Home Page Review of New Publications

The Victoria History of the Counties of England
A History of the County of Stafford
Edited by Nigel J. Tringham

Volume X - Tutbury Honor and Castle, Needwood Forest, Tutbury, Hanbury, Rolleston, Tatenhill and Yoxall. published 2007 by Boydell & Brewer Ltd. £110 (25% discount offer to subscribers to Staffordshire History Journal = £82.50 plus postage - offer ends 30 June 2008).
Whether ordering by phone, fax, email or via website, please quote this reference number = 07323/50.
Boydell & Brewer Ltd., PO Box 9, Woodbridge IP12 3DF - Tel: 01394 610600 - Fax: 01394 610316 - Email:trading@boydell.co.uk    Previous issues also available.

It is a rare privilege for an amateur local historian to have placed in his hands a brand new edition of the Victoria History of the County of Stafford.  Always seeing these prestigious and authoritative red volumes resting on the shelves of the County Record Office and the William Salt Library, acting as the final arbiter on difficult questions of fact and the first port of call for casual inquiries, it is hard not to take them for granted.  It is a very good thing to be reminded, every now and then, that local historians in Staffordshire are fortunate to have four great pillars of wisdom – the CRO, the Salt library, the Staffordshire Record Society (which publishes the SHC) and the Victoria County History – supporting their researches.  Not all counties are so fortunate.   Staffordshire now has 13 volumes: Lancashire has only eight – and they were all published by 1914!   Warwickshire (including Birmingham) has only eight and Yorkshire twelve.   In some smaller counties work on their VCH has barely begun.

It was not inevitable that Staffordshire should have such good coverage from the VCH.  The first volume was published in 1908 but then there was a gap of nearly fifty years till the second appeared.  In some counties research and publishing ground to a halt in the 1970s.  As responsibility was delegated to individual counties from the start, we owe our privileged position in Staffordshire to the local VCH team whose scholarship and energy through the decades gained and kept the vital financial support of the county and other local councils.  Margaret Midgley was appointed editor in 1951, revitalized the project, and passed on the baton to M.W. Greenslade in 1961 and Dr. Nigel Tringham in 1995.  Since 1993 the VCH has been researched and written by members of staff in the school of Humanities at Keele University.   In this latest volume Dr. Tringham pays tribute to Michael Greenslade who joined the team in 1954 and was county editor from 1961 to 1995, making significant contributions to ten of the thirteen volumes and producing the good pace of publication needed to ensure continued funding from the local authorities.

In reviewing this new volume it would be presumptuous, not to say impossible, to challenge its scholarship.  I counted well over four thousand individual references to original documents and secondary sources in its 335 pages of text. Nobody could deny that it fulfils the aim of the VCH, reiterated by Dr Tringham, to produce a fully referenced history of the locality, prehistoric to the present day, giving future researchers a secure framework in which they can pursue further features in more detail.  It takes us on a journey from the Mesolithic flint artefacts found near Tutbury castle, the earliest evidence of human activity in the area, to the explosion of 4,000 tons of ammunition in a disused gypsum mine near Upper Castle Hayes Farm in November 1944, the largest explosion in World War II (excepting the atomic bombs dropped on Japan). The eight page introduction to the book constitutes a well sourced local history of the area in its own right.

Today, however, the VCH is not content with replicating the glories of times past.  At the start of the 21st century it is meeting new challenges and establishing new aims.  With a new acronym, EPE – England’s Past for Everyone – it is seeking to tap into the nation’s growing enthusiasm to learn about who we are and where we come from.  In a series of paperbacks it is attempting to provide books that will have a broader appeal than the traditional red volumes of the VCH.  With the VCH’s implied criticism of its own past publications we can perhaps admit to ourselves that they were never the easiest of “reads”.  To use modern terminology, they were not accessible, or welcoming or “user friendly”.  It is quite difficult to consult them profitably without the guidance of a long suffering archive assistant.  Volume I for instance bizarrely begins with a natural history of Staffordshire with sections on liverworts and lichens, fresh water algae and hymenoptera.  Tucked away, unheralded, at the back of the book is a political, social and economic survey of the county, up to 1885.  The next volumes, dating from the 1950s are not so strange but do not have helpful or enticing titles.  Volumes IV and V, for example, are entitled West Cuttlestone Hundred and East Cuttlestone Hundred.  Which inhabitant of, say, Church Eaton or Penkridge is going to pull automatically those volumes from the shelf ?  As late as 1979 the VCH seemed to be deliberately obscure in its presentation.   Volume VI gives no indication of the topics covered on its title page. The contents page itself doesn’t stand out, being indistinguishable from various editorial notes and lists of sources.  Its main section on the history of the County Town of Stafford is hidden away after a few essays on schools and agriculture. Volume XX, published in 1984, announced itself to the world as “Seisdon Hundred (part)”.  So, if the VCH admits that it needs a “broader appeal” one might expect to see evidence of it in its more recent publications.   Here a local historian of limited expertise and less knowledge can make a useful contribution in a review and try to answer the question, “Is it easy to read and use?”

It has to be said that the new volume is a magnificent book to hold and behold.  The top class binding, paper, design and type face make it a real pleasure to read.  Dr Tringham and the VCH have  been well served by their publisher and printer.   Whereas in previous volumes one could be easily be put off by long lists of feudal tenures and offices, volume X seems to cover the same ground with a lightness of touch without sacrificing any of the scholarship.  Terms are explained and stories of human interest added to the mix.  I only had to turn to the dictionary once in reading the book (“fleam”, since you asked).  The book is wonderfully enhanced by 35 modern maps and plans, drawn by J.A. Lawrence of the University of Keele, which are crisp and clear yet contain lots of detail. There are few better ways of introducing someone to local history than a well produced historical map of their area.

The first article, on the Honor of Tutbury, is carried along in fine form by following the fortunes of the Ferrers family and then the Earls and Dukes of Lancaster.   Equal emphasis is given, however, to the lower orders with fascinating descriptions of the Minstrels’ Court, the Tutbury Horn and bull running.   The prior of Tutbury used to release a bull at Tutbury castle at the feast of the Assumption. If the minstrels caught it before it crossed the River Dove they got to keep it.   If the bull escaped it reverted to the prior.  There are excellent essays on Tutbury castle and Needwood Forest and brilliant sections on the religious, economic and social histories of the various localities.   These articles are very well planned and the design of the pages makes it very easy to find, for instance, the section on the glass industry of Tutbury.   Time and again the reader is drawn to the long social history sections of the book which contain, significantly, sub-sections on “Community Activities” which take us effortlessly from wakes and Harvest Homes to village websites.

This book on Tutbury and Needwood Forest, together with its companion volume IX on Burton upon Trent represents a superb achievement.   Rarely can such care and attention have been lavished upon the history of such a small corner of England.   It certainly deserves a place in all the local libraries and schools and I would recommend it to anyone with even a casual interest in local history or just a pride in their home area.

Robert Maddocks