Here at The History Press, we are passionate about local history and have worked with many brilliant local historians and writers over the years. We asked a few of them to share how they first got interested in the topic of local history (some answers may surprise you!), what the most important things to remember are and their top tips for success.
For me, I have always had an interest in local history. As a child my grandparents would often tell my stories of their childhood and about the local area in which they lived and I would find these tales fascinating. I also grew up in a small village which has a strong sense of community and as the years have gone by I have learnt an awful lot about the area that I live in, partly from the older people who again have told me stories of ‘days gone by’. I am convinced that my everyday surroundings are deeply rooted in history, there are many historic buildings within the village, and this is confirmed from having studied history academically.
It was from my academic studies that I was drawn to Stepney. I needed a topic for my Masters Thesis and through general reading on London in the Second World War came across the fact that Stepney was one of the worst hit areas and therefore pretty much destroyed during the war and then rebuilt in the subsequent years that followed culminating in the Festival of Britain where the area was showcased for its achievements in architecture. Having looked at the area during the Second World War and the years that followed, I then turned my attention to what happened prior to this. It is well documented that Stepney was the territory for Jack the Ripper but from those grim days to the Second World War intrigued me. I followed my intrigue through an academic level and this grew into my PhD thesis and my first book Stepney: Profile of a London Borough from the Outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951.
I think that the most important part of being a local history writer is your personal interest in the area you are writing about. If you have no interest in it, why will others? You are in the privileged position, generally, of writing about the reader’s home and will be informing them about the history of their day-to-day surroundings. You want to convey your love and interest in the history of their surroundings to your reader.
The challenge is always to find something really interesting to say about the area you are looking at. You want to be different, say something new, have found a new piece of evidence in the archives that no one else has found and therefore shed new light on the area you write about.
I’ve always been interested in writing. I had some interest in the history of my locality (Bradford) but it was only when I joined Bradford Civic Society a few years ago that I really had my eyes opened to what a fascinating city I’d lived in for most of my life. And from then on I just wanted to find out more and more about the history of the place.
I think it’s important to be able to write in an engaging manner, otherwise people are not going to read beyond the first couple of pages. It’s also important to offer comments as to why things happened, rather than just presenting a stark factual chronicle with no analysis. Also a local history should not be a PR exercise for a town or city – dark deeds and failures must be included as well as triumphs and noble acts. And no place exists in isolation; one might be writing an essentially local history, but it will always be part of a broader context – regional, national, even international – and this needs acknowledging.
I found that it paid to make friends with the custodians of local archives and local studies collections, also with members of local history groups and with old people who had relevant memorabilia and long memories. Otherwise one ends up relying too heavily on secondary sources and thus in danger of producing a ‘cut-and-paste’ history rather than something new and fresh.
I can’t remember exactly when I became interested in local history – not at school, certainly, because we didn’t do any local history at all in those days (the 70s). I suppose I really got into it when I moved to a small town in Gloucestershire and got a job in a museum there. I soon discovered that it was exciting to find out what had happened right on my own doorstep, either in relation to the ‘big events’ (wars, religious upheaval, etc.), or just through learning about the everyday lives of people who had walked down the same streets as me. This feeling only increased when I became a professional family history researcher, searching for the most part for quite ordinary people, whose lives were of great significance to their ancestors.
Concerning skills, I think they are the same for local history as for history in general - to be able to do thorough research and be objective. A local historian may have to be particularly objective when considering some types of evidence. That fascinating story someone told you in the pub may not be based on any documentary evidence, so check your facts.
As for special challenges for the local historian, it depends on the theme of your research, but I would say that it gets increasingly difficult to find surviving documentary evidence the further back in time you try to go, probably more so than it is for historians researching national events.
In the early 1960s as a young lad I got a job as a paperboy delivering newspapers and magazines to shops and businesses in Liverpool city centre. One of the places I delivered to was the Central Library, a place that most young boys wouldn’t normally visit. Walking around the library on a rainy days, whilst waiting for the rain to go off so I could deliver the rest of my publications, I stumbled across the enormous amount of reference books and archive material the library held. It wasn’t long before I joined and started spending my spare time studying the available information about the city and its past. I became fascinated by the history of the city and how it had developed and this passion and thirst for local knowledge has remained with me all my life.
In later years I began to collect old photographs of the city and to research the history behind the images from the city engineers department, this led me to create a local history website. I wanted to share the research I had conducted with as many people as possible and the internet seemed the ideal vehicle to do this, that was until someone suggested publishing my work, so why not I thought. The History Press – as the UK’s largest local and specialist independent history book publisher – seemed the logical publisher to contact, and so I did. A year or so on from my first contact I had written and had published my first book Liverpool in the 1950s.
The process was not without its difficulties and I hope this article will in some way help future authors.
For most local historians the idea of writing a history book, can be a daunting prospect, research is time consuming but very necessary. Illustrated books such as the Britain in Old Photographs publications from The History Press provide their own challenges. Photographs need to be of the best quality available – not always easy with archive material – and of a substantial enough resolution for them to be reproduced in a book.
Next comes the issue of copyright and obtaining permission to use images. I try to source my images, wherever possible, from one or two locations; local library archives are often a good starting point. Sourcing images in this way usually means that you can get permission to use them easily and with the minimum amount of effort. Using the internet isn’t a good idea, you are highly unlikely to get the quality images you need and provenance is hard to verify. So, having obtained the best quality photographs you can find you need to ensure that the accompanying text is 100% correct, even library captions on photographs can be wrong. It is also worth remembering that you are the expert, so you are the one that needs to ensure that locations, dates and descriptions are accurate, the publisher can proof read and ensure everything else is fine, but they won’t pick up on errors like dates or locations of photographs. Readers however will find your mistakes, and you can do nothing about them when the book has hit the shelves. So take your time, read and re-read your material and ensure your facts are accurate.
It can take a year to collate all the information for your book but was well worthwhile in the end. Hone your skills as a writer.
* Be methodical, keep records of all the material you collect
* Always think of the context in which you are using the material
* Don’t assume that only the most glamorous history is worth knowing about
* Decide on a layout for your chapters, chronological or by location or by theme
* Provide as much information as possible
* Include little known facts
The end result is worth the effort and when you see positive comments on websites selling your book, receive emails and correspondence from readers who have enjoyed your publication, it makes all that effort worthwhile.
I have always been interested in local history where ever I have lived. Having moved around quite a bit in my life I have always tried to find out more about the area, who lived there and how things have changed over the years. Often this can be done by checking out old pictures, which often sparks off ideas for a book. I think having a sound knowledge about a place is needed to write about it, so I like to do plenty of research before I begin. That has involved reading history books by other authors, checking out online websites and visiting the archives and local studies departments. When writing the book on Yorkshire Villains, I spent a week visiting York Archives and the Prison. I had access to the Calendar of Felons, which was a not of all the cases that would be tried at the Assize Court from all over Yorkshire.
One of the biggest challenges is to find out what information is available in the local archives. Once I found out about the Access to Archives website, this became much easier. That website tells you about artefacts kept in all the Archives in the country. For example, when writing the Rotherham Workhouse book, I found an almost complete set of Guardian Minutes in Rotherham, whereas the Sheffield Workhouse records were almost completely destroyed by bombing in World War II.
I originally became involved as a by-product of other interests and the first substantial work I did was when editing a church magazine in 1978 and decided to serialise its history.
With local history you are for the most part addressing a non-academic market and the key is ensuring that the history is ‘a good story’ – so it needs to be readable, lively and fun where appropriate, without sacrificing accuracy and good scholarship.
Local history books are quite often collections of old photos with surrounding text. In my experience the best approach is to collect the photos first and then frame the captions round them. When writing Reading Pubs I collected about three times as much verbiage as I needed then adapted it to the photos as I was able to get my hands on – a much more long-winded approach!
I think I have always been interested in local history. I have lived in a number of places and have always tried to find out what made it ‘tick’ so to speak. The best way to do that is to look to the past. Without an understanding of the people and events in the past, you cannot understand the present as you do not know how it was shaped.
When I was researching my first book Folklore of Hampshire I delved into areas that did not, ultimately, end up in the final draft but they were useful in my subsequent work. I think the ability to see outside the box is a useful skill for a local history writer.If you read something that is not directly useful to what you are writing about now, but might be later, it is handy to be able to recognise it as something for later use.
The ability to negotiate is a handy skill for a local history writer. This is because, more and more often, those who have the information you need for a book charge for it. With no image budget, for example, this makes life challenging. Large museums often have exactly what you want but if you cannot afford to pay their prices, the book is the poorer for it.
There is also the question of ‘it’s mine!’ This refers to some historians who will not allow access to or allow reproduction of their work if they know you are researching for a commercial book. I have had historians ask for large amounts of money to use their research or to look at their papers. Or, more often, they ignore requests for access. This is frustrating.
All research is time consuming but it can be great fun. I remember the thrill of finding that a north of England newspaper covered a grisly nineteenth century Southampton murder in minute detail. It gave the case much more coverage than any of the local newspapers and this was a surprise. It just goes to show that local can often mean national.
Researching local history had led me to read some really interesting books. My favourite of all is the 1926 epic by A Smith: A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes, Wherein Their most Secret and Barbarous Murders, Unparalleled Robberies, Notorious Thefts and Unheard-of Cheats are set in a true Light and exposed to Public View, for the Common Benefit of Mankind (George Routledge & Sons). This did just what it said at length on the cover and is absolutely brilliant to read.
A tip to readers: local history societies are useful to join or be affiliated to. They often have the really local knowledge or have members with long memories! They do not always share their information with non-members though.
Having been interested in general British history almost ever since I learnt to read, I found my fascination with local history in particular developed after I left school and went to work in Plymouth Public Libraries as a trainee prior to studying Librarianship full-time at Ealing Technical College. While working in the Department of Local Studies I had ample opportunity to examine source materials, including bookstock, local papers, illustrations and maps, and it helped to bring the subject alive for me.
Few cities in Britain suffered more severely during the blitz in the Second World War than Plymouth, and like everyone else in the department, I found it quite exciting to see just how much it had been altered in the course of post-war reconstruction. Plymouth is a curious mix of old and new – the modern city, which is still undergoing major redevelopment in places, side by side with the old Barbican waterside area which thanks to the indefatigable efforts of the Old Plymouth Society has still retained some of its old Elizabethan (i.e late Tudor) buildings and cobbled streets, as a result of facing down a few developers and local councillors who would have rather had it otherwise. We were also fortunate in having a City Librarian, the late Bill Best Harris, who was passionate about local history and eager to encourage his staff to share his enthusiasm in the subject.
As regards the need for particular skills, I think the most important are the obvious ones. Get to know what you can about the subject through reading, being aware of the standard works on the subject, and trawling every available source – books, newspapers, photographs past and present, online sources, and exploring the area on foot for yourself; have the basic ability to organise your material in an interesting way, whether your ultimate aim is a book, an article, a blog, a talk to a local group or society, or anything else; and above all, have a passion for your subject which enables you to communicate it to others.
My passion for history stems back to my early childhood – I have my mother to thank for that – and I have always revelled in mental immersion in the past. Submergence in the past and history of the places where I have lived has always proved an absolute delight, and I’ve had plenty of choice. Having moved home and region often, averaging 3 years in each of my fifteen addresses this should give you an idea of the variety of locals I have been fortunate enough to enjoy as well as my approximate age!
Themes, context and an open mind are key when researching local history – I really have to rein in my enthusiasm once I get the research bit between my teeth (and maybe throttle back on the cliches!) but it is imperative to get your facts straight – you wouldn’t take a substandard Victoria sponge cake to the local fete, take the same pride and respect with regard to the past of the community you are researching, particularly if it’s your local community; their forebears have built and established the place where you live and call home. And acknowledge that many will already have an abiding and deep interest in their local history themselves, so be prepared for some possible rebukes and corrections, but above all else enjoy what you write!
Why do I write about local history? All paths lead back to JRR Tolkien. I was part of a generation that waded through Lord of the Rings as a rite of passage. The thing that struck me most about the book was its sense of history and place. Tolkien had mapped out an entire mythology and was able to use it as the backdrop to the main events of the book. That inspired me to find out about the folklore, legends and mythology on my own doorstep, a quest aided enormously by two indispensable books, Katherine Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies (still my favourite book on the toilet shelf), and the AA/Readers Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, a showcase of editorial genius.
It’s a small hop from this kind of 1970s male, teen-friendly appeal to a full-blown interest in all aspects of local history.
I’m a bit of a lone wolf by instinct, so spending hours alone with on- and offline archives is my idea of a good night out. Stumbling upon an unlooked-for gem, or finally unearthing that ‘Eureka!’ piece of info are the kinds of thrills that other some adventurers get from extreme caving or bungee jumping. One of the things I love about history research is that it enables me to rewrite my knowledge of familiar places. Knowledge of local history lets you time travel. For example, you can walk down the main thoroughfares of Oxford in a choice of ten centuries – each time-span has in-your-face buildings, features and stories, giving you first-hand experience of living history.
I suppose that’s one of the fortunes of being in Oxford, a city that has managed to keep so much of its physical history intact. In many towns you need to accompany your time travelling with a book of old prints and photos, and a vivid imagination, to work out how the place used to look before the shopping precinct/municipal car park was dumped on it. But that challenge has its own rewards too and finding some ‘old bits’ amongst the modern sprawl (in places such as my original hometown of Grimsby) is always exciting.
The only real frustrations I’ve bashed my head against in local history are the dead ends. Questions that refuse to give answers. It can be like watching two episodes of a three-part TV series and missing the last one. (That analogy doesn’t work quite so well in this age of BBC iPlayer and other TV catch-up systems but you know what I mean).
All you can do in this situation is try your best. Get to know your local archivists and experts. Talk to vicars about church history and parish registers. Seek out long-established shop keepers and grill them. See if there are any likely-looking old locals in the pubs. It depends on which era you’re interested on – the old guy propping up the bar is unlikely to fill in those gaps about the Jacobite uprising in 1749, but he might know something about the post-Second World War depression in 1949 or the post-50s agricultural revolution. Go to folk clubs too and see what you can find out about the local traditions scene – it’s amazing how many leads you can pick up there. You might even learn a decent tune or two.
This is all essential groundwork. Which is why a professed lone wolf like me, totally addled after too much beer-aided research in pubs and clubs, gets such pleasure from recharging batteries in the archives. If you don’t know which archives to look at, the best starting point is the internet. You’re not going to find all the answers online, but you’ll unearth some leads. There’s an increasingly huge amount of digital stuff out there, but at some point you’re going to have to follow the yellow brick road that leads to the printed stuff in the archives.
What you do with all the info you gather is up to you. But it’s an ongoing fact that people are interested in their home patch, so getting the stuff published is doing everyone a favour. Personally, l began by penning history stuff for BBC radio in the 1990s, when my precocious folklore archive was recognised by an eagle-eyed producer. I provided notes and recorded songs (I moonlight as a musician, hence those subliminal folk club messages earlier in this article) for a tongue-in-cheek ‘What’s on this week in the wacky world of British traditions’ slot in a Radio 5 magazine programme. It later shifted to Radio 2 and was farmed out to some newspapers and magazines, by which time I’d written what I thought would be the last word on the subject, the folklore and local history compendium Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem, penned in conjunction with the radio show’s producer Quentin Cooper and published in 1994.
The spark refused to die, though, and I’ve been writing local history books ever since. I love it because it’s the history of ordinary people, their tribulations, triumphs and obsessions. It provides that rich back canvas of deeper meaning that Tolkien valued so dearly. Without that backdrop there’s a danger of encountering the world as nothing more than identikit High Streets, snooping cameras and garish people shouting on TV screens. Without its history, the present is two-dimensional. The strange thing is, I can’t get on with Tolkien books at all now. For all sorts of reasons. But hats off to the man who got me on this trail in the first place.