On 19 September, one hundred and twenty-two members and friends of the Warwickshire Local History Society (WLHS) enjoyed a day of festivities at Stoneleigh Abbey, to mark 50 years of the society and to celebrate the development of local history studies during that time.
Joint-chairmen Lesley Caine and Christine Woodland greeted the members and introduced Tony Bird, one of the trustees of Stoneleigh Abbey. He welcomed the Society on behalf of the Trust and gave a brief overview of the saving of the estate and the restoration of the house, 20 years ago. Elizabeth, Lady Hamilton, President of the Society, then spoke. She explained that she had ‘married into’ the county, and through finding the family muniments in a locked room, had got drawn into the history of the Hamiltons and the history of Warwickshire. She spoke of the excitement of Anthony Wood, then county archivist, on the discovery of these records and went on to recollect other historians of the county and the beginnings of the WLHS. One of the early visits of the society had been to the deserted medieval village at Walton, the Hamilton estate, led by (now Professor) Chris Dyer. Then began a programme of talks and presentations by renowned historians, exploring the growth of local history as a proper matter for study and extolling the role of the Warwickshire Local History Society, its members and its journal, Warwickshire History.
The first speaker was John Beckett, Professor of English Regional History at the University of Nottingham, and one-time Director and General Editor of the Victoria County History Trust (VCH). He gave a broad-sweep survey of the development of local history studies over the past 100 years. He described the shift from parochial antiquarian history, with an emphasis on collection and categorisation of information and artefacts, to the modern co-operation and synthesis between ‘amateur’ (unpaid-but-skilled) and ‘professional’ (academic historians, archivists and archaeologists) historians. He spoke of the important role of university extension and extra-mural classes and the Workers Educational Association in promulgating the new ‘scientific’ history to a wider audience in the early 20thC and the interwar-years. Post-war developments included the revitilisation of the VCH project, the foundation of the British Association for Local History in 1982 and the huge explosion in family history, which has led many people into studying their local communities. At the same time, a more rigorous theoretical base for local and regional studies was developed within academe.
Chris Dyer on W.G. Hoskins
Professor Chris Dyer then took up the theme, with particular reference to Warwickshire. The huge impact of W.G. Hoskins on local studies in the 1940s and 50s was acknowledged, at the same time as pointing out that he had omitted Warwickshire from his seminal publications on ‘the Midlands’. Professor Dyer took up this anomaly, developing the theme of, ‘where was Warwickshire?’ He pointed out that the WLHS claimed in its sphere of interest parishes like Shipston-on-Stour, Alderminster and Treddington, which had been transferred to Warwickshire from Worcestershire in 1931, at the same time as including Birmingham and Coventry (which had been lost to West Midlands in 1974) and even little Mollington, transferred to Oxfordshire in 1894. All these transfers had left Warwickshire with the ‘most outlandish’ outline of any county in the country but nonetheless, studies of its local histories, the differences of its topographies, had had an impact on a far wider field than its mangled shape might imply. European scholars saw in the studies of ‘Arden and ‘Felden’ echoes of their own studies of woodland and arable areas from the Ardennes to Russia. ‘Local History is universal history.’