Turning the pages: book reviews
Local History on the Ground by Tom Welsh, The History Press, 2009, pb, B6, 160pp, illus, maps, bib, ann, index, ISBN 9780 7524 47988, £16.99.
Chapter One, ‘Dispelling the myths’, makes this book worth the money. There is too much ‘meat’ to summarise in a few paragraphs, so I will use Tom Welsh’s own words to try and answer the question ‘What is local history on the ground?: ‘The community or the landscape explored is seen as it is today, and we have to try and see it as it was. This book is about finding and interpreting the clues to that past landscape’. His intended reader is the person who has stood and looked at an ‘apparently inexplicable pattern of hummocks and hollows’ and wants to make sense of them. To do this, Tom believes that you need to use historical sources and material, which are the ‘stock-in-trade’ of local (and family) historians, but have been often ignored by archaeologists since the mid-1980s, when their emphasis switched to aerial photography and a reliance on ‘documents which give good topographical detail’. He argues that local history and archaeology were synonymous until then.
Tom goes on to argue that ‘While a socially based history might avoid the geography of the past, it cannot escape being influenced by it’ and cites our old friend and contributor to Local History Magazine, Professor Alan Rogers, as being the local historian who pointed out the co-dependency of social and topographic history. His introduction is both thoughtful and challenging and leads the reader into eight chapters: ‘The Landscape Detective’; ‘The Landscape Hidden in Documents’; ‘Reading the Landscape’; ‘Maps and Air Photographs’; ‘Reading the Physical Landscape’; ‘Roman Roads and Other Long Lines’; ‘Exploring Suburbia’ and ‘Exploring Villages’. For ‘physical’ read ‘natural’.
I think this is the point where I admit that the first time I tried to read this book I gave up, and it was only on my third attempt that my perseverance was rewarded. Suddenly I was in and understanding his arguments, if not his conclusions. For example, in his chapter on suburbia, I question his claim that ‘Although suburbs developed outside the gates of medieval towns, the phenomenon (of suburbs) as we know it is the product of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century’. I believe that the process of urbanisation around our towns was not just overspill from the centre, but also internal growth within the townships and villages, as they developed trades and activities they could sell in the town. Many of these inner-city and suburban communities have retained a sense of self-identity which would have been lost had they been merely been taken over by the town. Local history societies have, undoubtedly, helped to maintain the sense of place many of us have, but they did not invent it and in fairness to Tom he does point out how ‘relatively easy it is, with a bit of analysis of old and modern maps, and a bit of walking around, to recover a detailed picture of both the past landscape and the process that transformed it from a rural idyll to urban sprawl’. I particularly enjoyed his separate sections on parks, open spaces and commons.
My initial problem with the book was not helped by the small size of the print and the quality of some of the maps and site plans. Anyone getting on in years like myself may struggle with these things and there are books I do not buy because of this. I hope Tom Welsh is able to reach a large audience. He deserves to.
Village Pumps by Richard K Williams, Shire Library, 2009, pb, A5, 60pp, illus, glos, bib, index, ISBN 9780 7478 07049, £5.99.
This delightful book about village pumps contains a history, a guide to ‘how they work’, lots of fine examples, all in glorious colour, and a chapter devoted to their preservation and renovation. Pumps come in all shapes and sizes and are not just confined to villages; they still exist in towns and cities, but the temptation must be to move them to safe keeping as more and more thieves look for metal they can sell. We have a ‘parish’ pump in Lenton which, thankfully, is now lost from view because the site has become so overgrown and few know of its location, but I still worry about it, albeit fleetingly, every time I go past it. A lovely book only let down by the size of its print, but this is a Shire book and they have been very successful at selling small books with small print, so I expect Village Pumps to be snapped up by many of you the next time you wander into a museum bookshop or a National Trust shop somewhere.
Labour in the East: Essays in Labour History in Norfolk, Suffolk & Essex by Ian Grimwood, John Gyford, Don Mathew, Stan Newens, Matthew Worley, Labour Heritage, 2009, pb, A5, 132pp, £5 plus £1 p&p from John Gyford, Blanfred, Chalks Road, Witham, Essex CM8 2BT.
This is a timely collection of original and previously published essays: ‘The Rise of the Labour Party in Ipswich’; ‘From Two Boys and a Dog: The Labour Party in Lowestoft 1918–1945’; ‘The Red Flag and the Fine City: The Norwich Labour Party 1900–1945’; ‘The Co-op Movement in Essex’ and ‘County Government and Labour Politics in Essex 1930–1965’. For my part, I enjoyed reading them all, but then I would. I have been a Labour Party member and activist for nearly fifty years and I know for a fact that these are bad times, so anything that reminds me that the Party grew from nothing tells me that it can recover and become a great force for good again.
In the circumstances, my interest was particularly drawn to ‘County Government and Labour Politics in Essex 1930–1965’ by John Gyford. In the recent county council elections for Essex, Labour was reduced to just one councillor from Colchester. During the period 1930–1965, Labour’s lowest point was when 16 councillors were elected in 1931. Compared to recent years, these were very good times. However, this was before the Greater London Council was created, so most of the Labour councillors came from wards closest to London, but there were rural Labour strongholds in places like Witham, Finchingfield and Radwinter, as well as the larger towns. John Gyford (who is currently one of nine Labour councillors on Braintree District Council) describes the Party model as being one of ‘county labourism’, rather than ‘municipal socialism’. Essex was a place where Labour wanted to spend money differently, not spend more money. It was more preoccupied with fair wages for council employees and better secondary schools in rural areas, where it believed the Conservatives used ‘small village schools as a means of keeping the children in an educational atmosphere most likely to supply the farmers with farm hands’. He looks at how Labour councillors and the county Party functioned in Lancashire during the same period. The fact they were different comes as no surprise, for a number of reasons. The one which stands out is the way in which the county Labour Parties worked and influenced the Labour county councillors. In Lancashire, the two groups met once a year whilst in Essex they met more frequently and organised conferences and dayschools to discuss policy issues. This is also a period when councils were elected for three year terms and, in Essex, Labour was only in power for nine of the thirty years.
I am a great fan of strong local government and believe its achievements far outweigh its shortcomings and occasional lapses and that all our political parties should be proud of their contribution, which will only be recognised and acknowledged when more people follow the example of these five authors. This is not a party political issue. Yes, it is political, but I long for the chance to say good words about similar type local histories from Conservatives, Liberals and Greens. As I have said on numerous other occasions, the local history of local government and politics is something which deserves our attention — which is why my two retirement local history projects are going to focus on local government and community related topics.
17 June 2009