This post was written by Adam Chapman, the General Editor of the Victoria County History, and Lecturer in Medieval History at the Institute of Historical Research.
[Working for the VCH] sparked my long-forgotten childhood curiosity around the history of place, what histories we can learn about the landscape and settlements around us by poring over old maps, digging through the archives and ‘pounding the beat’.
The Victoria County History (VCH) has formed part of the early training and careers of hundreds of historians over the last 120 years. The project’s aim is to produce histories of every place in England from the earliest time to the ever-moving now and this provides a challenge and an opportunity to historians to move beyond the narrow focus of their training.
For some, it was an essential plank of that training. As Susan Reynolds, who worked for the VCH in the 1950s, recalled in 2008, it was a formative historical experience
“… immediately after taking my first degree at Oxford, I trained as an archivist and went into archives. I worked as an archivist at Middlesex County Record Office for a year, and then I went into the Victoria County History (VCH) where I worked for seven years. And between the archive training and the VCH, that was really the equivalent of my PhD, it was my training.”
This blog explores the experiences of six of the current Early Career Researchers (ECRs):
- Dr Francis Boorman is a Contributing Editor in Middlesex and Gloucestershire. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.
- Dr Stephanie Carter is the County Editor for Northamptonshire and Associate researcher at the Newcastle University.
- Dr Anastasia Stylianou is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia and co-author of the forthcoming VCH Short, on Cradley, Herefordshire.
- Dr Fergus Eskola-Oakes was a Research Fellow with the Imprint project: https://www.imprintseals.org/ and an Associate Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University. He is co-author of the forthcoming VCH Short, on Cradley, Herefordshire.
- Dr Louise Ryland-Epton has worked for the VCH in Wiltshire and now in Gloucestershire as a contributing editor. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Open University.
- Dr Charlotte Young was a contributing author for VCH Northants. She is a Research Assistant, on the Civil War Petitions project, University of Oxford, civilwarpetitions.ac.uk
We asked them what attracted them to the project, what challenges it has presented and how the work has influenced them as historians. Some of our ECRs knew the project before they joined and were attracted to it for that reason. Louise is one:
‘I did my history master’s degree part-time with the Open University while working in adult social care. Researching sources for one of my assessments, I stumbled across the VCH ‘Big Red Books’ published online and became a fan. I loved the rigour brought to place-based histories with fantastic footnotes I could follow up.’
Charlotte and Fergus, similarly, knew the project through their PhD work. The VCH’s ‘Big Red Books’ are a key resource for any element of history touching on place and locality. For Francis, it was more of a surprise: ‘My work for the VCH began serendipitously. I had just finished a PhD looking at Chancery Lane in London, when the opportunity arose to complete a short for the VCH on the parish of St Clement Danes…’. For Steph, an early modern music book historian, the VCH was a complete unknown. ‘I fell into the VCH world by accident!’, she says, ‘A friend asked me to provide some editorial assistance in 2018 and, before I knew it, I was asked to take on the role of County Editor.’ The volume Steph is working on is typical of the modern project: the text is the product of a mix of the work of volunteers and paid contributing editors, among them Charlotte Young.
“[The VCH] was the first job I got after finishing my PhD, and it was a wonderful way to use my own love for early modern history within the framework of a highly respected institution, and play a small role in telling the story of England’s history.”
This sentiment about the value of the project is echoed by Fergus “‘[W]hat does the VCH say?’ It’s a reply I’ve received more than once from colleagues over the years and its indicative of the faith the profession has come to place in the VCH volumes.”
All are clear on the impact of working for the VCH on their skills. For Francis, whose background is in the 18th century, it is ‘a great apprenticeship in archival research’, which might be taken as a given, but the unique feature of the VCH as a project is its depth and breadth. He points out that “Local history, and especially writing for the VCH, forces you to open up to new areas of research and is intrinsically ‘interdisciplinary’. You need to turn your hand to everything from manorial descents to post-war housing estates.” For Fergus, working on Cradley (Herefs.) enabled him to broaden his skills and knowledge to ‘study a single locality over a period of 500 years.’ His co-author, Anastasia, agrees:
“When I started my VCH research, I found it both exciting and challenging, trying to locate and rapidly work through such a wide range of archival material – some in distinctly better states of preservation than others! I particularly remember poring over fragments of a sixteenth-century (Latin) manorial record, written in an almost illegible hand, and with a large stain of what looked like ancient vomit! These unpredictable journeys of discovery in the archives are some of my fondest members of my research career to date.”
All cite the collaboration and support that working for the project has brought about beyond the demands of academic research. They cite the relationships with archivists, the opportunity to work on new periods and sources – “from medieval manorial documents through to 20th-century bus routes” [Steph] – and the support of medievalists for early modernists, engaging with archaeological evidence and working with volunteers. All note that the project has its challenges, some imposed by the context, others due to the discipline which minimises interpretation and requires precision, perhaps at the expense of the historiographical framework which shapes much academic writing. Louise praises John Chandler, the Wiltshire County Editor, for his patience and depth of knowledge. Among the suspiciously simple things he could explain (but which Louise had not previously needed to know) was the difference between a ‘rector’ and a ‘vicar’. With support from editors like John and their County Trusts, research is made much easier. Louise also points to the benefits of being part of a national project with guidance and resources to support the writing of its histories. Louise’s also played a leading role in a community history project on the parish of Bremhill, near Chippenham. Work with the community informed VCH research but also produced a history for the community.
The benefits of working for the VCH are not solely academic and career-focussed. A particular highlight for Steph “has been working with other ECRs and … to be in a position to support them, intellectually and financially, through the oftentimes tough post-PhD career landscape.”
With thanks to Francis, Steph, Fergus, Louise, Anastasia, and Charlotte whose accounts are reproduced in full below.
My work for the VCH began serendipitously. I had just finished a PhD looking at Chancery Lane in London, when the opportunity arose to complete a short for the VCH on the parish of St Clement Danes, only a hundred metres or so to the west. That coincidence led to an ongoing association that is approaching a decade, working on two counties (Middlesex and Gloucestershire).
Working for the VCH as an early career researcher was a great apprenticeship in archival research. Of course, doing a PhD had already plunged me into the world of lengthy, occasionally painstaking (and painful) dives into the archives, but the variety of writing for the VCH is a great lesson, both in terms of period (my first encounter with Elizabethan documents) and subject matter (my first tangle with ecclesiastical history). Local history, and especially writing for the VCH, forces you to open up to new areas of research and is intrinsically ‘interdisciplinary’. You need to turn your hand to everything from manorial descents to post-war housing estates.
It also opens doors, to new people and places. To the archives certainly and I’ve made friends with archivists who have great tales of cats (living) and rats (not). I have been to see private archives in the converted stables of a beautiful manor house and been handed a leather suitcase filled with uncatalogued mysteries. But it’s not all dusty documents. There has been the odd wine reception too, occasionally in grand surroundings and hosted by a duke, earl or mayor.
As with any work, the VCH comes with unique frustrations too. Endlessly explaining that it is not a history of the Victorians of course. The vagaries of county and parish boundaries can also be irritating to work within, as can some of the more antiquated conventions of footnoting and house style. Sticking to a purely factual approach and eschewing too much interpretation can take a bit of self-discipline. Most importantly for the early career researcher, it is tough to keep up with publications and conferences in your own research interests whilst maintaining sufficient output of VCH research to earn a living, although that is a difficulty for anyone engaged in self-employed research or casual teaching.
Yet it is a great opportunity to be part of a unique publishing project that is valued by local history enthusiasts and academic historians alike. It always brings a quiet smile when I’m researching in archives and I hear the staff ask, “Have you heard of the VCH? It’s always a good place to start.”
I must admit that I fell into the VCH world by accident! A friend asked me to provide some editorial assistance in 2018 and, before I knew it, I was asked to take on the role of County Editor. Heading up a project for a VCH county trust is a challenging but incredibly rewarding experience. As an early modern music book historian, I don’t appear to match the more obvious academic role descriptor that one might imagine for VCH. However, I have plunged myself into all sorts of historical research – from medieval manorial documents through to 20th-century bus routes – which, I believe, has formed me into a much broader cultural historian. It has also sparked my long-forgotten childhood curiosity around the history of place, what histories we can learn about the landscape and settlements around us by poring over old maps, digging through the archives and ‘pounding the beat’.
With the support of the county trustees, I call on both my academic and non-academic experiences to manage the intricacies of such a large project. I work alongside local historians and academics, all of whom specialise in their settlement or subject.
A particular highlight for me has been working with other ECRs and for me to be in a position to support them, intellectually and financially, through the oftentimes tough post-PhD career landscape. Ultimately, working with the VCH as an ECR has given me invaluable experience developing my skills and portfolio, broadening me intellectually, and to be honest, providing financial stability through what has been a challenging couple of years for us all. A strange and unexpected consequence has been that I now find myself constructing VCH parish histories every time I drive through a village or market town – after all, everywhere has a history!
“Hmm, what does the VCH say?” It’s a reply I’ve received more than once from colleagues over the years and its indicative of the faith the profession has come to place in the VCH volumes. They are seen as the go-to place for reliable local historical research, and they were a resource I repeatedly turned to during my Ph.D.
I was attracted to working on Cradley in part because I already had some familiarity with Herefordshire from a previous research project at Hereford Cathedral Library. Working for the VCH was also attractive in that it presented a very different sort of challenge. Having previously specialised in essentially a very narrow period and topic at a national level, Cradley presented an exciting opportunity to instead study a single locality over a period of 500 years. This has both broadened and deepened my skills and knowledge as a historian and researcher. The wide range of areas you must cover as part of the project, inevitably requires you to master topics and types of source material outside your original area of expertise, which is both fascinating and enlightening.
I think what interested me most about the process was how collaborative it was, working with my fellow co-editor and the other contributors. It is quite a different and, in some ways, more rewarding and enjoyable process than working on a personal research project.
This will be the first proper survey of the history of Cradley, a surprising fact given that it was an important and wealthy parish in Herefordshire, and it is an important step along the road to the eventual production of the first new red book for Herefordshire since the 1920s!
My route to becoming an ECR working for the VCH is probably unusual. I did my history master’s degree part-time with the Open University while working in adult social care. Researching sources for one of my assessments, I stumbled across the VCH ‘big red books’ published online and became a fan. [I loved the rigour brought to place-based histories with fantastic footnotes I could follow up].
After my MA, I quit my job to do a full-time PhD. Seeing my MA project in Gloucestershire Archives, the Gloucestershire VCH editor asked me to contribute to a county volume based on that research. Two years into my PhD, buoyed by that experience, I applied to work for the VCH as a contributing researcher in Wiltshire. I am now a contributing editor.
Many of my VCH colleagues are medievalists, whereas my academic expertise lies in eighteenth-century social policy and governance. However, the materials produced by the IHR and Wiltshire VCH; working with a patient and highly knowledgeable editor, who could explain the difference between a ‘vicar’ and a ‘rector’, made the learning curve needed to produce my first parish history achievable. As my contract was also to work on a community history project supported by the VCH, I was grateful to have the backing of the board of the local VCH trust, who had considerable expertise in everything from fundraising to marketing. My editor assisted me in creating my first history-skills workshops and provided advice whenever I needed it. The broader VCH community contributed too by giving talks or some innovative insights, particularly on the archaeological evidence.
I was awarded my PhD in 2020. I am still doing academic research while working for the VCH as it allows for flexible working. I love what I do for the VCH. I have always felt supported. The work has undoubtedly made me a better historian too.
Working on a VCH Short Volume has been a unique experience that has really broadened my skill set, increased my confidence as a researcher, and – above all – been a lot of fun! I am sure that it contributed to my success in subsequently being awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, as my time with the VCH has provided me with an outstanding project organisation, public engagement, and publication record for my career stage. It has also diversified my research-led teaching skills and I have enjoyed designing and delivering initiatives (based on Cradley) relating to British local history from the sixteenth century to the present day.
When I started my VCH research, I found it both exciting and challenging, trying to locate and rapidly work through such a wide range of archival material – some in distinctly better states of preservation than others! I particularly remember pouring over fragments of a sixteenth-century (Latin) manorial record, written in an almost illegible hand, and with a large stain of what looked like ancient vomit! These unpredictable journeys of discovery in the archives are some of my fondest members of my research career to date.
Working with my brilliant co-author, Fergus Eskola-Oakes, and all the volunteers and specialist contributors has also been a fantastic experience. It has been really fun to work as a team on a research project, sharing puzzling problems and fascinating discoveries.
My role with Northamptonshire VCH was the first job I got after finishing my PhD, and it was a wonderful way to use my own love for early modern history within the framework of a highly respected institution, and play a small role in telling the story of England’s history. I had already been using the VCH volumes as a research source myself for many years, and knowing that I was contributing to the research of future generations of both professional and amateur historians was very rewarding.
By forcing us to stay in our homes and neighbourhoods for so long I think the COVID-19 pandemic has given many people a new appreciation for local history, and for exploring the wider narrative of how events have impacted people and places through time. VCH is uniquely placed to be able to help with this. It’s been really positive in recent years to see VCH changing with the times, and moving away from simply the traditional red book format to encompass newer formats, such as the smartphone app. This will open up the research to a much broader audience than before by bringing the research directly to them, and I hope it will help to emphasise that VCH is still relevant, cutting edge, and valuable.
Support the Victoria County History
The Victoria County History relies on the generous support provided by interested and committed individuals and institutions, especially those with strong links in their local areas. Without your support we would be unable to continue the production of high-quality local history resources in print and online. Every VCH Red Book volume or VCH Short is the result of unrivalled research and the superb work of volunteers and researchers like those featured in this blog.