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18 September 2014
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Village Local History: Top Tips

By Dr Alan Crosby
Image of Peter Shakeshaft compiling research on Freckleton
Compiling research on Freckleton  

Top tips that help you approach writing about local history in the best way. See how themes, context and an open mind are the building blocks of a good historian and how vital it is to organise your research material carefully.


For most local historians the idea of writing a village history, incorporating all the aspects of the community in the past, is a daunting prospect, even though for many it remains an ideal, an ambition for the future. There are usually practical problems, such as defining the scope of the research, and writing up the results can be time-consuming and challenging.

Peter Shakeshaft set about researching and writing the history of a village in Lancashire (see the Freckleton feature). It took five years but was well worthwhile. His 292-page fully illustrated book on the village was published, and the response from the local community overwhelming. His experience offers many lessons for anybody setting out to do something similar.

  • Learn as you go along
  • Be methodical in your work and your record keeping
  • Always think of context
  • Don't assume that only the most glamorous history is worth knowing
  • Work on the basis of themes and subjects, not a chronological progression
Learn as you go along

As you undertake local history research you will frequently (maybe even constantly) come across things that you don't know or don't understand. Don't be alarmed! All historians find this, because nobody can know everything.

'Don't guess, don't invent, don't try to cut corners.'

Experienced professional historians, just as much as beginners, try to expand their knowledge and extend their understanding. If you find something unfamiliar - a technical term, a concept, or a new type of document - look it up in reference books or read some background material to find an explanation.

If you need to know more about how to do something - read a 17th century document, analyse census statistics, or understand what a map means - consult an expert or sign up for a local history course which might give you more expertise. Don't guess, don't invent, don't try to cut corners.

Be methodical in your work and your record keeping

Spend a lot of time walking through the landscape itself: this might seem an obvious thing to do, but it is surprising how often local historians and even people researching landscape are seemingly-reluctant to get mud all over the Wellingtons and go out into the landscape itself.

'Have a mental framework of time and place ...'

The Thriplow group placed this activity at the centre of their project and made it the focus of their other work, because they rightly considered that the landscape was the most important document that they had. The same would apply to any investigation of urban landscapes, the streets and buildings of towns and cities. There is no substitute for looking at the world around us.

Always think of context

Our community did not exist in isolation - even the most remote places had contacts with other communities. Always remember that what yours experienced, which may seem to you to be extraordinary and unique, might have been entirely typical of the time or area. On the other hand you may find that your place did have features which genuinely set it apart from others.

In researching your history, don't close your mind to what was happening in the next village, or in another part of the town, or elsewhere in the same industry, or in your place 50 years later. Have a mental framework of time and place and visualise your topic slotting into that framework.

Don't assume that only the most glamorous history is worth knowing

It simply isn't true. A royal visit might indeed be worth describing, but is it really as important and as full of human interest as seven centuries of agricultural toil and labour, sustaining a community through good times and bad? Don't leave out the one-off events and colourful happenings but don't forget that 99 per cent of history is about seemingly unremarkable activity.

'... a good local historian will identify the key themes which have contributed to the development of the place ...'

Remember, too, that for your readers once of the most exciting things is that very ordinariness. The attraction comes from knowing that their house was built on a field named in a medieval document, or the stream they played in as a child is on a 17th century map, or that you recount the story of a factory which is now long gone but was where grandpa worked.

People identify with that sort of real history and they relate closely to it. The lives and emotions and experiences of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances in the past, as researched by you, may have much more reality for present-day readers and listeners than details of the visit of the Duke of Albany in 1883.

Work on the basis of themes and subjects, not a chronological progression

Few local history books are more dull than those which begin in the Iron Age and end today and recount the story of what happened in between in a year-by-year unbroken sequence. Such an approach makes for tedious, repetitive and unsatisfying text, in which the trends and patterns of history are lost.

Telling the story of a village doesn't have to be like that. Instead, a good local historian will identify the key themes which have contributed to the development of the place and lives of its people - farms and families, industries and crafts, the churches. He or she might also identify, and use as chapter divisions, the important events which really did change the course of its history (the end of the monastery, the enclosure of open fields, the building of the cotton factory, the sale of the landed estate for house-building).

These events rarely correspond to the usual 'royal house' divisions of history (1485 death of Richard III and accession of Henry VII; 1714 death of Anne and accession of George I) but they have far more relevance to the locality.

Published: 2005-03-04

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