2024 marks 125 years of the Victoria County History (VCH). In two VCH at 125 blog posts, Ruth Slatter (VCH General Editor – Architecture) takes stock of where the VCH is and reflects on how it can continue to flourish and evolve in the future. In this first blog post, she focuses on insights gained from a report into the VCH undertaken by the heritage consultant David Souden in 2023.

The Victoria County History (VCH) was founded in 1899 to research and write encyclopaedic histories of every English parish from the earliest times to the present day.[1] 125 years later, David Souden’s 2023 report on the VCH has helped us to highlight the project’s value and impact.

Formerly a senior manager at Historic Royal Palaces and the British Museum and a member of the history subject panel in the Research Excellence Framework 2021, Souden was commissioned by the IHR in 2023 to consider the VCH and reflect on its value and impact. Souden concluded that:  

‘…if it did not exist the VCH would have to be invented’[2] 

He also identified four of the VCH’s key strengths and contributions. 

1. Knowledge  

David Souden identified the VCH’s ‘deep and comprehensive place-based’ knowledge as one of its fundamental strengths. He recognised that is satisfies ‘a need for authoritative and close-detailed local histories’ and emphasised how the VCH’s long-standing reputation for ‘comprehensiveness’ and ‘thoroughness’ means that its ‘contents are to be trusted.’  

This is supported by how VCH content is used in practice. For example, in a recent article Briony McDonagh et al. have referenced VCH East Riding volumes to provide contextual information for their study of living with water and flood in medieval and early modern Hull. Souden also made reference to how the AHRC-funded project ‘Towns and the Cultural Economies of Recovery’, built on VCH knowledge and networks in Bournemouth, Darlington, Hereford and Southend.

The VCH may be 125 years old, but its contribution to place-based knowledge is more-timely than ever. The current AHRC Place Programme emphasises the importance of place and the strength of the arts and humanities to understand places’ complexities and shape their futures. In this context, the VCH is a treasure trove of knowledge that can help understand places in the past and imagine their potential futures.

2. Local pride  

Souden also identified how the VCH makes important contributions to people’s local pride and sense of belonging. He discussed how VCH publications express ‘very considerable local pride, both for individual places and for a county’ and noted that their production also ‘embeds and helps foster county pride and self-recognition’.  

This reflects how the VCH is a national network of local specialists, with volumes researched, written, and financially supported by individuals and communities embedded within specific geographical regions.

Once again this emphasises the contemporary value of the VCH. As the Government’s Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities seeks to ‘support communities across the UK to thrive, making them great places to live and work’, the VCH’s commitment to detailed place-based histories continues to make significant contributions to communities’ sense of self and appreciation of the historical value of the places in which they live. In this way the VCH is a knowledge exchange project, contributing to local growth and regeneration by fostering attachment to and pride in place.

3. Training and development   

Souden recognised how the VCH supports contributors by providing many training and development opportunities.  

The VCH has a long history of providing place-based research training, including written manuals, contributions to local-history summer schools and continuing education courses, and bespoke training.[3]

Recently Gloucestershire VCH have run a series of local history training sessions for people conducting family research, researching church buildings and communities, volunteering at the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, and working towards history qualifications. Similarly, VCH central office have run online training sessions on topics including publication processes, map making, and understanding buildings. Recordings of these sessions are available here.

In addition to formal training, the VCH offers a practical apprenticeship in place-based history. Souden recognised that undertaking research for the VCH enables amateur historians and volunteers to ‘acquire new skills and interests, in the practice and interpretation of history.’ Similarly, he emphasised how the ‘VCH is often part of the professional development of early career researchers, and has provided an academic home for many over the decades’  (for more information about how the VCH supports ECRs, see this blog post).

4. Wellbeing  

Finally, Souden identified that being part of the VCH network gives contributors a sense a satisfaction and personal self-worth.

He observed how the VCH has given ‘satisfaction to many amateur historians’ and that ‘VCH work… has been fulfilling for many and contributes to their sense of wellbeing’, specifically highlighting how ‘many volunteers spoke about the impact VCH work had on their general and mental health.’ Such experiences are not restricted to volunteers. For example, Charlotte Young has described how working for the VCH 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’.  

In our second VCH at 125 blog post we will focus on the future of the VCH: its ongoing priorities and where it’s heading next.

[1] John Beckett, Matthew Bristow, Elizabeth Williamson, The Victoria History of the Counties of England: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration 1899-2012. London: University of London Press, 2013. p.11. 

[2] David Sudan, The Value and the Impact of the Victoria County History (IHR, March 2023).  

[3] John Beckett, ‘Local history, family history and the Victoria County History: new directions for the twenty-first century’, Historical Research, 81.212 (May 2008), pp. 350-365; Letter from Powell (VCH Essex General Editor) to Pugh (VCH General Editor), 8th August 1954, asking for printed leaflets to take to a Summer School in Local History he had been invited to contribute to, VCH/1/3/234.  

Dr Ruth Slatter is Lecturer in Historic Environment & Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Institute of Historical Research.  
Ruth is interested in people’s everyday experiences of religion, faith and spritituality since the nineteenth century. To explore these themes, she uses architecture and material & visual culture, historical geography and participatory approaches.