Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Local History and the Death of the Parish

Richard Jones

I live in Upton, Nottinghamshire.  Last week the Upton Tonic dropped through my door.  This monthly newsletter does not claim to be a parish magazine, but that is what it is.  It reports on activities across the parish, includes the minutes of the Parish Council meetings, and is delivered to all villagers and occupants of outlying farms and houses within the confines of the parochial boundaries.  For the last couple of years, a second separate flier entitled The Four Ton Tattler has been inserted into the newsletter.  This provides church news including the orders of service in the churches of Upton, and the three neighbouring parishes of Rolleston, Fiskerton, and Morton (hence the four tons).  These churches constitute a single benefice.  On the recent appointment of a new vicar, the Four Ton Benefice was united with the Trent Group Benefice covering the parishes of Bleasby, Thurgarton, Halloughton, and Hoveringham.    Eight churches and their parishes are now served by a single vicar. 

These changes, and the quiet rebranding of a parish magazine as a newsletter, should interest local historians.  First, we might point to the fact that slowly, insidiously, stage-by-stage in piecemeal fashion, parochial identities and allegiances are being dismantled and replaced by larger spatial units.   We are witnessing nothing short of a fundamental change in both the way that the landscape of England is organized and how it is now perceived by its occupants.  These changes demand to be recorded if the death of parishes is not to be veiled in the same silence that accompanied their original constitution during the tenth to twelfth centuries.   

Secondly,  those who know their early history will recognize that we appear to be returning, in purely spatial terms at least, to the kinds of arrangements that preceded the formation of parishes, an England made up of greater and lesser ‘estates’ characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon period.  This emphasis on medium-scale territories is further reinforced by the formation of modern council districts.  What is fascinating  is that these new groupings are not based on historical precedents, but are carving up the landscape along different lines.  To take Upton as an example.  Upton’s history is closely associated with the minster estate of Southwell.  Recorded from the mid-tenth century, this comprised Southwell and eleven members or outliers.  Upton, Fiskerton and Morton were part of this estate family, but never Rolleston; likewise Bleasby and Halloughton were included in the estate, but Thurgarton or Hoveringham always lay beyond.   Even today, relations between Rolleston and Upton remain remote, despite being only two miles apart as the crow flies, while affinities with Fiskerton and Morton are stronger despite the two villages being geographically more distant.  The new landscape thus comprises new territorial units, while at the same time and perhaps more significantly destroys the older units from which it has formed.

As a local historian this situation intrigues me.  I ask myself, are there any lessons to be drawn from the current reorganization of the countryside that might help inform on the processes that must have been at play in the early medieval period?  Do new times always demand new solutions?  Why are historical arrangements apparently no longer relevant and what does this say about constitution of communities past and present?  Are we currently creating artificial, ill-fitting, internally incoherent territorial units and social groupings which will be inherently unstable, or are we creating new and appropriate territories which will shape the countryside for the next millennium?  And what role should I play, as a landscape and local historian, in helping to define these new territorial arrangements? 

Thirdly, there is the issue that gets to the heart of local history.  Since the nineteenth century, no other spatial or administrative unit has exerted so much influence over the practice of English local history than the parish.  The scholarly template was firmly established when parochial histories became the principal organizational device of The Victoria History of the Counties of England.  Across the country a constellation of groups continue to meet to discuss and research their parish resulting in the publication of hundreds of parish histories.  But what shape will local history take in the post-parish era?   Younger generations no longer share the sense of parish belonging which has been the foundation of the local history society.  Even now, most people when asked would be unable to tell you where their parish boundaries lie.   Few families enjoy a multi-generational connection with a single place.  This lack of rootedness will only be further eroded as the idea of the parish fades into the distance: as the parish magazine becomes a newsletter, the parish a benefice, the village simply a part of a planning district.    

My feeling, for what it is worth, is that local historians should not just sit back to observe and record what is happening (they must continue to do this of course).  Far less should they present a conservative voice that harks back to the golden age of the parish and condemn the ahistoricity of modern life (after all, while the parish has a long and noble pedigree, there was a time before the parish existed).  Rather they should be taking the lead.  They should ensure that the lessons of history that tell us that communities have continually organized and reorganized themselves according to particular circumstances are conveyed to the widest possible audience.  They should stress that there are many solutions not one, while at the same time demonstrating that some things work and others do not.  It is only when the long-term appreciation of the development of the English landscape is effectively communicated to all those responsible for or who must live with inevitable change that we will find the means avoiding the many pitfalls that lie in wait, and be able to develop new sustainable and resilient ways of living together.  The parish is dead (or at least dying), its raison d’être largely defunct in a multi-cultural society.  Local history must change as a consequence, in its scales of operation, in its horizons, and in its themes, if it too is not to become a historical irrelevance. 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

What is local history?

Welcome to our first post on the nature of local history! The Centre for English Local History was established in 1948, under the guidance of W.G. Hoskins, a figure whose pioneering work has defined the research project of the ELH. The Leicester approach developed by Hoskins is committed to the study of past communities, and the material environment in which people lived and worked.

What does local history mean, and how do we practice it in an increasingly global society? The ethos of the Centre is simple enough. Broader studies of the past tend to rely on one particular method, but the ethos of the ‘local’ encourages the holistic study of lived communities. From economic, social and cultural perspectives, to the history of the landscape, politics and piety, this approach is profoundly interdisciplinary, examining localities from a variety of angles. This mode of history allows us to make observations that revise our understanding of wider national and international issues.

From reflections on the value of using local history, to the insights of anthropologists or social psychologists, this blog offers a forum for debate and discussion. We hope you will enjoy reading and participating in our posts. If you would like to join in or have a piece to contribute yourself, please do get in touch.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Dr Richard Jones on local approaches

Here Dr Richard Jones of the Centre for English Local History questions the meaning of ‘local’ both in the past and today. Should we conceptualise ‘local’ communities in terms of geographical space, or in terms of populations and human interaction? We invite your comments on this subject!