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18 September 2014
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Industrial Local History: Top Tips

By Dr Alan Crosby
Image of Cliff Howe at the computer
Cliff Howe at the computer 

Find out more about key aspects of researching local history. Discover how careful research of original documents, the advice of professionals and modern methods of recording information can help the local historian.

Canney Hill

Industry can be a fascinating subject, because for the past 250 years so many communities in Britain have depended to a greater or lesser extent upon industry for their economic well-being - but many of these older industries have now disappeared.

'... this pottery produced goods that were cheap and readily available ... '

Cliff Howe became fascinated by something he'd come across when tracing his family history - a small and now-vanished pottery near Bishop Auckland in County Durham (see the Canney Hill feature). He was intrigued to know more about it and delved into a wide range of sources to uncover its story, and that of the people who lived and worked there.

Thanks to his patient research (the trail went as far as Wisconsin, USA!) the Canney Hill pottery has now been written up and is no longer unknown and forgotten. What Cliff did could give valuable lessons to anyone doing local history research. These are the key features of his work:

  • Seeing the history of this industry as a human story
  • Careful documentary research
  • Using the knowledge and advice of other people
  • Using modern technology to record data
A human story

Seeing the history of this industry as a human story: the pottery at Canney Hill had a considerable local importance even though it was scarcely known outside that part of County Durham. It does not appear in the national story at all but that does not mean that it was unimportant - rather, its impact was upon the communities around, for whom it provided employment and helped to broaden their economic base.

It had a significant human impact in a different way - this pottery produced goods that were cheap and readily available but which represented, for mining families, a little bit of 'luxury'. In looking at any industry we should think about questions such as these. They are not simply buildings and technologies, and their products do not exist in a vacuum.

Industries are also about workers and their backgrounds, about the changes which their arrival makes in local communities and, conversely, the consequences of their closure upon the same communities. We can ask questions about 'who bought the goods' or 'what marketing did they use', and so create a picture of the human dimension to the industry or trade which we are investigating.

Careful research

Careful documentary research, which involved finding casual references and incidental information about the pottery, and seeking each reference of fragment of information as part of a jigsaw puzzle helped everything to fit together.

In any local history research it is likely that this approach will be necessary - to find all the information neatly and clearly laid out in one accessible source is rare indeed. Much more common is the 'detective trail', in which clues are found, leads followed up, and motives and methods reconstructed.

This may involve plenty of lateral thinking as to where to look next, and it entails careful observation of what other historians have found out in the past.

Sharing information

Using the knowledge and advice of other people, Cliff found in his Canney Hill Pottery project that there was nobody who knew the story already, but that a lot of people had something to share.

Some had examples of the pottery that was made, others knew about small rural potteries in the mid-19th century, others remembered stories about the industry, and others helped with information about family history.

Their information was important in supplementing what he could find through written and map evidence, but it also gave new dimensions to the research itself.

Recording your data

In the past (by which I mean up to about 20 years ago) local history research was essentially based on pencils and paper, card indexes, and writing out in longhand or typing out on a manual typewriter. That was how most people organised their material and created the finished product. Today, of course, access to personal computers and their associated technology has transformed the process.

In most cases it is still necessary to use the pencil and paper stage, because in record offices and libraries it may not be feasible to use laptops and all archive repositories will insist upon the use of pencil rather than pen or any other form of ink (pencil can be relatively easily removed from a document: ink will cause irreparable damage to a unique and precious item). But the analysis of material and the storing of information have been made so much easier by the advent of the PC.

We can use spreadsheets and databases, which allow us to manipulate data, to sort and resort, to produce superb graphs, charts and diagrams, and to find what we want rapidly and efficiently. We should always remember, though, that the computer cannot ask the right questions, cannot have the ideas, cannot connect the seemingly-unconnected facts, images and inspirations which make up local history investigation, and cannot tell us the answers except to mathematical calculations and standardised procedures.

In short, make the fullest possible use of the technology now so readily available, but recognise at the outset and remember all through that it is you who are the local historian, not your computer.

Published: 2005-03-03

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