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. 


  1. Richard - have we got a new word here? I had never heard of 'historicity' before, but even the OED hasn't yet listed 'ahistoricity' - you may end up with a 'first use' in a future edition!

    Anyway, a really interesting item - thanks for it.

    1. Susan Kilby writes:

      This has got me thinking. I too receive a local monthly newsletter, albeit billed as a ‘village magazine’ covering five Northamptonshire villages: Tansor (my own village), Cotterstock, Warmington, Fotheringhay and Southwick. These villages also form one benefice, and share a vicar. The magazine, Five All, represents the five villages. In an earlier incarnation it was known as Four All, which excluded Southwick, until it too joined the benefice. Each village has a group of nominated correspondents responsible for collecting and writing up local news and events. In addition there are sections on church, school and police news, alongside readers’ letters, a calendar of local events, and short articles from regular contributors on a range of local interest subjects. Unlike your magazine, there is an annual subscription of £7.00 for ours. Local companies pay to advertise their services, and so it is a commercial enterprise, albeit non-profit making. I have been told by neighbours that readers are not always local, with former residents often still wanting to receive news from their former village.

      What I find interesting about how this changes perceptions of local territory is that, even though it is the decline in church attendance that is driving the reorganisation of rural benefices into larger units, it is nevertheless the newly-created benefice that forms the basis for the new local geographic unit. The magazine reinforces this ‘new’ community. Are we witnessing the collaboration of rural institutions that locals perceive to be threatened? – local community and church – in an attempt to reinvigorate both? Or is it simply a question of economics? Talking today with one of the founders of Four All, it was felt that a local magazine with a wider application would be much more viable than producing individual village or parish news, of which, it was felt, there wouldn’t be enough to justify printing costs. Regarding locals’ sense of place, in our tiny corner of Northamptonshire, many villagers subscribe to Five All. But each village still seems to see itself as an autonomous unit. Tansor has a thriving and active social scene, centred around the resident community. Recently, a neighbour who had previously lived in nearby Warmington told me that one of her former neighbours was delighted that she was moving to Tansor, and was told “Good. We keep reading about all their events in Five All. Now you can find out what they’re all up to and report back!”. So perhaps the larger ‘territory’ of the benefice is simply a necessary artifice within which local people retain a sense of belonging within their own local village community.

  2. I have only just come upon this blog spot and hope the subject is not regarded as too old for me to make a comment.
    Parishes have been amalgamating for some time now. I can remember as a child in the 1950s that there was a Vicar of Long Marston (nr Tring, Herts) but Long Maston soon became part of the Tring Parish and the Long Marston Church locked up. In the 1990s, the neighboring parishes of Wigginton and Aldbury were absorbed.
    It is doubtful if the concept of Parish now has any meaning for anyone other than historians and a few older church-goers who retain an interest. Even important life events like marriage are far less frequently associated with the parish church – two of our children were not even married in this country!
    The parish church has been the physical centre of the parish. It will not be long before the peripheral churches fall into a state of disrepair. The Church of England, though still rich (I assume) will not be able to maintain large numbers of buildings which may only be used for an hour a month and the diluted numbers of parishioners will be unable to raise the funds. That will be sad if for no other reason than the church is often the building with the longest architectural history in the community.
    Perhaps more important, however, the demise of the parish in favour of larger more fluid and purely administrative units such as borough and county councils (and parliamentary constituencies) parallels the decline of democracy which seems to be a consequence of increasing population size. However understandable this link may be, and however convenient for those increasingly remote individuals who wield power, it is certainly not to the benefit of the modern peasant! The declining ability or desire to influence local administration is of course enhanced by ‘detaching’ an individual from place. Further, the most effective way to weaken a sense of belonging is to homogenize and enlarge the place beyond recognition as a unique entity.
    Richard asks if historians should do anything about it. I wholeheartedly agree with him that historians should speak out as it is not only historical tradition and knowledge which is at stake. It is our personal freedom and our right to interact with the landscape of which we are a part.
    Chris Side. 27th April 2012