work with the VCH is to be the lead convenor. As you might expect, the content of these seminars is extremely varied; this year so far our speakers have spoken about such diverse subjects as nineteenth century industrial communities in Sevenoaks (and how this leafy commuter town appears in Marx’s Das Kapital), the cult of St Edmund in East Anglia in the middle ages, the effects of the Reformation on Sussex churches and Medieval Welsh Law.

While the seminar is open to anyone with an interest, obviously it is not convenient for everyone to come to London to be in the audience, so we have started to offer selected seminars as podcasts so that anyone can listen whenever they want. Only two are available so far, and these could hardly be more diverse, with Louise Rayment discussing her current work on networks of scholars and musicians in a 16th century London parish, and Simon Draper speaking about the development of surnames in Britain. You can find them here together with the programme for the remainder of this year. [http://www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk/events/locality-and-region-seminar-2013-14]

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.

Dedicated monarchs

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Qianlong Emperor
Whenever someone asks me who is my favourite Chinese emperor I always reply, “Qianlong, who else?” Like other early Qing emperors, Qianlong was a fanatical antiquarian and collected and preserved countless cultural artefacts from China’s past, which today are largely split between museums in Beijing and Taipei. Such was the obsession with the past that many pieces of porcelain made for Qianlong have spurious reign marks, claiming that they were made under various emperors of the Ming dynasty. Historians tend to say that this practice was pious rather than deceptive.

Qianlong abdicated as emperor in 1796. He had reigned for 60 years and was about to overtake his grandfather’s record as the longest-reigning Chinese emperor, which he declined to do (he still kept hold of power, though – was that deceptive or pious?).

Today another monarch clocks up a reign of 60 years. To mark the occasion my colleagues in the Victoria County History have rededicated all future red books, such as Essex, Volume XI and Yorkshire East Riding, Volume IX, to Elizabeth II. In celebration of this Diamond Jubilee year, the VCH will publish an account of its history since 1899, focusing on topics such as the early foundation of the project; women’s role within the History; and the more recent, successful HLF project England’s Past for Everyone.

Elizabeth II is not the longest-reigning monarch in the world, a record currently held (according to this list) by the King of Thailand. However in three years and 217 days the Queen would overtake the domestic record of her great-great-grandmother, Victoria. Will she abdicate in an act of filial piety to let Victoria keep the honour?