The Victoria County History (VCH) has since 1933 been a research project of the University of London, directed from the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). Founded as a private enterprise in 1899 to commemorate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, it produced many large volumes before it ran out of money. When the IHR took it on, the history of ten counties had been completed, (1) one volume or more had been published for each of a further 23 counties, and on five no start had been made. The few volumes that were published in the 1930s had largely been compiled much earlier.
In 1945 the VCH employed just one person, the general editor, L. F. Salzman. By 1990 it had a full-time staff of 34, nearly all of them academically qualified. Most of them were employed to write the history of one of the counties in which funding was provided by local authorities. (2) Besides the full-time staff outside authors have been commissioned to write some sections and a few volunteer helpers, often without formal qualifications, have contributed to the work. From the mid-1990s the number of VCH staff declined, as constraints on their finances prevented local authorities from continuing the funding. A major new departure, and a greater emphasis on the help of volunteers, came in 2005 with the sponsorship of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) of the project England's Past for Everyone (EPE) within the VCH.
VCH staff did much the greater part of the research and writing for the 130 big red volumes that were published between 1945 and 2007. Outside authors could usually be found to write the thematic chapters covering general topics on a county-wide basis, but only rarely is an outside author ready to write a parish history to the requirements of the VCH. The highly productive output of the VCH in its earliest years was mostly in the form of general chapters, and the parish histories form the greater part of what remained (and of what still remains) to be written.
The increase in staff numbers happened largely during the general editorship of R. B. Pugh (d. 1982), who succeeded Salzman in 1949 and retired in 1977. (3) Shortly before he was appointed the Institute IHR had begun to enter into agreements with committees formed in counties where the VCH was incomplete: each committee would find the money to pay for the employment of a county editor and one or more assistants while the Institute IHR would provide for publication and ensure the quality of the work.
The first of those agreements was for the Wiltshire history, (4) initiated by the borough of Swindon and reached in 1947;, and by 1950 similar arrangements had been made for three other counties, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire and Staffordshire. During Pugh's editorship agreements were made with a further seven counties. (5) Much later two other counties, Durham and Northamptonshire, resumed work on the VCH before the major expansion of 2005. (6) Besides the people working on the history of particular counties, the central staff of the VCH was increased; at one point it included the general editor, a deputy editor, the architectural editor and three editorial assistants who among other things researched and wrote the history of Cambridgeshire.
Along with the growth in the workforce, Pugh oversaw a remarkable expansion of the content of VCH volumes and the range of sources on which they were based. Most of the county histories completed by the VCH before 1939 had run to four or five volumes, of which typically two contained chapters on general themes, such as political and economic history, and two or three the histories of the several towns and parishes. For Wiltshire, by contrast, the scheme was for five volumes of general chapters (though they were to exclude natural history, which had taken many pages in the pre-war volumes) and more than a dozen volumes of parish histories.
The parish histories were to give far more emphasis than previously to landscape, to economic and social history, to education and to religious worship outside the established church. Whereas the parish histories in the early days of the VCH had been based almost entirely on material already published or in the Public Record Office (now The National Archives of the UK), those written after 1950 could draw on the contents of the county record offices established before or soon after the Second World War. Unlike their predecessors, the authors of parish histories from the 1950s onwards walked the streets and fields and talked with the inhabitants. That was partly through the influence of W. G. Hoskins, who undertook the editorship of the Leicestershire volumes; he said that local historians should not be afraid to get their feet wet. (7)
In the early years an average VCH parish history had taken only three or four weeks to research and write and ran to a little more than 2,000 words. By the 1960s the average time was two months and the average length nearly 10,000 words. Over the next 40 years, in an attempt to satisfy the ever-widening range of interest of the readers, both the time taken and the length crept upwards. The staff doing the research and writing welcomed the expansion, and indeed were responsible for it, but those concerned with funding the project saw its dangers. Balancing the need to keep the scale of the work manageable and affordable against the expectations of both professional historians and the interested public has remained a problem.
Five years after his appointment as general editor Pugh published a small book of guidance for those writing parish histories. (8) Some critics saw it as a warning to amateurs not to attempt a task for which they were not qualified. In fact its purpose was to provide an outline of the topics with which an author needed to be familiar, and Pugh and his successors reckoned to provide the researchers who were recruited with the necessary in-house training, instilling the need for accurate and reliable scholarship in what is essentially a work of reference. While sometimes arousing animosity in people outside the VCH, Pugh was very supportive of those working under him, encouraging them to become involved in historical activities beyond the VCH. Various record societies and local archaeological societies have benefited from that involvement.
Those joining the graduate staff of the VCH were expected to have a good knowledge of English history throughout all periods. Nearly all had either spent at least a year or two on a dissertation for a research degree or had worked in archives. A high proportion came from Oxford and Cambridge, where undergraduates in theory studied English history from the Anglo-Saxons to the 20th century and where they were more likely to have the Latin necessary for reading medieval documents.
They tended to be medievalists, since it was easier for them to deal with modern periods than for modernists to grapple with the middle ages. Pugh used to ask of possible candidates 'Can he (or she) read?', surprising those who did not immediately realise that he was wondering about their knowledge of palaeography. Reading medieval and court hands was, in fact, one of the skills which some of the VCH staff acquired only after they had been taken on. Not all of them had read history as a first degree: some had read classics, geography or law. On one occasion Pugh worried that a newly appointed assistant, an Oxford classics graduate with a good training in archives, would not know about the Algeciras Conference; the relevance of that event to English local history was not clear.
For the new recruits there were many aspects of local history about which they had to learn. At the same time they each could add new ideas and experience to the collective pool of VCH talent. When they moved on to other work they took with them the skills and methods which they had learnt while working for the VCH.
In the 60 years from 1945 to 2005 more than 100 people served on the full-time academic staff of the VCH. The length of time they stayed varied from one year to 40; several of those who remained for long periods moving from one county to another, between the central staff and a county, or from a junior position to a senior one. Some reached retirement age while working for the VCH. Others moved on to different careers: three went into holy orders, one was recruited by MI5 (and rose to become its head), but most went into other branches of historical work, some into (or back into) archive administration and a rather larger number into teaching in universities and colleges. Four took up academic appointments abroad, one each in the United States and Australia and two in New Zealand. All would agree that working for the VCH was a valuable and formative experience.
The author, C. R. Elrington, was general editor of the VCH from 1977 to 1994, having previously served as assistant to the general editor, editor for Gloucestershire and deputy general editor.