Who would be an archivist, especially one working in a county record office? Always a profession under stress, often in inadequate buildings and seen as an easy thing to cut, trim or salami slice, running an archive under the aegis of county hall is hard graft for poor financial reward.
Archival research is the backbone of the historical discipline and a key component in the work of archaeologists, historic buildings and landscape consultants, planners and developers as well as countless others pursuing research into their families, communities the close and far, far distant past. Authors and editors for the Victoria County History are among their number and would not have achieved what they have – the histories of nearly 7,000 communities – over the last century or so without the resources these archives contain.
In fact, the Victoria County History has been an integral part of the development of England’s network of local archives. Many of the early contributors to the VCH edited and catalogued the records they worked on. One such was the suffragist Mary Bateson (1865–1906) who researched and wrote the account of the borough of Peterborough in volume II of the Northamptonshire series published in 1906 and earlier edited the medieval records of the borough of Leicester among a rich and a varied career.
There are numerous issues here: does this actually constitute public access? This is something enshrined in law and many depositors of material to archives did so on that condition. Have they or their estates been consulted?
How straightforward is it to do archival work in half days? If you live any distance from Northampton, getting there for 9 am is likely to require a fairly early start, be stressful (archives are seldom well sign-posted from the town centre, never mind the nearest bypass) or expensive. An overnight stay or a peak hour train fare doesn’t come cheap, particularly for multiple trips. Professional historians talk of a ‘day at the archives’: reckoned as the amount of time it takes to actually get anything meaningful done in terms of research even now in the days of cheap digital cameras and advanced ordering of documents. No matter how well you know your sources or how good the catalogue you will inevitably order up a likely-looking source that is not what you thought it was. The archivist may suggest that what you actually want is something you hadn’t thought of. There is no substitute for actually visiting the archive.
Of course you can offset these problems with money. Ok, but to get that extra half day (4 hours) will cost you £126 – in advance – so a couple of weeks archival work will end up costing around £1,000, not including accommodation and travel. No student, BA, MA/MRes or PhD could afford such sums, early career researchers scratching an existence from hourly paid teaching would probably choose to work elsewhere and those lucky enough to have salaried jobs would think twice. The VCH project in Northamptonshire which needs extensive access over a prolonged period with limited resources could not function. If in receipt of public funding, with the incumbent Open Access expectation, the irony is that the documents such research is based on were themselves all but inaccessible.
Now it’s probably unfair to single out Northamptonshire. Local government has borne the brunt of cuts to public services since 2010 while taking on more and more burdens along the way. Plenty of archives are open only for three days a week – Shropshire, for example (Weds–Fri, 9–4) – and many have reduced their hours or, like those in Somerset, Devon and Hampshire, been transferred to quasi-independent trusts. In an extreme example, Carmarthenshire Archives were summarily closed and their contents dispersed owing to a serious outbreak of mould such were the appalling conditions of the building. A replacement is planned but how soon will it be ready?
None of this is really the point. By reducing the hours to this level, serious research into the history of Northamptonshire is impossible. ‘Popping in’ will be limited to school groups or the retired and a public archive mandated by law and protected by it is effectively made into a private one.
The Victoria County History (VCH) project has just appointed a new editor, Professor Angus Winchester from Lancaster University. Brush any ‘waxed jackets’ notions of county aside because this august body publishes historical reference works on English counties – it has a long and illustrious history of its own – and is coordinated by the Institute of Historical Research.
Part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, the VCH’s scholarly volumes are based on original research. Professor Winchester brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the mix, including his own contribution to the study of landscape history which has been to open up the hitherto little-researched history of the landscape of upland, pastoral Britain.
The VCH is an important resource for county and local historians as well as anyone researching genealogy and family history. Professor Winchester, who honed his local historian skills while an assistant editor with the VCH in Shropshire and as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in the 1980s, will lead an initiative that has been built into a national treasure over 117 years and is without parallel. He has also been a member of the VCH National Advisory Board since 2007.
‘Having been associated with the VCH for so long, it is an honour to step into this role’, says Professor Winchester: ‘I look forward to working with colleagues in the Institute of Historical Research and with the wider local history community across the country, as the VCH moves forward in the changing world of local history research and publishing in the 21st century.’
Using his expertise in landscape history, Professor Winchester co-led a major Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, ‘Contested common land: environmental governance, law and sustainable land management c.1600-2006’. This was an interdisciplinary study, linking environmental history and environmental law, and has contributed to current policy debates on the future management of common land.
Since 2010 Professor Winchester has taken the lead in reviving work for the VCH in Cumbria, developing a volunteer-based project under the auspices of the Cumbria County History Trust. He has written and edited several books and scholarly editions including two major 17th-century works on Cumbria, and wrote the history of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society for its 150th anniversary in 2016.
He retains a strong interest in local history communities. He has served as president and chairman of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. He is also founding president of Cumbria’s Lorton and Derwentfells Local History Society and, in 2014, set up Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre.
‘The Institute of Historical Research and the whole community of VCH historians and supporters is delighted that Angus Winchester will be the next Editor’, says Professor Lawrence Goldman, Director of the IHR. ‘He brings to the VCH a wealth of experience in local history, great knowledge of the VCH itself, and a formidable reputation as a historian of the medieval and early modern British landscape and environment. We all look forward to working with him.’
Notes to Editors
For all enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 / email@example.com
The Institute of Historical Research was founded in 1921 and is one of nine institutes that comprise the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. The Institute’s mission is to promote the study of history and an appreciation of the importance of the past among academics and the general public. It offers a wide range of services both onsite and remotely which promote and facilitate excellence in historical research, teaching and scholarship in the UK, by means of its library, events programmes, fellowships, training and publications. It is a leading centre for the creation of digital resources for historians, and promotes the study of London history through its Centre for Metropolitan History and the Victoria County History.
The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities and facilities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2014-15, SAS welcomed 805 research fellows and associates, held 2,073 research dissemination events, received 23.1 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms and received 213,456 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities, Being Human. Find out more at sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.
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Famed across Europe during Bede’s time and the heyday of Wearmouth monastery, Sunderland found a less celebrated renown in the twentieth century with the distress of its heavy industries between the wars, and their final extinction in the 1980s. Between those very contrasting eras, its story is one of re-invention and of a growing industrial and commercial might. The coal trade transformed the town during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; shipbuilding came to the fore in the nineteenth, and Wearside became the nation’s, and the world’s, greatest shipbuilder. Though it lacked formal local government before 1835, this was a wealthy and relatively sophisticated town, with a great and spectacular early iron bridge (1796).
This volume, edited by Gillian Cookson, covers the history of Sunderland from the earliest times and into the twenty-first century, including its landscape and buildings, government, trade and industry, politics and social institutions.
On 21 November, we held two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester as part of the Being Human Festival. We did a lot of promotion of these events beforehand so we thought we should tell you how they went. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. These particular edit-a-thons were centred on local history and you can read about how we connected our theme with the overall Being Human Festival theme of “Hidden and Revealed” here. You can also read the story of the day via social media.
My colleagues Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from Victoria County History (VCH), Jordan Landes from Senate House Library and I were all at the London event. Our Wikimedia UK accredited trainer was Edward Hands, and fellow trainer Jonathan Cardy was also there to lend a hand. The wonderful thing about Wikimedia trainers is that they are volunteers, so we are very grateful to Edward and Jonathan for coming along and teaching our attendees to edit Wikipedia. Overall, we were twenty-one people at the London event. We had a great mix of experienced Wikipedia editors and complete novices. The experienced editors were able to help the novices throughout the day.
The first half of the day was devoted to learning how to edit Wikipedia, especially how to make edits that will last—the secret is to provide references for all the additions you make to Wikipedia. Once they’d been trained, our attendees tried their hands at making some edits.
After lunch, VCH editor and training co-ordinator Adam Chapman gave attendees a quick introduction to the VCH, explaining the historical context of the project and how the volumes are organised. I followed by showing attendees how they could use British History Online (BHO) to search and read VCH, along with many other sources of local history. Since providing references is such a vital part to creating strong Wikipedia edits, we wanted our attendees to know about the rich resources that they can rely on when writing and improving Wikipedia articles, especially those resources that are freely accessible on BHO.
Here’s a list of the articles worked on just by the London attendees:
As for the Leicester event, they had ten people in total, including Pam Fisher from the Leicestershire VCH Trust, who helped us organise the Leicester branch. From the feedback we’ve received, it sounds like the Leicester event was just as much fun and just as productive as the London event. Their trainers were Doug Taylor and Roger Bamkin, who both did an excellent job. The only negative feedback we received is that the day should have been longer!
Overall, we all had a productive day, learned lots of new things and met some wonderful people. Thanks to everyone who helped with organisation, promotion and training. And thanks to all our attendees for making it such a great day.
There is still time to sign up for one of our Being Human edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November.
As part of the Being Human Festival, British History Online (BHO), Senate House Library (SHL) and Victoria County History (VCH) will be leading two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. We will provide training in editing Wikipedia and no prior experience is necessary. The theme of our edit-a-thons will be local history, which will involve both editing articles about particular places, but also editing articles about the practice of local history in the UK.
The idea to have a local history Wikipedia edit-a-thon first occurred to us when we had a Wikipedia training session at the IHR way back in March. Our trainer was Edwardx (who conveniently will also be the London trainer for this coming edit-a-thon) and during our session we were amazed at how easy the process of editing and improving Wikipedia articles was after a little bit of training. Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from VCH were thinking of ways they could improve articles about various aspects of local history, and I was thinking about how to encourage more editors to consult BHO since Wikipedia encourages citing online, accessible materials where possible. Following the session, the three of us agreed that the theme of local history would an interesting one for an edit-a-thon. We envisioned local historians, Wikipedia editors, students and academics all coming together and learning from each other. The Being Human Festival, with its focus on the humanities’ ability to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, seemed like a natural fit for the event we were dreaming up. Jordan Landes, the history librarian at SHL, had organised the initial training for us and kindly offered to help facilitate the edit-a-thon. Soon we were partnering with a team in Leicester, and taking the edit-a-thon beyond our immediate vicinity and bringing it to a national scale.
We’ll admit we were slightly stumped about whether our events would relate to this year’s Being Human Festival theme, “Hidden and Revealed.” But we quickly realised that the goal of revealing is already behind the work that we do.
We believe local history should be cared for and preserved in archives, but it should not remain there. It is our communal responsibility to study history, to learn from it and to share it. With the VCH volumes, authors comb local archives and untangle the history of places in order to present those histories to the public in the form of the VCH red books. What is that if not a process of revelation? They take something that might not be hidden per se but rather, difficult to access, and reveal the history of a parish, a hundred, or a county in a clear, encyclopaedic format.
Similarly, by digitising the red books, BHO further reveals these histories by allowing VCH texts to be freely accessible from anywhere in the world. One of my responsibilities at BHO is to manage our email account, and I love receiving emails like the one from the Australian woman who found the history of the small village where her great-grandmother was born, or from the mayor who learned new things about his own town, or from the homeowners who discovered the rich history of the place where they live, or from the elderly man who is brought back to his schooldays. To all those people and many more, uncovering the history of where they come from is nothing short of a revelation.
And finally, Wikipedia—one of the most visited websites in the world—is driven by a desire to make human knowledge accessible to everyone. Wikipedia relies on source material like VCH, and BHO content is already heavily cited across the site. Wikipedia democratises the construction of knowledge by allowing articles to be edited by anyone from anywhere in the world.
So to us, the revelation of the hidden is about understanding the history of where we come from and sharing that with each other. Our goal in these events is for everyone to feel like they can participate in the creation of their own history. One thing I have learned since being at BHO is that British history is never only British; and local history is never only local. We are connected on a global level and we share a global history, which might begin with the local but it never stays there.
My name is Clara Carson and I am an undergraduate student, studying history at Richmond the American International University in London. I have been fortunate enough to be interning at the Victoria County History (VCH) as part of my degree for the past six weeks, but even more fortunately, I still have three weeks to go. This internship has been an incredible opportunity for me, not only being able to work at the VCH, which in itself is a piece of history, but also through being associated with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR); I have been able to experience and learn so much from both incredible organizations.
Thinking back to my first week, I remember feeling intimidated as I walked through the large doors at the entrance to the Institute, and how quickly ny fears subsided as I was introduced to everyone at VCH, and as I began to form acquaintances within the IHR; including a personal introduction to the Director. I am so grateful to Adam Chapman and Rebecca Read and to all the team at VCH, for the extent in which they have taken me under their wing, always ready to help and introduce me to new ways of thinking and allowing me to learn from them; but especially for showing me where the endless supply of tea can be found.
I have learnt so much in my short time here and what I shall remember most is the level of interest everyone has taken in me and my career aspirations, and the extent to which everyone has gone out of their way to instruct me further in ways to achieve these aims. From working day-to-day with these professionals, I’ve gained an education both in my historical training but also my general knowledge of England’s past, researching periods of history that I had not previously focused upon. The individuals I have met, especially at VCH, have been a continuous source of aid and inspiration, they have given me the benefit of their time and proven to me that this is the type of career I aim to pursue. Furthermore, I have been inspired by the interests that they continue to specialise in alongside their work for the VCH, demonstrating that careers can have additional or multiple streams, which I had not appreciated before.
Both the VCH and the IHR have provided countless opportunities to learn and develop new skills, and I hope that I have utilized these chances to the best of my ability. The two organizations together offer such a wealth of knowledge that it would be almost criminal not to learn as much as possible about them and the work that they do. I feel privileged to have observed the work conducted by the VCH, to have been able to support and participate in this, and also to witness the continuation of a much respected and long tradition of historical research carried out by this unique organization. To have also been able to combine and further this education by using the facilities of the IHR, such as the amazing seminars and the knowledgeable staff, has meant that I have gained so much more than I thought possible in six weeks; I’ve had an amazing experience and I could not have asked for more; I would like to thank everyone who has been a part of this incredible experience.
We are pleased to announce the publication of our latest volume from the Somerset VCH series. Queen Camel and the Cadburys is the 11th volume of the Victoria County History of Somerset and is edited by Mary Siraut.
The volume is a comprehensive account of the ten parishes comprising the southern half of the Catsash hundred, an area rich in its archaeology and history. To the north, the Barrows, of which Queen Camel, North Cadbury and Sparkford (home of the Haynes Motor Museum) are the largest and most populous, lying in an area rich in archaeology and history. To the south, prominent hills include Cadbury Hill, crowned by Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort dating from 600–400 BC. In South Cadbury and the surrounding parishes there is much evidence of prehistoric activity such as Bronze-Age finds. From a later period, the manor at Queen Camel is recorded in 1066, though decimated by fire in 1639 and subsequently rebuilt in local Blue Lias stone; and the sites of abandoned medieval homesteads are visible at Sparkford, Weston Bampfylde, Sutton Montis and Maperton. Later still, Compton Castle in Compton Pauncefoot was constructed in 1821 while North Cadbury’s medieval manor house still survives today.
Dr Patricia Croot with Matthew Bristow at the launch in North Cadbury.
The book was officially launched in North Cadbury on 2 June and guests included VCH Director and General Editor Richard Hoyle with Adam Chapman and Matt Bristow also representing VCH central office. A presentation on the archaeological discoveries and the early exploitation of the landscape in the area – from the Bronze Age to the Romano-British period – was given by Dr Clare Randall.
This post has kindly been written for us by Professor Richard Hoyle, Director and General Editor of the Victoria County History.
One thing which is pretty certain is that everyone who attends this year’s local history conference sponsored by the IHR and VCH lived through a part of the twentieth century – quite probably a fair chunk of it. And yet this conference starts with the premise that the twentieth century is often the hardest and most elusive period for local historians to deal with, being of our own times, familiar, yet strangely out of reach. It saw enormous upheavals in institutions, ownership and landscape, and in individual experience. Many of the familiar sources to address these sources disappear – so estate records – whilst others loose much of their evidential value (newspapers). Many modern records are closed to users: others may not even exist, having been swept away by records management. Yet other possibilities emerge, notably oral history, and for no other period do we have such abundance of maps and, of course, photographs (including those taken from the air).
This is a conference is for everyone who wants to contribute to an emerging agenda of looking at the relatively recent past. It offers guidance on some of the sources whilst describing, through worked examples, how the researcher can make their own contribution to deepening knowledge and understanding of the twentieth century. It explores what is before us, and is sometimes too obvious to see.
Every so often we get an enquiry about a natural history entry in a VCH red book. Largely completed before the First World War, the general volumes in each county series include natural history and provide a fascinating snap shot of the local ecology a century ago. The first natural history editor, Aubyn B.R. Trevor-Battye, recruited some of the most eminent naturalists of the day to write entries outside of his specialities. Notably the Revd T.R.R. Stebbing wrote the entries on crustaceans for all 40 counties.
Entries are often idiosyncratic and sometimes slightly bad tempered! Colbran J. Wainwright, in the introduction to the Lepidoptera section of Warwickshire Volume 1 (1904), bemoans the fact he has to rely on the Rugby School Natural History Society for a particular area as these are “..merely schoolboys’ records and naturally very untrustworthy”. Despite “many absurd errors which made one distrustful of the whole list” he admits that “no schoolboy is likely to be wrong about a species like Zeuzera pyrina, L.” and includes the reports “excluding the most improbable ones”.
Zeuzera pyrina. Photograph taken by Olaf Leillinger.
Whilst the charm of the writing alone often makes the chapters worth reading, there is still much valuable ecological knowledge to be gained. One of our more surprising requests came from the Kazkhstan Entomological Society looking for information on a particular spider (Sardinidion blackwalli). The researcher had found a reference to the entry in The Victoria History of the County of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely: Volume 1 (1938) but could not find a copy in any library in Kazakhstan, Russia or Finland. In these cases we are happy to assist individual researchers when we can. For more on red book publications see our website www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk.
This post was kindly written by Rebecca Read, VCH Administrator.
On Friday 24th October 2014, the eighth volume of the Victoria County History of Shropshire series was launched in Shrewsbury. Shropshire Volume VI, part 1, is the first of a two part treatment of the town and Liberties of Shrewsbury and is the first volume published in the Shropshire series for 16 years.
The launch took place in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. The largest of Shrewsbury’s medieval parish churches, designated as redundant in 1987 and currently in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, St Mary’s provided a dramatic setting for the launch of the volume and the second of 2014’s Marc Fitch Lectures.
Trevor Rowley (Kellogg College, Oxford) delivered this autumn’s Marc Fitch lecture which comprised reflections on his seminal work, ‘The Making of the Shropshire Landscape‘ forty years on from its original publication.
The lecture was preceded by an address from the incoming VCH Director, Professor Richard Hoyle whose introduction to both the Shrewsbury volume and the Shropshire series detailed his plans and aspirations for work in the county to begin again in earnest and included a call for pledges of financial support and assistance in forming a County Committee to move the project forward.
Professor Hoyle presents the Mayor with a copy of the volume.
Upon the conclusion of the lecture and following a short break for wine and refreshments, attention turned to the formal business of launching the volume. Speaking on behalf of the numerous contributors to Volume VI, part 1, Dr Bill Champion gave a lighthearted account of the long and, at times, turbulent gestation of the Shrewsbury volume. We were thrilled the Mayor of Shrewsbury, Beverley Baker was able to join us and Professor Hoyle presented a copy of the volume to her.
The event was excellently attended, with more than 100 people present to see the volume launched; a number no doubt inflated by Professor Hoyle’s interview on BBC Radio Shropshire the previous day. In addition to the Mayor, County Archivist and numerous members of the Shropshire local history community, it was especially pleasing to see so many who have been associated with the VCH Shropshire project to date, including Shrewsbury volume contributors Bob Cromarty, Barbara Coulton and Nigel Baker, former County Editor George Baugh and Reverend Canon D.T.W. Price, who was Assistant to Shropshire’s first County Editor, A.T. Gaydon in the late 1960s. After this successful event we now must turn our attention to the completion and publication of Volume VI, part 2. Keep checking our website for news and updates on this volume.
Copies of this volume are available directly from our publisher, Boydell & Brewer.