"I didn't like history at school. It was all dates, which I could never remember’". You have probably heard someone say this and perhaps have said it yourself. But do not worry. By far the majority of local historians are amateurs, with no intention of taking any memory examinations to achieve a career and have no need to learn dates by heart.
However – dates are still very important. How else can the order of events be established in order to explain a certain outcome? For example, suppose evidence shows a mine opened in 1800. If further evidence shows a sudden increase in the population of a neighbouring village from 1800 onwards, then it might be inferred that people were moving in from elsewhere, to take advantage of the jobs available. But if population growth had been increasing anyway since 1750, then there could be another cause to consider. So include exact dates of any items found in your research and then forget about them until you need them.
When you begin your research, much of its success will depend on your filing system. A good system, whether it is on your computer or on paper, is one where you can find something quickly. Your first decision is the area of study – which could vary from one house or family, to a parish or even a larger area such as one based on an old Hundred; (this was an old system of sub-dividing a county, which persisted until the 19th century.) Then choose some general headings with clear labels, to start, for example –
Heading 1 - Maps and diagrams Be careful with O.S. maps, they are highly protected by copyright
Heading 2 - Pictures Note location and ownership of paintings
Heading 3 - Local histories or guides This is vital. Acquire, read or list everything that has already been published. Some libraries keep lists of them. Otherwise, ask around. There are often county groups, with their own websites and regular meetings, and a national group The British Association for Local History. It is extremely useful and pleasant to meet other people with similar interests to yourself.
Even more vital – learn how to record a reference if you want to keep a note from one of these…
Sub-headings - Your filing system can of course include many sub headings, according to your interests. Any of the three suggested above can be subdivided as necessary; ‘Church’ for example, might include labelled sections such as ‘Chapel’, ‘Quaker Burial ground’, ‘Gravestone Survey’, ‘Cornish Crosses’ or ‘Wall Paintings’. It is also useful to cross reference; in a ‘Church’ section, for example, make a note that you photographed the building and surroundings and that these are filed under ‘Pictures’.
Hopefully you will at some future time want to publish an article or even write a book. To be taken seriously, a publication must give references and if these are noted, in full, immediately on finding and recording them in your notes, you save yourself endless trouble when - possibly years later - you receive a request from a reader or editor. The website of Bristol University gives useful signposts to the main systems. Although tedious at first, the system you choose becomes quicker with practice.
Security and archiving
Finally, the safety of your research records should be considered. If these are kept on your computer then make a daily, or frequent back-up, for example on a separate hard drive or memory stick. Paper records are more difficult, especially if they include original documents. There are fire-proof metal cases for the really valuable items, but these are expensive and do not hold a great deal. Otherwise, a local history society might archive for its members papers on which they are not currently working but need to keep safely. Probably the very safest thing is to publish constantly, even in a short form such as a guide book or newspaper article on one aspect of your area and then move on to another so that a loss of records is not an overwhelming disaster.
This cannot be a complete list but contains some sources that I have found especially useful.
Highly recommended is David Dymond’s book Researching and Writing History, a guide for Local Historians. British historians are fortunate; we have had a very long period, with only one interruption, of an inherited monarchy, accompanied by the gradual development of a representative government; it has also been over a thousand years since a serious foreign invasion. One result has been the present existence of one of the best collections of records in the world. There is a collection of National Archives in Kew, which can be visited or consulted and every county has its own Record Office, easy to visit and often with detailed indices on-line. Dymond describes these, but with the major emphasis that no Archive collections are complete, far from it. What local historians can study today are just those documents that have survived, often by chance. Britain may have had continuous periods of development and recording, but many, many records have been destroyed, or lost through fire, local disturbances, or because they were old and therefore seen as of no value.
Another important aspect of any documents used is to ask yourself ‘Who wrote this and in whose interest?’ Because a document emanates from some part of a government, local or national, it cannot simply be assumed to be accurate or unbiased. For example, a census in the 19th century is very useful for showing details of people living in a particular place for a local historian to use in studying say population movements, or the proportions of different occupations, or the appearance of new streets or buildings. However it should not be quoted as precisely correct; some households can have been left out if no one was at home, and people answering questions were not always totally reliable, especially in giving their ages and birth places.
A recent television documentary about the Armada showed how myths such as how large it was, and its power and efficiency, have grown over succeeding generations. Inaccurate information about it is now found in school text books and in paintings in Westminster, since for it to form part of our ‘heritage’ it must seem an amazing victory. On the other hand while on a visit to Corunna, the writer enquired of a local tour guide as to the harbour in which the Armada fleet had collected, to find that the guide had never heard of the Armada; clearly as a Spanish defeat, it had been removed completely from their modern school history books.
A perhaps less well-known resource for local history is a website called British History Online.
This offers indices to communications over many centuries between government departments, the monarch and others. Much of this is free to read and relatively easy to find although it can take several attempts – entering Roche, meaning the Cornish village, for example, brought up several documents about Rochester. It is not very expensive to register in order to read some of the restricted texts. Items include many excerpts from the Victoria County Histories – these can also often be found in public libraries’ reference sections.
The history of a chosen local area is clearly not something that can be completed quickly. It can grow into an awareness of many aspects of the lives of those who came before us - as well as the features of a modern landscape, which will take on a whole new meaning. Do not be afraid of being distracted – a strange name for a pub, a peculiar bend in a lane crossing flat land for no apparent cause, ribbons hanging from a small tree over a small spring: they all have a reason - and it does not take long to become a local history detective!
Dymond, David, Researching and writing history, a guide for Local Historians,Carnegie Publishing 2016
Trubshaw, Bob, How to Write and Publish Local and Family History Successfully, Heart of Albion Press 2005