Local Historians in the 18th Century



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Writing local histories was a favourite hobby of many in the 18th century who had spare time, money, and a desire to find out more about their towns and country. Rosemary Sweet examines some of the motivations of local historians and the usefulness of their work for historians today.


By Dr. Rosemary Sweet
Professor of Urban History
University of Leicester



Local historians, wrote John Ives in 1772, ‘are no longer represented as men of uncultivated minds, fit only to pore over musty records, or grovel amongst ruined walls; and their accounts are no longer considered the dull effusions of pedantry or the verbose disquisitions of folly’.[1] Ives’ comment reflects the enormous popularity of writing – and reading – local history during the 18th century.

At parish, urban and county level, thousands of individuals were compiling historical collections throughout the 18th century. Many of these made it into print, but even more remained unpublished, as ‘collections towards’: either because the costs of publication were too high and the potential market too small, or because the author was unable to bring his researches into publishable form. There were many who, like Sir Peter Thompson of Poole, collected materials for a local history but found ‘the putting them into a Method for the Public is too arduous a task for me to think on’.[2] As a result the British Library – and local record officers – are full of unpublished collections or notes for local history. (For example the antiquary William Cole’s manuscripts at Add. MS 5798-5887, 5952-5962, 5992-5994, 6034, 6057, 6151, 6396-6402, 33498 relating to Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.)

Most local historians of the 18th century would also have regarded themselves as ‘antiquaries’, that is someone interested in any aspect of the remains of the past, and as such they studied both the material and the textual remains of the past. They were not bothered about disciplinary boundaries: they concerned themselves with anything relating to their locality – particularly in the past, but also in the present, being conscious that materials collected in their own time would be the historical records of the future. Local history and antiquarianism went hand in hand and cannot be clearly distinguished, but this essay will focus upon antiquarianism which was pursued in specific local contexts. Within this very broad context, however, a number of themes can be identified that are common to much of the local history that was produced.

The descent of property

Look at any county history from the 18th century and you will find that a very large element is taken up with recording pedigrees and genealogies and detailing the descent of property. There was also considerable interest in Domesday Book (a facsimile was published in 1786), principally because it offered the first firm evidence of landownership at the time of the Norman Conquest. Tracing genealogies, then as now, seems also to have offered a form of intellectual satisfaction in itself. But it was also gratifying to the owners of property who were often the patrons of such work. They could not fail to be pleased, as one would-be county historian observed, to trace back their own piece of property to its original holder: ‘no one would blush to know, that his present estate was, antiently, part of the possessions of the principal men in this kingdom.’[3] Such material could also be used in courts of law to prove or contest ownership: ‘the descent of property’, as Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758–1838), a compiler of the history of Wiltshire, informed John Skinner, ‘is one of the most useful articles in County Histories’.[4] The lavish illustration of such publications with plates of gentry seats, as well as the subscription lists which are dominated by the names of the county elite, is proof – if any more were needed – that local history was frequently written to perpetuate the interests of the landowning elite.

A topographical map of the county of Wilts: John Andrews’ detailed map includes the names of landowners and their country seats, as well as roads, parks and outbuildings. / British Library, Public Domain

Not everyone in the 18th century, however, saw local history in this way: towards the end of the period we can find a number of local historians – often autodidacts – who resisted this. John Throsby (1740–1813), the woolcomber and parish clerk who published histories of Leicester and Leicestershire, was disinclined to pander to the vanity of landed proprietors. He warned his readers that ‘the uninteresting disquisition about ancient possessors of land, and their genealogies who have nothing more to recommend them to the notice of posterity than their riches, will find no place in these sheets’.[5] Throsby’s objections arose from the fact that this kind of history meant little to someone such as he, whose identity was not based upon lineage or property.

Martin Dunsford (1744–1807), wool merchant, political radical and author of Historical Memoirs of the Town and Parish of Tiverton (1790) was similarly uninterested in the landed elite: he omitted any discussion of Tiverton Castle or the Redvers family, whose influence as landowners was of considerable significance for Tiverton’s historical development. But he was not seeking gentry patronage for his volume: rather the book was dedicated to the ‘virtuous and industrious poor of Tiverton’, whose rights to the misappropriated charitable benefactions of the parish he hoped his researches would restore.[6]

The prospects of the two most remarkable towns in the north of England: A plate from Ralph Thoresby’s history of Leeds, Ducatus Leodiensis (1715), showing the towns of Leeds and Wakefield and the ruins of Kirkstall and Fountains Abbey. / British Library, Public Domain

Patriotism

Another key motive was the patriotic zeal to discover the history of one’s birth place and, in doing so, contribute to a greater national history. Local historians frequently claimed that they had been inspired to honour the reputation of their town or county and preserve its memory for posterity. Such claims cannot always be taken at face value, but they are indicative of a strongly-felt sense of local identity and patriotism which was a potent force in 18th-century society. As the wool merchant and antiquary Ralph Thoresby (1658–1725) explained in the preface to his history of Leeds, Ducatus Leodiensis: ‘A Natural Propension to the Study of Antiquities inclining my Thoughts that Way, an innate Affection to the Place of my Nativity did more particularly fix upon the present Subject’.[7]

Establishing historical credentials was particularly important in a period when antiquity commanded high respect: hence the (often misguided) efforts of many local historians to establish a Roman or even ancient British origin for their settlement. The Revd. John Skinner of Camerton (1772–1839), for example, devoted his leisure hours to proving that Camerton, not Colchester, was the Camulodunum of the Romans, while the Cornish antiquary William Borlase (1695–1772), another clergyman, was determined to disprove the orthodoxy that the Romans had never penetrated as far as Cornwall.[8] Promoting the study of local history offered the ideal medium through which to mark one’s position in and contribution to the local community.

Figure of Mercury found at Colchester: A drawing attributed to the antiquarian, John Talman, of a figure later illustrated in Philip Morant’s History and Antiquities of the County of Essex (1748). / British Library, Public Domain

Local history as a purpose

The third motive to emphasise is that local history offered an occupation and a purpose for men (and in the 18th century almost all local historians were men) who had time on their hands: for gentlemen and for clergy (under rather fewer pressures in the 18th century than they are today), it was a welcome means of occupying their time. This helps to explain the social profile of many of those who undertook local historical research. Education, money and social position, as well as leisure, were all important. Thus the study of local history was common amongst members of the landed gentry, not just because they had a vested interest in the subject, but because it offered a meaningful occupation. Some of them invested large amounts of private wealth on travel, on collecting books and manuscripts, and on having copies of documents made (fees for copying at the Tower of London, where state papers were held, or the British Museum were prohibitively high).

Certain occupations had a natural affinity with local history: clergy and lawyers, for example, had both the education and the access to sources to pursue local history with ease. Lawyers were particularly used to tracing descents of property and using the evidence of genealogies, while in the funeral epitaphs and parish registers of their own churches the clergy had important records for local history at their very finger tips. The social position of clergy and lawyers also gave them entrée to family papers or institutional records from which others, who enjoyed fewer social advantages, were excluded. For many clergy, who found themselves in parishes without congenial company, the study of local history offered them a form of escape: the Revd Philip Morant (1700–1770), who compiled histories of Colchester and Essex, used to complain that Essex gentlemen were interested only in bowling and other similarly ‘stupid and childish’ employments.[9] His letters to friends and to his patron Edmund Gibson (1669–1748), the Bishop of London, show how researching local history allowed him to feel part of a wider community of like-minded individuals. It is also clear that for Morant it was a means of currying favour with Gibson, who took a keen interest in such matters: Morant hoped that it would secure him preferment to a better living than Colchester. It did not.[10]

Local history was extremely eclectic and tended to reflect the interests of whoever was making collections. A number of would-be local historians issued printed questionnaires which were circulated to members of the gentry and to clergy for completion. Unsurprisingly, these were seldom satisfactorily filled in, but they do provide telling insights into what the ambitions and expectations of local historians were and give a sense of the range of topics expected to be covered.[11] Prominent amongst these were Roman antiquities: the education of gentlemen in the 18th century was overwhelmingly classical and this familiarity with the ancient world helps to explain why so much antiquarian and local historical activity focused on the Roman era. Before the 18th century very little was known about the nature of the Roman presence in Britain, but as increasing amounts of archaeological evidence were uncovered over the course of the century (through agriculture, road building and urban development) more and more pieces in the jigsaw could be fitted together.

One of the most important texts that had survived was the Antonine Itinerary, a description of the major roads of the Empire: 15 routes within Britain were described and over 100 different stations were mentioned. Establishing the identity of all the different stations and the routes of the various roads exercised the ingenuity of countless local historians and antiquaries. It was, as one antiquary noted, ‘an endless fund of enquiry, where any one is at liberty to form conjectures’.[12]

By contrast the Saxon period for most local historians was not a rewarding era to study: there was very little in the way of a written record, few scholars could read Old English and such Anglo-Saxon antiquities as were found were generally wrongly identified as Romano-British. Most local historians tended instead to leap forward to the safer territory of the 11th century, when monastic chronicles, charters and Domesday Book began to provide a more secure basis for research. The subjects that were covered (in addition to the descent of property) were dictated by the documents, so institutional histories of churches or monastic foundations, or corporations and other governing bodies loomed large.

Depending on their level of architectural interest, comments on historic buildings might also be included; and as more information about gothic architecture became available in the later 18th century through publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine or Francis Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales (1773–76) such commentary became increasingly detailed. ‘Historical notices’ recorded events of national importance, such as the visit of a king or the storming of a siege in the Civil War. What was purely local was deemed to be less interesting, and was generally relegated to a list of ‘remarkable occurrences’ which might comprise anything from monstrous births to a visitation of the plague or a violent storm. Local historians often incorporated oral testimony from elderly inhabitants who could still recall events that had happened long in the past. Occasionally, information on, for example, poor relief or the price of bread would be provided as an illustration of the ‘manners and customs’ of former times.

Rougemont Castle, Exeter: An etching from Francis Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales (1773–76) / British Library, Public Domain

The work of local historians in the 18th century was dismissed by one writer as ‘mere dull description’.[13] Reading some of their publications, it is easy to see why: endless lists and collections of material, but not much in the way of synthesis and very little narrative structure. But this emphasis on empirical recording which characterised so much of their work is of immense value to local historians today. Thanks to these individuals we have records of the landscape, of buildings, of property ownership and people that represent a hugely rich resource for researchers. At their best the antiquaries and local historians of the 18th century provide an invaluable record of the ancient and present state of their localities: they would be gratified to know how heavily their work is now relied upon by modern historians.

Suggestions for further reading

C. R. J. Currie and C. P. Lewis (eds.), English County Histories: A Guide (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994)

Rosemary Sweet, Antiquaries: the Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Hambledon, 2004)

Rosemary Sweet, The Writing of Urban Histories in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Footnotes

  1. John Ives, ‘Preface’ in Henry Swinden, The History and Antiquities of the Ancient Burgh of Great Yarmouth in the County of Norfolk (Norwich, 1772).
  2. BL Stowe MS 5841 f.25, Sir Peter Thompson to Browne Willis, 30 August 1749.
  3. H. P. Wyndham, Wiltshire Extracted from Domesday Book (1783), p. xxiv.
  4. BL Add MS 33665 f.54, Sir Richard Colt Hoare to John Skinner 1818.
  5. John Throsby, Memoirs of the Town and Count of Leicester: Displayed under an Epitome of the Reign of Each Sovereign, 6 vols (Leicester, 1777), i, p. iv.
  6. Martin Dunsford, Historical Memoirs of the Town and Parish of Tiverton in the County of Devon (Exeter, 1790), pp. 22, 24, 50, 60, 77.
  7. Ralph Thoresby, Ducatus Leodiensis: or, the Topography of the Ancient and Populous Town and Parish of Leedes (1715), p. v.
  8. BL Add MS 33665 (John Skinner’s correspondence on antiquities) and BL Stowe MS 754 fol. 112, William Borlase to Charles Lyttelton, 21 August 1749.
  9. BL Add MS 37218, f. 80v, Philip Morant to A.C. Ducarel, 19 July 1757.
  10. BL Add MS 37221 correspondence between Philip Morant and Edmund Gibson.
  11. John Nichols in Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica, 1 (1780), pp. i-iv provides a historical survey of the printed questionnaire in the 18th century.
  12. Francis Wise, Letter to Dr Mead Concerning some Antiquities in Berkshire (Oxford, 1753), p. 8.
  13. William Hutton, History of the Roman Wall (London, 1802), p. v.

Originally published by the British Library under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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