In 1898 the gigantic task of comprehensively recording the history and geography of England’s ancient counties was begun. Philip Howard discovers the compilers approximately half way through their undertaking, with the publication of the 200th volume of the Victoria County History.
History is becoming too serious to be left to historians. In the past generation people all round the world have started to search for their roots. And, in England at least, we are uniquely fortunate in having the great-grandmother of local history to turn to for help.
The Victoria County History is about to celebrate its centenary with volume 200 in a long march to record the comprehensive past of every place in the ancient counties (i.e., those that existed before the brutal re-drawing of boundaries).
Everybody in the country is affected by the VCH, even those who have never heard of it, or opened one of its big red books. It is our modern Domesday Book, expanded and diversified to include all aspects of the history, geography and ownerships of our habitations and settlements.
It is one of those Victorian encyclopaedic giants, like the OED, designed to trap all human knowledge between hard covers. The founders, Laurence Gomme, the folklorist and antiquary, and Herbert Doubleday, the publisher, launched it in 1898 on a tide of historical enthusiasm. The old Queen Empress allowed the history to be dedicated to her, as each succeeding volume has been, but was sticky about consenting to be called a patron.
When the massive task is completed, the history of all the places in the 41 historic counties will be recorded. Ignoring flibbertigibbet political trendiness (because you are concerned with 30 centuries of history), the East and North Ridings of Yorkshire are counted as separate counties, but Montgomeryshire is excluded, reluctantly, as Welsh.
Each county gets a thick volume or three of general chapters, dealing with such matters as the Domesday Book, the landscape, prehistory, county administration, and other matters that are best looked at from an overall vantage point. Then come the topographical volumes for which the VCH is famous: up to 20 for a big, heavily-settled county, tracing in detail the history of every parish and settlement. Historiography follows the VCH, which was recording industrial archaeology and oral history nearly a century before those fashionable phrases were invented. If you want to research the history of any place in England, you must start with the VCH, which works from original documents, and gives you the signposts and bibliography of where to look next.
So far 12 counties have been finished. Twelve are in progress: Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Essex, Gloucestershire, Middlesex, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Sussex, Wiltshire, and the East Riding. Most other counties have a volume or two to their credit, usually the general ones, which are easier to write and sensible to start with. Only Westmorland and Northumberland are still terra incognita. Eventually the huge history will consist of at least 400 volumes.
The first volume, Hampshire I, was published in 1901 (a somewhat sensational chapter on Rubi and Rosae by the Rev.W.Moyle Rogers, FLS), and Doubleday reckoned that the whole enterprise could be completed in six years. Apart from wishful thinking, there were other similarities with the infant OED. There was a constant struggle for money, and pressure to get on with the job. At first the VCH was financed by private subscribers and benefactors, notably successive Lords Hambledon (W.H.Smith). There were continual negotiations with the Palace to secure a baronetcy for somebody who would endow the history properly. The Palace was willing, but historically-minded millionaires proved elusive.
As with the OED, there was a great founding editor, William Page, a London record agent whose life was gradually taken over by the monstrous publication. When he had to move from Hampstead to Bognor to devote himself full time to the VCH, he took 14 tons of documents with him, and had to build himself a scriptorium, like James Murray, founding editor of the OED, in the garden. Page eventually ended up owning as well as editing the big baby, and he made it over to the University of London in 1931. The VCH then fell asleep like Rip Van Winkle, as the OED did at about the same time, and was revived only in the enthusiasm to build a brave new world fit for heroes after the war. The new editor, Ralph Pugh, greatly expanded the scope of the history to include new topics such as economic history, and to take into account the vast new range of private records that was becoming available. He cut back on the Victorian obsessions with heraldry, field sports, and natural history and he went into partnership with the county councils, who started to raise money to pay for research into their history.
Today the VCH is edited by Christopher Elrington, a distinguished historian with a special interest in Wessex. His publications include Divers Letters of Roger de Martival, Bishop of Salisbury in two volumes, and Wiltshire Feet of Fines, Edward III. He is a tall, scholarly, shyish, endearing man with a dry sense of humor, who has become a bit of a whizz at the VDU, computers, PR, raising money, and other untidy manifestations of the 20th century. But his heart belongs to the past, at the grass-roots, around the old counties.
At headquarters in the Institute of Historical Research he has a staff of six historians, including an architectural specialist, most of whom are concentrated on the next Cambridgeshire volume, due out this autumn. In the field, he employs 25 post-graduate historian researchers, paid for by the counties. In addition there are part-timers, volunteers, local history buffs, and distinguished outside contributors who write for the glory and honor of keeping the old lady going.
Many of the best English historians started work as post-graduates on the VCH. At the present rate they will be finished in around 70 years with about 400 volumes. Then they need to think about Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, as well as revising and updating the earlier editions. By definition, a historian’s work is never done.
Where does the money come from? Pounds 150,000 a year from the University of London. Pounds 550,000 a year from the various local authority committees, ranging from Pounds 10,000 from Cambridgeshire to Pounds 80,000 from the boroughs that make up the mythical county of Middlesex. County contributions have stayed loyally steady, in spite of the cuts in local authority funding; but the implications of the community charge or poll tax threaten what materialists might deem inessential spending. Historical roots are, of course, essential, pace our contemporary anti-historical, anti-culture Visigoths. Proceeds from sales of the volumes are recycled straight back into the VCH, and there is a certain amount (not enough) of spin-off from popular guides and histories.
To mark the centenary and the 200th volume, an exhibition is being mounted at the British Library. It is called Particular Places, and vividly illustrates different topics from 24 places on which the VCH is at present working. The Queen will visit it to meet the historians on May 10, demonstrating the keen interest that her family has always taken in the great survey of its kingdom. She will see, for example, a section on Tewkesbury examining the subject of “work in town” down the centuries, and Wolverhampton as an example of urban sport, i.e., the Wolves and much more.
There are parish chests, and oak charity chests four centuries old, both prime sources for the VCH, and all the ancient documents and other materials of our tangled roots. Parishes and small towns suit the methods of the VCH better than megalopolis, because big cities are redeveloped to look like Wimpy bars (or upended matchboxes, or whatever the craze of the moment) every few years, whereas villages tend to enjoy more continuity. But the VCH is developing new approaches to record the local history of urban sprawl, in which most of the population live. These days the VCH is more interested in the local factory than the local hunt.
The exhibition book, Particular Places: An Introduction to English Local History, by Christopher Lewis (British Library, Pounds 8.95) explains the vast cottage industry of local history that has grown out of the VCH.
Whether or not one of the volumes published this year will be precisely the 200th depends as usual with the VCH on how you do the counting; some of the early volumes were published in two or more fascicles.
But taking scissors to the Gordian knot, I deem that Middlesex IX, published on May 11, is the 200th. It deals with Hampstead and Paddington, two famous places to the northern edge of London, with the scholarly rigor and devotion to original sources for which the VCH is famous.
You can follow in great detail the growth of Hampstead, from Dark Age mud huts, to medieval manor, to bracing village, to spa fashionable for its waters, to vast suburb. It is another piece of the great jigsaw of English history set in place by the VCH. It may not be sexy (in the narrow cant of the tabloids), or immediately cost-effective. But in the eye of history it is some of the most important work being done this century.