April 2015 Reviews


1. Dr J A Langford (1823-1903) A self-taught working man and the sale of American degrees in Victorian Britain (Roberts) by Tim Lomas Show more → Show less ↓

DR J.A. LANGFORD (1823-1903) A self-taught working man and the sale of American degrees in Victorian Britain by Stephen Roberts (Authoring History 2014 62pp ISBN 978-14954475122) available from Amazon & other booksellers for £5.99

Stephen Roberts specialises in recovering the stories of forgotten Victorian working-class politicians and writers. In this slim volume he certainly reveals a significant one in Birmingham. The book is especially useful for outlining a particular type of Victorian—the artisan who wanted to better himself through education and to use this education to better his fellow men.

Whether what emerges is an attractive character is a moot point. Rather opinionated and arrogant and sometimes exaggerating his own abilities, there is nevertheless much to admire in the man. His LLD qualification was almost certainly bought from a dubious American college for $25 and he bandied it everywhere, including in census returns and on his gravestone. Yet much that he did, as poet, writer, actor, lecturer and member of many worthy committees such as the Birmingham School Board, was commendable.   

His strong political views emerge: as a loyal supporter of Gladstone, a believer in working class and female suffrage, a fiery republican, a strong advocate of the cause of the North in the American Civil War and of Irish Home Rule, there could have been little time for him to engage in social trivia despite having a family. Clearly a radical, he was nevertheless anti-Chartist.   His formal education stopped at 10 and he began working life as a chairmaker. His income during most of his life must have been precarious, relying as he did on sources such as essay prizes and the support of influential friends such as Tangye, the prominent Cornish and Birmingham engineer who even supported him on a visit to Australia. Though fiercely loyal to Birmingham he was also a rambler and particularly liked historical sites—it was almost a patriotic duty for him to visit battlefields where Charles I had been defeated.

Much of his work has now been forgotten but he was prolific in his articles for newspapers and journals including writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine.  Although more a collection than a history, his History of Birmingham 1741-1841 and Modern Birmingham 1841-1873 are very readable, containing as they do snippets and anecdotes of Birmingham life. An appendix gives examples of his writing, including his topographical descriptions based on visits to places such as the Peak District, Kenilworth and the Malverns as well as examples of his letters and poems. The last of these should not lace him in the ranks of poet laureates, but they certainly range widely, including 131 lines on his pet budgerigar.

This is an interesting book, dealing as it does with a type of person who must have operated in many British cities in a period of dramatic social, economic and political development.  It helps to explore the motivation of such people. Stephen Roberts can be congratulated in bringing to life both Langford as a man and the context in which he worked.  


Tim Lomas is chair of BALH.

2. Sowerby Probate Records (ed Cant and Petford) by Chris Webb Show more → Show less ↓

SOWERBY PROBATE RECORDS Household and family in the Upper Calder valley 1688-1700 edited by David Cant and Alan Petford (Hebden Bridge Local History Society 2013 xiv+215pp ISBN: 978-0-9537217-3-3) £9.99 from Hebden Bridge Local History Society, The Birchcliffe Centre, Birchcliffe Road, Hebden Bridge HX7 8DG

This book shows how much can be achieved by a group of volunteers, working with enthusiasm and skill, and led with experience and expertise. It represents many hours of painstaking labour at the Borthwick Institute, York, and in Hebden Bridge by the editors and their team: Michael Crawford, Corinne McDonald, Stella Richardson and Jean Thomson. The book is nicely produced, sits well and easily in the hand, and is clear to read on the page. The editorial standards are high, and the transcriptions reliable. Anyone involved in its production should be pleased at the way their work has turned into a handsome and valuable volume.

Sowerby Probate Records brings together the known probate records from the township of Sowerby and now held in the Borthwick Institute. It’s a great strength of the book that it covers all the material in the probate files: will inventory, bond and so on, unlike many earlier works on probate which concentrated on wills or inventories, and rarely included the neglected bonds. There is a helpful glossary, which is one of the hardest parts to get right in a book of this nature, and the comprehensive indexes allow searching across the inventories for household and farming or occupational items both as individual objects and as functionally-related groups of objects. The index of persons sensibly does not try to provide identifications of individuals with the same name, nor of relationships except where there is clear and incontrovertible evidence for them.

If I have one disappointment with the volume, it is that the editors have chosen to allow the documents to speak for themselves rather than engaging in analysis of them. It seems to me that local knowledge and insight is always needed to unwrap the layers that make up the particularity of place that makes studying history in England so varied and difficult; not to share the knowledge that the editorial team has diminishes the usefulness of the work to the neophyte inside the Calder Valley and to the majority of us who live outside it. For example, there is less than a page of information in the introduction about Sowerby itself (and its dependant township of Soyland, which, confusingly to an outsider, is also covered in this volume), and this information does not really get to the bottom of what makes this Pennine settlement interesting. Similarly, there is information on the nature of will-making in general, beginning briefly with the Anglo Saxons, but not nearly enough about this collection of probates. But that disappointment should not detract from the fact that this is a fine piece of work, which is a credit to all involved.


Chris Webb is Keeper of Archives, Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York


3. Aylsham A nest of Norfolk lawyers (Vaughan-Lewis) by William D Shannon Show more → Show less ↓

AYLSHAM A nest of Norfolk lawyers by William and Maggie Vaughan-Lewis (Itteringham History 2014 322pp ISBN 978-0-9561795-3-1) £28

It is difficult to know quite how to categorise this work.  As the foreword explains, it is not a town history, but instead tells the story of some dozen great houses in Aylsham in north Norfolk which share the characteristic of having been built, rebuilt, or at least at one time or another during a long eighteenth century, owned or occupied by lawyers. It is suggested that Aylsham was such a ‘nest of lawyers’ in part because Norfolk was a notably litigious county: however, the answer lies also in the surrounding great estates, such as Blickling, with their need for stewards and other ‘men of business’. In addition, there was an unusual manorial background, with the town divided between four manors (two main and two subsidiary), one of which, Aylsham Lancaster, was the largest Norfolk property belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster, prior to its being disposed of by the Stuart kings.

One of the authors is the former county archivist of Surrey, and the couple have used to good effect what is clearly a superb set of manorial court records in the Norfolk Record Office, going back to the fifteenth century. The result is a work which can demonstrate to anyone interested in their own town, or indeed their own house, how such sources might be used, although with the caveat that Aylsham’s almost complete lack of freehold properties has allowed a ‘paper-trail’ though the manorial courts that would not have been so easy had they not all been copyholds. 

The chapters are arranged around individual properties and their occupiers at various periods, weaving the interlocking stories of families who worked together, intermarried and moved between the various properties. As a result, it is not always easy to follow the history of one house, or indeed one family, through time. Each chapter is accompanied by detailed family trees, and photos of documents and of the houses themselves, both recent and earlier. If there is a small criticism of the generally excellent illustrations it is regarding the tithe maps, which reproduce somewhat muddily. A little gentle ‘photoshopping’ might have been called for.

Although lawyers dominate, we also learn of the other gentlemen who occasionally occupied these houses, while an entertaining digression regarding a property called West Lodge tells us how the elderly Viscount Townshend bought and rebuilt it for his much younger long-term mistress, not so much as a love-nest, but as a nest-egg to provide her with some security after his death in 1763. Passing references to other items not central to the theme also add interest, as in the account of Aylsham’s very own Jacobite, Christopher Layer, who despite his thriving legal practice, and despite having had no involvement in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, went to Rome to visit the exiled James III, involved himself in a highly obscure attempt at insurrection in London in 1722 and was duly executed at Tyburn the following year. 

The work is self-published, which can have a downside in that there is no editor breathing down the author’s neck. The fact that the story does not follow a single time-line can make it difficult to trace individual house histories, and the authors themselves draw attention to the index, the use of which they say is essential to remedy this: yet the index is restricted in its scope, with for example, no entry for the Duchy of Lancaster—nor, for that matter, for the Jacobites. Extensive endnotes to each chapter indicate the exhaustive detail which has gone into this work, but perhaps some of the more lengthy quotations within the text would have been better précised. Finally, the work ends rather abruptly with an update on the more recent history of some of the houses, but without any attempt at drawing conclusions, whether on what Aylsham’s particular attraction was to these professional men, or as to Aylsham’s role in the wider world, or indeed as to why those of us who do not know the place should care enough to read the work. And that is a pity, because the Vaughan-Lewis partnership has a lot to teach us about using resources, and approaching local history from a different angle.


William D Shannon is an independent researcher in history. Following retirement in October 2002, he graduated MA in local and regional history from Lancaster University in 2004, and PhD in July 2009, with a thesis on enclosure in the lowland wastes of early-modern north-west England. His main research interests and published papers concern the landscape, agricultural and cartographic history of England in the early-modern period.

4. Counting people: a DIY manual for local and family historians (Moore) by Gillian Draper Show more → Show less ↓

COUNTING PEOPLE: a DIY manual for local and family historians by John S. Moore (Oxbow 2013 140pp ISBN 978-84217-480-7) £17.95

Counting people has a striking attraction for some who study the past, yet it is an extraordinarily difficult—indeed, often impossible—task, even for specialists. This book sets out an argument for demographic studies, and runs through historic examples of enumeration such as the late-fourteenth century poll taxes, ratepayers contributing to the upkeep of roads and bridges, men liable to serve in the militia, hearth taxes and similar until the advent of modern censuses. There is an overview of the importance of studying past population levels both nationally and locally, but the rationale for the possible use of early medieval charters as a starting-point for this is not clear. No wonder that the author advises that on this ‘the best way forward is to try to get the help of an Anglo-Saxon linguist in your local university’s Department of English’. There is an overview of the nature of Domesday Book and its (limited) potential for population studies, but the bibliography notes that ‘there is no up-to-date survey for the Domesday Survey or its satellites’. Readers could well be directed to search for one for their own county, since they do exist—for instance, C. Flight, The Survey of Kent: Documents relating to the survey of the county conducted in 1086, British Archaeological Report, British Series 506 (2010).

There is a strangely-worded reminder to local historians of the utility of printed primary sources, which are often the most practical way to approach materials, not least because they are likely to have an enlightening introduction as well as both a translation and transcription of the manuscripts. Lay subsidies, of which examples from many counties are given in the bibliography, are discussed as instances of such a printed source. The Pipe Rolls Society vol.83 (1983) which covers rolls for four counties, including Kent, for two years in the reign of Henry III is listed in the bibliography, but not the important lay subsidy of 1334-1335 published by the Kent Record Society (vol.18, 1964) which has lengthy and erudite discussion of how this subsidy may be used for the distribution of population and wealth. The editors of this volume prove a clear analysis of the possible extent of ‘counting people’ from such materials, often in a comparative way across in the county, as well as other ways of understanding and using the subsidy. The book reviewed here, however, does not draw attention to the challenges and depth of knowledge required to work in this way from the various records under consideration, for instance parish registers. Instead it talks breezily of being fortunate enough ‘to be able to tabulate monthly, yearly records of christenings, marriages and burials and derived annual totals of natural change’ (christenings less burials). These figures, when graphed and also converted to 13-year moving averages (‘a few keystrokes with a spreadsheet programme on a computer ... will immediately give you a visual picture of long-term developments in population since the sixteenth century’). The author goes on to suggest that readers may be able to ‘supplement this with some figures for medieval population if your quest for medieval manorial records has been successful, and to compare with census figures for your parish from 1801 to 2011’. He must surely know that medieval manorial records rarely, if ever, provide this sort of comparative material, acknowledging that it mainly consists of  ‘listings’ from which the name of a man assumed to be the head of the family or household (which he conflates) are multiplied to produce demographic estimates. ‘Multipliers’ are the author’s particular interest. He berates most medieval historians for being unwilling to acquire the necessary arithmetical and quantitative expertise which economic and social historians have to use them, although anyone who has read the (cited) works of Poos, Ravi and Bailey might be surprised to read this. Those who are really interested in medieval demographics, in particular, will have to read a lot further than this book.

That said, there are many good things about this book, not least the bibliography of 57 pages. This covers useful skills such as understanding the handwriting and dating of documents, and sources for towns and the countryside, population and economic and social developments, arranged under time periods. Many of the works cited were published in the 1970s and ‘80s, for example those on literacy, education and religion. The bibliography has a number of useful annotations as, in an unusual manner, does the index, which for example says of lay subsidies that they are an ‘unsafe basis for estimating total population’ and that they are ‘useful for agriculture and industry’. ‘Internet’ appears in the index as ‘Internet, check for equipment prices, 142’ but that is all. The many websites which offer an alternative or addition to printed sources barely feature in this book. It is noted that all ‘the enumerators’ schedules to the census from 1841 to 2011, [are] now all available online’, but 1911 is presumably meant, after which only aggregate census data is available. Readers of Counting People would be well advised to buy a copy of BALH’s Local History Internet Sites; a directory too, and to consult Local History News for its updates on new websites on source materials.

The introduction says that the last chapter, on publishing, should perhaps be read first and, even more notably, that the book is intended for undergraduate and postgraduate students wishing to study local populations, and then ‘local people’ wishing to do the same. Presumably these are the local and family historians of the title. Such independent scholars will find lots of information about potential sources for study, and reading the book provides a general overview of the nature and potential of local history. As the author says in the preface, ‘I have tried to show how you can acquire an understanding of local history, and particularly those aspects where some mathematical knowledge is essential’. In the first, it succeeds.


Gillian Draper PhD FRHistS FSA teaches landscape history at the University of Kent and local history at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is currently contributing two chapters on towns and settlement to the forthcoming Early Medieval Kent, 800-1220 edited by S. Sweetinburgh. She is also the Events and Development Officer for the British Association for Local History, and a convenor of the Locality and Region seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.