William Page was born on 4 September 1861 at his father’s house in Norfolk Square, Paddington, Middlesex, the third son and fifth child in a family of six, to Henry Page, merchant, and his wife Georgina (née Forrester). He was educated locally at a private school (Dr Westmacott’s) and briefly at Westminster school. After his father’s death in 1875 his formal education ended and he was articled to a civil engineer, the family moving south of the river to a genteel part of Lewisham. After serving his articles Page followed one of his older brothers to Australia, evidently in 1881, to take up an engineering post with the government of Queensland, remaining there until 1884. His return to England and change of career were occasioned by another family connection: his oldest sister Margaret had married the record agent and antiquary W. J. Hardy, and in 1885 Page joined him as a record agent, initially as an employee but later in the partnership of Page and Hardy, based at an office in Lincoln’s Inn. In 1886 he married Kate Marion Roe (d. 1947), two years his junior, and they settled in Forest Hill, near Page’s mother. The couple had a daughter, Dorothy, and a son, Ivan.
Page left some impressions of his earliest years as a record agent in his memoir of John Horace Round, whose friendship he made while they frequented the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane in the later 1880s. Page’s affection for the last days of the old record office is plain: it was a place still in part staffed and populated by an extraordinary assortment of ancients and eccentrics, which had been presided over as successive deputy keepers since 1861 by W. J. Hardy’s uncle and father. At the same time, he was full of praise for the modernising improvements and greater scholarly rigour brought to the office by the Hardys’ successor, Henry Maxwell Lyte, after 1886.
Page’s training by Hardy, friendships made at the Public Record Office, and 15 years’ practice as a record agent were the making of him as a historian. As his friend Sir Charles Peers later put it, ‘expert knowledge of records was essential and the range of enquiry practically unlimited. No better general training for an “all-round” antiquary could be desired’.(1) Page was elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1887 and published his first article the following year. By 1902 he had produced a long and strikingly varied list of publications, including reports on archives for the Historical Manuscripts Commission; substantial editions of records for the Surtees Society and the Huguenot Society; and calendars of Feet of Fines and the records of the Inner Temple. He contributed short notes and lists to The Antiquary, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Archaeologia (the Society’s other journal), Home Counties Magazine, and Middlesex and Hertfordshire Notes and Queries; read papers to the St Albans Architectural and Archaeological Society (printed in its Transactions); and wrote a guide to St Albans cathedral (the medieval abbey church). Much of this was ‘work’ – calendaring and editing commissioned from Messrs Hardy and Page – but his own wide interests in history, antiquities and archaeology are also apparent.
Those interests were localised first of all in Northumberland. Page’s maiden publication was on the Northumbrian palatinates and regalities (1888), followed in short order by editions of three early assize rolls from the county (1891) and of the cartulary of Brinkburn priory (1893), an invaluable table of the pontifical years of the bishops of Durham (1896), and an edition of the Edwardian inventories of church goods for Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland (1897). Some Northumberland family connection may be suspected as having sparked his interest.
In 1896 Page moved from south London to St Albans, where his sister and brother-in-law already lived, taking up residence at the White House opposite St Peter’s church at the top end of the main street. Hertfordshire came to the fore of his historical interests, especially St Albans. Even before moving there he had taken an interest, and other publications followed, documenting new discoveries of Romano-British remains and recording the results of his researches in the documents, especially on the abbey; more widely he worked on the county’s medieval chantries and guilds. Page engaged further with the local history of his adopted town as assistant secretary of the Archaeological Society from 1897, by excavating in St Michael’s churchyard in 1897 and at the forum of Verulamium with the Revd. C. V. Bicknell 1898–1902, and by helping to found the Hertfordshire County Museum in 1898. Page remained a member of the Archaeological Society after he left St Albans and always regarded the town with affection.
Meanwhile, in London, a new series of English county histories was being devised by G. L. Gomme and H. A. Doubleday, launched as the Victoria County History (VCH) in 1899 through Archibald Constable & Co., the publishing house in which Doubleday was a partner. It was a semi-commercial enterprise, supported by a large private benefaction but needing subscribers to earn its keep. Doubleday formed the County History Syndicate Ltd. to manage the series, secured the right to name the History after Queen Victoria, negotiated the gift or loan of calendars and editions, formed an Advisory Council of grandees and a network of local committees, and laid out the scope of the project: a set of volumes for each county, a list of topics to be treated in general articles, a panel of subject editors to write them or superintend the work, and a topographical account of every parish and town in every one of the 39 historic English counties.
Doubleday’s scheme gave the VCH the potential to stand at the leading edge of antiquarian and historical scholarship. In the words of a later general editor
[First] it was a co-operative effort in which authorities of national repute were assigned tasks appropriate to them. Secondly, it laid great emphasis on the newly emergent science of archaeology and on economic history, also only just beginning to attract attention. Thirdly, it insisted that official records should be methodically searched and buildings scientifically examined. Fourthly, the narratives were to be illustrated by an abundance of maps ... Finally, the History was to be systematic and uniform between county and county, such uniformity being achieved by the preparation and circulation of instructions to authors.(2)
Many of those features owed as much to Page as to Doubleday.
Volumes began to roll off the presses a year after the History was inaugurated. Page was drawn in at an early stage through his old friend Horace Round. The two were discussing the VCH as early as April 1899, and Round pressed Page’s name on Doubleday as a highly suitable local editor for Hertfordshire. In that capacity Page was named as co-editor of Hertfordshire, 1 (1902). Round also urged the case for preparing a model parish history to be circulated to other authors, and Page had drafted such an account of Wheathampstead (Herts.) before the end of 1900. Doubleday initially intended that Hardy and Page would act for the VCH by searching records in London and supplying notes for authors local to the various counties to work up into parish histories. That quickly evolved – presumably on Page’s initiative – into Page giving up his partnership with Hardy and joining the VCH as joint general editor with Doubleday in 1902. Two years later, when Doubleday left both Constables and the VCH, Page became sole general editor. He remained in that post until his death 30 years later.
Page had a practical genius for organising research, allied to wide knowledge of the materials of English local history. Both are apparent in the Guide for VCH writers issued under his and Doubleday’s names evidently in 1903. Probably the instructions about general, county-wide topics were written by Doubleday. The instructions for ‘topography’ (i.e., the parish histories) bear unmistakable signs of Page’s deep knowledge and attention to detail. Appendix II, for example, indicates the ‘Scheme for dealing with records’. It starts with a long annotated list of the classes of records common to most counties, followed by a page or more particular to each one, giving most space to unpublished monastic cartularies and unlisted court rolls. No fuller list of cartularies was available until 1958. The Guide was issued in paper covers and in a more elaborate bound edition, interleaved with blank pages for annotations and providing sample parish histories at the end: Page’s account of Wheathampstead to show how a large and complicated parish should be treated, and Hardy’s of Alton (small market town) and Chawton (small rural parish) in Hampshire.
It must surely also have been Page, rather than Doubleday, who perfected the VCH’s system for taking and filing notes from published and unpublished sources, in an economical and orderly way, to a defined plan, by teams of workers, and for managing the mass production of parish histories. Office routines, doubtless based on Page’s long experience as a record agent, were established early and ever after were passed on from generation to generation of VCH workers.
Another immediate task for Page in 1902 was to expand the numbers and expertise of the staff so as to tackle the wildly ambitious plan to write the local history of every parish in England, complete with detailed architectural treatment of churches and other buildings. The loss of Constables’ records in the Blitz means that it is not clear how Page went about recruiting salaried workers, though the VCH’s own archives preserve extensive correspondence with outside contributors. At its peak in 1915 the staff numbered four sub-editors, four architectural historians, and over 40 research and clerical workers. The great majority of the latter were young women, fresh from degree courses at Oxford, Cambridge, London or the Scottish universities. The first two did not yet allow women to take degrees, and at a time when employment opportunities for female graduates were very restricted indeed, Page’s ‘school of local history’ at the VCH was a remarkable phenomenon.
Most recruits began with mundane research tasks, like helping to index place-names in the whole of the Dictionary of National Biography on half-foolscap paper slips, and then laboriously sorting them into counties and parishes for storage until needed. Some recruits probably stayed only a short time, but the opportunity existed for those with aptitude to progress through the ranks: to assisting a more experienced worker with a parish history, to taking on a group of parishes single-handed, and to supervising and training new staff. Architectural history was the responsibility of a team of young men (often hoping to be architects) who travelled around England surveying and recording churches, castles and manor houses. Scores of topographers and a dozen architects passed through the VCH offices before the Great War.
Page, in other words, presided over and articulated a hive of serious scholarly research. Already by the end of 1904 the sheer number of the VCH’s young women working daily at the Public Record Office was the cause of overcrowding, tetchily complained of to Page by S. R. Scargill-Bird, the PRO’s Secretary. By 1914 no less a historical eminence than T. F. Tout, professor at Manchester, was praising the VCH as ‘the training ground for a younger generation of medieval historians’ and especially useful in the neglected field of medieval archaeology.
An example of the most expert VCH workers is Lilian Redstone, daughter of a well-known Suffolk local historian. Her father Vincent taught her palaeography in her mid teens and introduced her to the VCH while Doubleday was still editor. When she joined the staff as a topographical supervisor in 1904 she was still only 20. She was on the staff until 1909, when she began to make a career as a professional record agent, taking a London BA degree in 1910, but continued to work for the VCH as an outside contributor until the First World War, and was tempted back in a small way in the later 1920s. Besides supervising and checking the work of others, she wrote the histories of almost 100 parishes for the VCH, spread across eight counties and including half a dozen towns.
Among the architectural staff, who reported to a specialist editor – successively William St John Hope (to 1903), Charles Peers (1903–10), and John Queckett (1910–14) – a representative figure is Ernest Rahles Rahbula. Son of a journalist, Rahbula was articled to an architect at 15 in 1903 and passed his qualifying exam in 1912 but in the meantime, probably from 1906, was on the VCH staff, working on Bedfordshire, Surrey, Worcestershire, and the North Riding of Yorkshire. He switched to the staff of the Royal Commission in 1914, soon after election as Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and returned to their staff after war service in which he won the Military Cross as an artillery officer, remaining there for the rest of his career. Connections between the VCH and the Commission (established 1908) were especially close.
From 1904 the VCH offices adjoined Messrs Constable’s at 16 James (later Orange) Street, off Haymarket in the West End. Page himself, when he began working full-time for the VCH, moved from St Albans first to 19 Overstrand Mansions, a mansion block of the 1890s overlooking Battersea Park, then in 1906 to a newly built and charming house in revived vernacular style, Frognal Cottage, Hampstead (now 102 Frognal).
From there, Page directed the work of the VCH with determination. The inevitable slowness of progress with topographical articles (though the problem was not foreseen until Page came on board) led to the first great crisis of the VCH in 1907–9 when the main financial supporter withdrew, causing a temporary halt which might have destroyed the History altogether. Page and others negotiated new support from W. F. D. Smith (the ‘Son’ of W. H. Smith & Son), rehired the staff, and resumed work with fresh arrangements for writing architectural history in collaboration with the Royal Commission.
Page’s topographical system was designed for the speedy production of short articles, confining the parish histories to little more than manorial descents, architectural histories of parish churches, summaries of local charities provided by officials of the Charity Commission, and the briefest of physical and historical descriptions. Some people were critical of that narrow approach to local history and avoidance of modern times, but to have attempted more may have stopped work altogether. Several points can be made in favour of Page’s strategy. First, the parish histories were designed to be read alongside the county-wide chapters on topics such as agriculture and industry, where due attention was also given to recent history. Second, where expert local collaborators were available, the early VCH parish histories attained exceptional depth and accuracy, the acme being William Farrer and John Brownbill’s volumes on Lancashire. Third, even the in-house VCH topography retains its value a century later when other contemporary works of reference have long been obsolete. It is always better to have an early VCH parish history than not to have one, however restricted its scope, because the facts of manorial landownership adduced in such detail were and remain fundamental to understanding the historical evolution of English localities and the differences between place and place.
A second and greater crisis struck the VCH in 1915 as a direct result of the outbreak of war. Sales slumped, the staff dispersed and work was suspended for the duration. Post-war conditions were far from favourable to revival on the original scale, and in 1920 the County History Syndicate was wound up and placed in receivership. Page, approaching 55, spent the war years helping to edit a patriotic series of lives of the kings and queens of England (4 vols., 1917–22) and directing an innovative (and also patriotic) work of modern economic history, Commerce and Industry (2 vols., 1919). He did not give up on the VCH, however, working unsalaried from 1920 to 1922, trying in vain to draw in a new private benefactor, and eventually in 1922 securing the continuing support of W. F. D. Smith, now 2nd Viscount Hambleden.
A new start for the VCH was marked by Page moving out of London in 1922, to a new house on a newly laid-out development at Middleton-on-Sea in Sussex, facing the pebbly beach behind a sward of grass, and with a garden large enough to accommodate as the new centre of operations for a one-man VCH what has become known as ‘the wooden hut’. Page called the house Ashmere Croft, preserving an old name in the next parish of Felpham about to be obliterated by building development. All the materials needed for continuing the VCH, 14 tons by weight, were taken to the hut, according to VCH office lore in a procession of four pantechnicons. Page restarted work without a salary (though on editorial expenses), bringing out volumes which had been written before the Great War, indexing completed county sets, and searching for benefactors to guarantee the publication costs of new counties. In the last task Page was especially innovative and persistent. Huntingdonshire, for example – for which some chapters had been written before the war but nothing published – was restarted in 1924 through an arrangement with Granville Proby, heir to a landed estate in the county and employed in the judicial department of the House of Lords: Proby advanced money by monthly payments to cover the costs of producing the volumes (eventually to be partially offset by income from sales), besides helping Page in innumerable ways in commissioning and negotiating with authors.
In 1922, as part of this new phase in the VCH, Page made a link with the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR), established the year previously, presumably through the good offices of the IHR’s founding director A. F. Pollard. An office was provided in the IHR’s temporary accommodation in Malet Street, though Page in practice made little use of it. It was nonetheless an imaginative offer by Pollard, from a leading figure in history at the universities to someone who had never been part of that world.
As he turned 70 in 1931, Page had to weather a third great crisis for the VCH: the 3rd Viscount Hambleden’s withdrawal of his family’s long-standing subsidy. In early 1932 Page bought the rights to the VCH for a nominal sum and became owner, making an immediate approach to Pollard that the IHR should assume both ownership and management of the undertaking. Ownership was formally transferred in 1933, Page serving as first chairman of the Institute’s VCH committee and continuing as editor with the intention of completing the volumes then in hand. He died less than a year later before any of them appeared, but under the Institute’s new arrangements his successor as editor, L. F. Salzman (an employee of the VCH from 1904 until the First World War), gradually re-established the VCH on firmer footings as an integral part of the IHR, establishing a sound basis for its expansion after the Second World War.
Page’s editorial achievement at the VCH was prodigious. He edited and brought out some 89 volumes comprising very nearly 39,000 pages of text, not counting the volumes in progress in 1934. He completed the VCH sets for ten counties (Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Lancashire, and Surrey in 1914, Hertfordshire in 1923, the general set for Yorkshire and the topographical set for the North Riding in 1925, Worcestershire in 1926, Berkshire in 1927, and Buckinghamshire in 1928), and was within striking distance of completing Rutland and Huntingdonshire (achieved in 1936 and 1938 respectively). It is some measure of his determination (but also of the greatly expanded scope of the VCH after 1945) that no further county sets were finished until Warwickshire in 1969 and Cambridgeshire in 2002. During the extraordinarily difficult years after the Great War he completed six county sets and found means of starting or restarting five counties (Huntingdonshire, Kent, Northamptonshire, Rutland and Sussex). He was equally at ease leading and managing a large staff as he was doing the VCH single-handed. Throughout all this he was a hands-on editor: sets of galley proofs preserved in the VCH archives are liberally annotated with his corrections and improvements.
Page left the VCH far more advanced in completing general articles than topography. The original scheme – worked out before Page’s arrival – provided for county-wide treatment of 16 topics, ranging from natural history to sport, ancient and modern, in all some 602 general articles. Page saw as many as 383 of them published, completing the plan for sixteen counties and almost so for another three. The topographical articles, despite Page’s endeavours to take sensible shortcuts and speed progress, had much further to go in 1934.
After 1902 Page had limited time for involvement in other bodies. His most important role outside the VCH was with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England, where he served as an assistant commissioner (1909–21) and then a commissioner. For each of the first three county inventories completed – Hertfordshire (1911), Buckinghamshire (2 vols., 1912–13) and Essex (4 vols., 1916–23) – he wrote a lucid and wide-ranging historical summary.
Page’s range as a historian is further emphasised by his own contributions to the VCH. Before 1922 he wrote the Romano-British chapters for six counties (for all but Hertfordshire with assistance) and the sections on St Albans abbey and the ecclesiastical history of Hertfordshire. In the straitened later years of the VCH he collaborated with local authors on the histories of Kettering, Huntingdon, Chichester, Rye, Winchelsea and the Cinque Ports, wrote up the political and parliamentary history of Huntingdonshire and a few parish histories, and provided short accounts of the early history of Rutland as a county and of the remarkable early 17th-century Protestant religious community of Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding (Hunts.), the latter a tour-de-force of historical scholarship in miniature.
From the First World War onwards, besides the works mentioned already, he had more time to follow other topics. His interest in the early history of London was doubtless stimulated by the production of a VCH volume in 1909 which covered the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods and ecclesiastical history. Page seems to have begun his own research during the war, and in 1923 published London: its Origin and Early Development, providing a fairly conventional narrative history from Roman times to about 1200, followed by a more pioneering treatment of the city’s topography and government, including a stimulating account of the sokes of London. As an authoritative one-volume history of early London it was not fully superseded until 1975. On moving to Sussex it was natural for him to take up a new local history interest, and he published a short History of Middleton in 1928. More remarkable than either were three articles on topics which scarcely figured in the academic canon at the time and have attracted sustained attention only since the 1960s. The deceptively titled ‘Some remarks on the churches of the Domesday Survey’ (Archaeologia, 1915) is wide-ranging and perceptive, and could still be described in 2005 (by a leading historian of the Anglo-Saxon church) as ‘a pioneer work which remains remarkably useful’. Even more extraordinary for the time was Page’s interest in settlement morphology (that phrase a later coinage), evident in ‘The origins and forms of Hertfordshire towns and villages’ (Archaeologia, 1920) and ‘Notes on the types of English villages and their distribution’ (Antiquity, 1927).
Page died at Ashmere Croft in Middleton on 3 February 1934. His tenacity through the most difficult of times for the VCH ensured that the series was preserved as a going concern, desperately attenuated to be sure, but already entrusted to safe hands and keeping intact the idea of what the VCH alone could and should be: a systematic work of reference on the history of English localities, researched to the highest of scholarly standards from original sources. Page’s character explains his achievement. In the phrasing of his successor but one as general editor, ‘versatile, tactful, energetic, progressive, and scholarly, he was the History’s greatest asset’.(3) He was also a self-taught historian (and archaeologist) of enormous range in an era increasingly dominated by university-educated and university-based specialists, and a pioneer in the employment of professional women scholars.
Page’s friend and sometime colleague Charles Peers judged his character well in assessing his handling of the first and second crises to affect the VCH: ‘Of an equable temper, kindly and generous to a fault, he was accustomed to make the best of things, and those who worked with him have cause to remember his unfailing serenity and considerateness’.(4) A wide social circle in London and Sussex is suggested by the long list of people invited to a reception in 1931 to mark the forthcoming marriage of his daughter Dorothy to Sir Richard Gregory (of the Manor House, Middleton, editor of Nature and an eminent writer on science); the guests included many old friends from the VCH, including several of the (no longer young) women and men recruited in the Edwardian heyday. Page’s great loyalty to friends and colleagues is further suggested by his part after the death of his (and the VCH’s) old friend J. H. Round. Page sorted and disposed of Round’s papers, published his final collection of essays (in the teeth of Round’s vile handwriting), drew up a very full bibliography of his hundreds of publications, and provided a memoir as sensitive and generous as the most irascible of old Tories could ever have hoped for. Page’s correspondence files in the VCH archive show his tactful relations with hundreds of contributors and supporters from a wide range of backgrounds, ever patient and persistent in advancing the interests of the VCH.
The VCH has two portraits of Page. The photograph reproduced to accompany Sir Charles Peers’s obituary notice in Rutland, 2, is a formal pose, Page in the doctoral robes and cap of his (belated, as Peers observed) honorary DLitt, awarded by Oxford University in 1932. Page was an old man by then, and looks tired. A better portrait is the oil painting of 1926 by H. J. Stock. A visible younger Page (he was 64 or 65) wears a dark three-piece suit, soft collar and red tie. The full beard and moustache and good head of hair are mostly white but still flecked with reddish brown. Clear brown eyes look out, shrewd and kindly. That portrait continues to hang in the VCH offices at the IHR, keeping a watchful eye over Page’s successors.
Dr Chris Lewis is Sussex Editor of the Victoria County History.