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18 September 2014
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The study of place-names is one which has a growing relevance to local history research, though it is an area in which expert knowledge is essential - all too often in the past local names have been interpreted quite incorrectly by enthusiasts who did not have the correct knowledge of how words and language evolved.

Beware of any book on place-names and their meaning published before about 1930, since there are likely to be major errors and inaccuracies. Even if county volumes do not exist there may be articles and other more modest books which help to give basic information. Anything written by Margaret Gelling, the leading figure in place-name research in the past 50 years, is certain to be reliable, readable and relevant.
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Open fields
The open-field system of agriculture was found widely in medieval England and Wales, although its exact form and character varied from place to place and region to region. In the Midlands it typically involved three large fields which were divided into a patchwork of long narrow strips. These fields were the property of the lord of the manor but were managed communally, their organisation being regulated by the manor court.

Traditionally, each tenant of the manor had an allocation of strips scattered across the three fields so that each received a share of the better and poorer land, different soils and favourable or unfavourable aspects (the sunny side or the north-facing slopes). The fields were unfenced and unhedged, were often of enormous size, and produced a characteristic 'open' appearance. Because agriculture was fundamental to the economy and society, indeed the very existence, of almost all medieval communities, the management and exploitation of the strips of the open fields were a central aspect of people's lives.
Collecting and analysing the memories and reminiscences of people - especially of course older people - is a very important but relatively new branch of historical research. It has a special relevance to the work of local historians because memories of what life was like in the past, what a place looked like, how people's work and play were organised, what dialect they spoke, what their attitudes were to particular issues, and what they felt about other people in the street or village or factory are all matters central to our understanding of communities in the past.
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Domesday book
The Domesday Book, which with the Magna Carta is perhaps the most famous document in English history, was compiled on the orders of William I (the Conqueror) and completed in 1086, a year before the king's death. It is essentially a very thorough and very detailed tax survey, in which the assets of the Crown and other landowners, and their liability to pay tax, are carefully recorded.

It is not a survey of everything that there was in England in the late 1080s, for if something was not relevant to taxation it was not recorded, but it is nevertheless a document of quite exceptional historical importance. No other country in Europe has anything remotely comparable. For many places the entry in the Domesday Book is the first written record of their existence, and in southern and midland England there may be sufficient detail to give a surprisingly full picture of the community, although in parts of northern England the entries are less comprehensive.
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The enclosure movement was the cause of one of the greatest changes in the landscape of rural England. It was the process whereby the system of communal exploitation and regulation of the arable land, open pastures, meadows and wastes (uncultivated land) was gradually replaced by a system of private land management. It involved both a legal change and a physical change.

The communal element was abolished and individual landowners and tenants took over separate private control of defined areas of land. The community no longer had rights over most of the land and the poorer members of village society were frequently disadvantaged in consequence. Physically, the great open fields, unfenced and unhedged meadows and pastures, and the expanses of fen, moor, common and heath were divided up into hedged, fenced or walled fields. The land was enclosed, instead of open.

In central England and much of southern England the process reached its peak in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when it was facilitated by a large number of Acts of Parliament, each relating to a single parish or locality. In other parts of England, such as the north-west, such legislation was rare, and instead the enclosure movement was conducted largely by private agreement between manorial lords and their tenants. Here it was already well under way by 1500 and had been largely completed by 1750. The effects of enclosure upon the English landscape are of major importance and in individual communities such as Thriplow it amounted to a full-scale remodelling of the whole pattern of landscape and economic activity.
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Printed sources
Before embarking on any local history research, it is a good idea to read all the published printed sources which are available. See what other people have found out in the past, so that you get a clearer idea of what went on and so that you don't go try to reinvent the wheel - someone else may already have done the work which you planned!

Always keep an open mind - what appears in print is not necessarily correct, and perspectives and interpretations will certainly have changed over the years, but part of the interest and challenge of local history is to see if you can come up with a better researched story, or a fresh interpretation, or a different perspective. The starting place should always, therefore, be the local studies library and its collections of books, pamphlets, articles and maps.
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Your area will almost certainly have a local history society - there are many hundreds scattered across the country and more are being established each year. Local history societies vary very greatly. Some hold lecture programmes with visiting speakers on subjects of almost infinite diversity, run outings and coach trips to places of historic interest, and may hold members' evenings at which you can talk about your own projects and research and exchange ideas and information. Others undertake practical research themselves, organising investigations into particular topics of local interest, lobbying and campaigning on heritage issues, and publishing newsletters, journals and books.

Most counties and larger towns also have local history and archaeology societies working on a county-wide basis and publishing annual 'transactions' which contain papers on any aspect of the history, archaeology and landscape of the county or city. Most such societies also run programmes of lectures and visits.
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The local newspaper is a treasure-trove of information and opinion about history in most communities over the past two centuries. By 1800 most larger towns had a regular local paper (some having them as early as the 1750s) and by 1870 most places of any size had either their own paper or a 'share' in a county or district one. Newspapers are hard work, because it is still relatively rare to find an index and so, unless you are searching for a very specific event, you may need to plough through hundreds of pages of material.

On the other hand, they are quite engrossing and the real danger is that you are so often side-tracked by juicy scandals, sensational murders and odd anecdotes that you forget the main purpose of your research. The local studies library or, more rarely, the record office are the places to look for local papers. Their survival rate in the past was often patchy and, from the point of view of the researcher today, it is now rare to see the originals, which are fragile and delicate - almost always you will be required to read microfilmed copies.
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Evening courses
There are multitudes of courses, day schools and classes on local history, and these are a very important way to begin to widen your knowledge about the subject - either to find out more about a specific theme or area, or to gain experience and guidance in how to do your own research. Local history classes in your area may, for example, include training in palaeography (how to read old handwriting) or in interpreting documentary sources, or using maps and plans.

Alternatively, they may take a specific subject and use original documentary sources to show how you can investigate that theme for your locality. Your local library or record office should have a large and disparate collection of leaflets, brochures and posters advertising classes. Most local history classes are put on by the continuing education department (which may be known as extra-mural studies, or lifelong learning) of a nearby university, by the WEA [Workers Educational Association] or by your local authority. Classes can be highly informative, stimulating to the researcher's creative juices, and also very enjoyable from the social point of view - it is always good to share your enthusiasm or your curiosity with others!
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For the local historian in the past 30 years the photocopier has revolutionised research and the ways of organising work. It is now possible to have copies of documents, to photocopy maps for use in the field or to use as bases on which to add information, and to copy texts and other sources. You should bear in mind that if you are using copies of any material it is important to note the original reference.

Most record offices and libraries will place certain restrictions on what can be copied, either because of the increasingly strict laws of copyright or because of the physical condition of the documents or printed work - copying can cause damage to bindings of books, or may endanger fragile or delicate documents.
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Any research involving landscape history is likely to involve looking at the landscape itself. This may seem self-evident, but it is surprising how often people forget that the landscape, like a document or a map, is a vital source which can be read and interpreted. Part of the pleasure of working on landscape history is walking along the paths, lanes and fields of the countryside, or through the streets and spaces of a town, observing everything around - the 'humps and bumps' in a field, the unexpected twists and turns of a street or lane, the architecture and materials of the buildings, and sense of the ups and downs of the land itself, the hills, slopes and flat areas, the streams and the riversides. There is no substitute for this, because it gives us a crucial sense of the 'feel' of a place as well as providing specific visual, architectural and topographical evidence. Don't be afraid to don your walking boots or Wellingtons and step out!
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Aerial photograph
The use of aerial photographs in archaeological investigation was pioneered in the 1920s at Cambridge University and has since become one of the most valuable methods available to archaeologists. Its particular importance is that it allows features to be identified and located when there is no visible trace on the ground, and so enables archaeologists to find sites which have long since disappeared because of, for example, ploughing-out of earthworks.

Aerial photography is sensitive to the season, the light, the ground cover and the angle of observation (whether vertical or at an oblique angle). Different coloured soils may identify features - thus a filled-in and buried ditch may appear as a darker ring or line in the soil, because it is wetter; black patches may indicate former settlement or industrial sites; and a wide lighter strip might, for example, be the gravel of a Roman road. In growing crops the existence of these features is concealed, but may be marked instead by variations on the colour of the crops themselves. Grass grows thicker and darker on the line of infilled ditches, paler and yellower on the remains of buried walls or hard features. Interpretation of aerial photographs is a specialised exercise and it is always best to consult archaeologists about this.
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In the past, local historians often undertook 'amateur' excavations of potentially interesting archaeological sites. In doing so they found much that was of interest, but usually destroyed much more that was of even greater interest. This is because archaeology is a highly skilled and exacting science which - particularly in the past 40 years - can make valuable use of features which are barely recognisable to the untrained eye or which require very specialised scientific analysis. It is therefore essential that archaeological finds are reported to the proper authorities (such as the local museum, the county archaeologist or archaeological unit) and that local historians do not attempt to excavate or otherwise investigate on their own account. The Thriplow Group followed all the correct procedures - they liased and co-operated at every stage with the professionals.
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This method of dating hedges was devised in the 1950s by Professor Max Hooper. It relies upon counting the number of species, which is held to increase with the age of the hedge according to an approximate mathematical relationship. It is certainly true that the number of species in older hedges is likely to be greater, but the method does not work if the hedge was deliberately planted (single-species hedgerows may be two or three centuries old) and it is much less reliable in the north of England, where for environmental reasons there will probably be fewer potential species anyway. It does not, of course, work in other upland areas where there are no hedges - dating a drystone wall is very much harder!
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It used to be thought that the English village was one of the timeless and unchanging elements in our landscape. The image of the church, the green, the lanes and the cottages is still thought by many people to have been one that somehow was always there. In the last 30 years, though, investigations by landscape historians, archaeologists and local historians have totally revised that view. Instead of being unchanging, villages are very likely to have been remodelled and relocated in the past, often on several occasions.

Pioneering work in central Norfolk in the 1960s and 1970s showed that modern villages were often up to a mile from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, as the focus of settlement migrated, while examples such as Thriplow show that what are now single villages may in the past have been several quite separate and distinct settlements. The lesson here is that we should never assume that anything has been 'the same'. Society, the economy, the landscape, politics and the wide world changed constantly in the past as they do today. Charting those changes and trying to explain them is one of the exciting challenges of local history.
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Share the fruits
At the end of a piece of research, or the conclusion of a local history trail, we should think about how we want to share our findings. To be able to pass on the information, let others see and enjoy what we have done, and add to the body of knowledge about our subject or our locality, is both rewarding and satisfying.

There are various ways of doing this. We can give talks and lectures to local groups and societies (much less terrifying than you might think!); the local library may gladly give space for a temporary display or exhibition; we can put our findings on a website; or we can publish them as a book, an article or a pamphlet (which gives them a permanency which none of the other outlets has). Think about writing up your findings - it will bring your work to a really satisfactory conclusion.
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Published: 28-01-2005

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