‘England’s Past for Everyone’ is a groundbreaking new project set up by one of our most venerable institutions, the Victoria County History. Chris Catling argues that their recently published Burford project is a model of how to do a town history.
Archaeology and local history are very close companions, and the nearer we come to the modern era the more historical evidence there is to complement the archaeological record. But not everyone can identify an Alfredian burh or a burgage plot, let alone distinguish a tolsey from a guildhall. Evening classes run by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), founded in 1903, once produced armies of enthusiastic local historians for whom such terms were very familiar, and there was a flowering of amateur involvement in the 1970s.
Much WEA activity is now targeted at those who have missed out on formal education, creating a gap that the Victoria County History (VCH) has set about filling by encouraging professional historians to pass on their skills by working side by side with volunteers.
Set up in 1899, the VCH successfully applied in 2005 for a £3.3 million grant to set up a project called England’s Past for Everyone (EPE), with the aim of engaging many more people in the discipline. Core to the five-year project is the use of non specialists to do the research for a series of 15 paperback volumes, addressing topics as diverse as the history and restoration of Parham House in West Sussex, the story of ethnic minorities in Bristol, the history of Christianity in Cornwall and the lives and livelihoods of the people of Codford, in Wiltshire, from the first Saxon settlement to the two World Wars.
Burford: myth and reality
As a primer in ‘how to do local history’, the Burford volume (subtitled Buildings and people in a Cotswold town) begins by tackling the question of what makes the difference between a historian and, say, a guidebook writer. Travel writers from the 19th century onwards have presented Burford as a venerable town with a remarkable High Street lined by Medieval and Tudor wool merchants’ houses, intermixed with cottages, coaching inns and the occasional grander mansion. The idea of Burford as the quintessential Cotswold town was already well established in 1802, when the Gentleman’s Magazine described it as having ‘escaped the general sweep of alteration’ to retain its picturesque old world charm.
With devastating subtlety, the authors proceed to demonstrate that Burford has, in fact, changed beyond recognition in the last 200 years. Far from being Medieval or even Tudor, Burford is full of buildings that were remodelled – especially in the 1920s and 1930s – to make them look more like the ideal of what a Medieval Cotswold wool town ought to look like.
Studying the evidence reveals beyond question that Burford’s buildings owe as much to the Arts and Crafts movement as to the town’s earlier history. It was a visit to Burford that prompted William Morris’ famous manifesto and his founding of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.