For nigh on twenty years I came here occasionally, sent by archaeologists to look at large maps, and I was always intrigued by the tiny glass-fronted room where the duty archivist watched over us – the goldfish bowl, as the staff call it, apparently. Strange that for more than two years now I have sat in that same room, toiling over parish histories and supervising the Victoria County History (I’ve even heard a whisper that it’s now called the headmaster’s study, but I’m not supposed to know that). I came from Wiltshire, mostly, though I’ve worked all round the west country, and sold up last year and moved to Gloucester docks (and West Yorkshire, but that’s another story). I had edited work for the VCH previously, in Wiltshire and Herefordshire, but researching and writing parish histories from scratch was a daunting new challenge. I’m here because, after some fifty years based in the archives, with concise, detailed, annotated and invaluable parish histories written covering half the historic county, the Gloucestershire VCH had its funding cut off in 2010, and its two expert historians departed.
A fundraising trust was set up to continue the work, and in particular to complete and see published a volume left half-finished. A year later, and largely through support from the Bristol & Glos Archaeological Society, the trust was ready to advertise a part-time contract for the work, and it was my great good fortune to be given the task. Subsequently more funding has been secured, so that – amazingly – now we have three more volumes in progress (covering parishes around Yate in South Glos, and the Cheltenham and Cirencester areas), four more historians working under contract, and a noble band (the academy, we have dubbed them) of expert volunteers. And it’s now my additional task to follow them, because, as someone once said, I am their leader.
I expect you’ve used the VCH (if not, why not? – have a look at our website and see what you’ve missed). And perhaps you’ve thought, yes worthy and hugely useful, but not exactly gripping, emotive, cutting edge history. Well, no, I thought that too (my background is in writing for a popular audience). But that is to miss the point. Let me persuade you.
I’m currently researching Norton, between Gloucester and Tewkesbury, which belonged to the medieval archbishops of York. Following up a reference in a paper by a York academic, last month I was sitting in Kew with a (mercifully legible) 1340 survey of one part of the parish, Bishop’s Norton. I knew that it had a windmill in 1589, presumably on Windmill Hill (still so-called). But here were the words quoddam molend’ venta’ (‘a certain windmill’), some 250 years earlier. So in it goes, like myriad others, a short staccato VCH sentence, footnoted to the TNA source.
But that conceals a precious miracle. There was I, staring at the actual handwriting of someone who lived nearly seven centuries ago, who I surmise had lived through appalling famines, hardships and floods. He (I guess it was ‘he’) was telling me in Latin about his village, its 42 small tenant farmers (most of whom I knew by name from another source) and how they farmed their land; and about their windmill, which must have looked out competitively over the nearby watermill of the next manor – the miller there was suspiciously wealthy, I noticed incidentally. I couldn’t tell him, of course, that within a decade half the villagers would die agonisingly from the Black Death and that the world he was describing to me was about to change for ever.
None of this experience comes across in my bald VCH sentence. But I will have fulfilled my brief by finding and recording the clue, so enabling anyone in future to call up the document and empathise, as I did, with fellow human beings from that distant world – which I guess is what history is about.