The precursors of academic local history can be found in the antiquarian accounts of the English counties and towns which began with Lambarde's Kent, Carew's Cornwall and Stow's London in the 16th century,(1) and Burton's Leicestershire and Dugdale's Warwickshire in the 17th.(2) They evolved from attempts to characterise a whole county, to parish by parish studies, in which the lords of the manor were identified, and the church and its monuments described.
Such county and town histories continued to be written for more than two centuries after Dugdale. The county histories tended to construct the past out of the genealogies of the leading families. The authors were often gentry themselves, and the first readers and owners of the books belonged to the gentry, or at least aspired to be gentry. Landowners wished to be reassured of their importance, to be linked with their properties and to see their values upheld. They also expected to read about their neighbours and other members of the ruling elite.
The traditions of the county histories were perpetuated in the county societies, most of them called 'archaeological' societies, but also practising history based on documents, which flourished in the late 19th century. Their mainly professional and middle-class members heard lectures and published 'transactions' which often took as their subject matter country houses and their owners, leading families and the architecture of parish churches. The same preoccupations are found in the parish histories published in the early volumes of the Victoria County History (VCH), founded in 1899.
When history became a respectable academic discipline in the late 19th century, its practitioners were preoccupied with national history. The principal theme was defined as the development of government, which arrived at a mature parliamentary constitution under Victoria. Local communities were relevant to this story, as they were represented in parliament, and many of the great figures such as Simon de Montfort and Oliver Cromwell had roots in particular regions. Constitutional historians like F. W. Maitland took an interest in the localities depicted in Domesday Book,(3) and the early history of boroughs. F. Seebohm studied the institution of the village community,(4) and claimed to detect its origins in the period before 400.
From the 1880s a movement to write and teach economic history challenged the preoccupations of the constitutionalists. Economic history in universities was rooted in 'commerce' or economics. Its concern for 'ordinary people' attracted a large lay audience eager to hear about the pre-industrial past, the industrial revolution and the way of life of working people. Inevitably economic history was researched and written in relation to particular places and regions – Heaton wrote about the Yorkshire textile industry,(5) de L. Mann about the south-west,(6) and Tawney, researching the 'agrarian problem of the 16th century',(7) plucked examples from all parts of the country where the archives were most informative.
By the 1930s high quality local studies were being published on a range of themes in local history. The Orwins had proposed new approaches to the study of open fields through the example of Laxton in Nottinghamshire,(8) Court had completed his Rise of the Midland Industries,(9) and important local industrial history was being written by Nef.(10) More material was becoming available for local historians as a growing number of counties had established record societies (following the pioneers in the previous century such as the Surtees Society and the Chetham Society), which published editions of the tax records, court rolls, cartularies, wills and correspondence which threw light on counties and their individual towns and villages. The first county record offices came into existence, though they were not provided in every county until the post-war period. Other disciplines were also assembling source material that helped the study of local history, notably the English Place-Name Society.
These studies and editions were not however often called 'local history', and the term was not held in high regard. W. G. Hoskins had in the 1930s worked on the cloth industry in his native Exeter, and had become an expert on the rural history of Leicestershire where he lectured in economics. He returned to Leicester University College from exile in the war-time civil service, and in the benevolent atmosphere of post-war innovation was able to found a Department of English Local History in 1948. It has flourished ever since, in spite of being reclassified as a 'Centre' as the University frowned on small departments.
Unlike other department or centres in other universities Leicester's local historians have never concentrated their interests on Leicestershire or the East Midlands. Leicester historians have worked on Devon, Cumbria, the West Midlands and many other places, while taking an interest in the East Midlands if the region is relevant to their broader enquiries. They practise local history in general, and expect that their approaches and methods will be applicable everywhere, not just in the UK.
The Leicester School of local historians has always paid particular attention to the historic landscape. Hoskins's pioneering work, The Making of the English Landscape,(11) was very influential in the long term, and Leicester's development of the subject has always emphasised the interaction of societies and their environment. A particular Leicester project has been to seek to classify and understand regional differences. Joan Thirsk developed the idea of 'farming regions', which used probate inventories of the 16th and 17th centuries to show that some areas could be regarded as 'wood pasture', and others as 'mixed farming' or 'open pastures' and so on (12).
Farming systems could be linked with field systems, settlement patterns and social structures, and Alan Everitt applied the French geographical concept of pays to the English countryside.(13) He could discern many patterns and connections within differentFor example, Thirsk saw that industry tended to develop in woodland and pastoral country. Everitt went on to note the tendency for Protestant non-conformity to flourish in these pastoral and industrialising communities.
A further extension of this line of thinking has been Charles Phythian-Adams's thesis of 'cultural provinces'(14) which formed coherent territories defined by river valley frontiers or by watersheds between river valleys. These ways of looking at regional differences tended to be based on research in the early modern period, but everyone agrees that they had a longer ancestry. Everitt traced the evolution of the pays of Kent since the Roman period,(15) and Fox used a similarly long chronology to explain the emergence of the wolds.(16)
A related theme in Leicester thinking has been a realistic approach to the issue of communities. Everitt saw the county community at work among the 17th-century gentry, and other Leicester historians have taken as their theme the long-term history of village communities.
Approaches characteristic of Leicester include a tendency to consider the past in the long term, which means that while staff and students examine a particular period, they remember the 'long view'. It is no accident that when local history began as a distinct discipline the Annalistes were emerging as a school in France. They also studied regions and localities, and believed that historians need to take account of the longue durée.
Other features of the Leicester approach include the application of a number of disciplines in investigating the past, including archaeology and geography in their landscape work, and social sciences such as anthropology in examining communities and social stratification. Leicester historians have been involved in linguistic approaches, in their investigation of both place-names and personal names. They also advocate the comparative method, as a means of arriving at verifiable conclusions, but also to avoid the parochialism and narrow focus that is sometimes to be found in local studies.