April 2017 Reviews


1. NORTHOWRAM PROBATE RECORDS 1688-1700 edited by David Cant and Alan Petford Show more → Show less ↓

(Workers’ Educational Association, Halifax branch 2015 xxvii+124pp ISBN 9780993220401) £10

The upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire has long been recognised for the richness and splendour of its vernacular yeomens’ houses. But behind those fine mullioned and gabled stone facades, the lives of those who lived and worked in them have been far less accessible. That this is no longer so is largely thanks to the determined efforts of enthusiastic groups of local historians, guided by some inspired professional leadership, who have been transcribing and publishing probate records and court rolls, thereby opening windows into the minutiae of daily lives. By their very nature, such works can appear to be parochial in their interest and of little wider value, but two points should be noted here. The township of Northowram, although covering only a relatively small area to the north of Halifax town, was one of 23 townships comprising the huge parish of Halifax and occupying a large part of what is now frequently referred to as the South Pennines. This splendidly produced volume was planned the first of a series intended to cover the whole of the Parish, and has been joined by a second title, Life and death in the Calder Valley: probate records from Brighouse and District 1688-1700, also edited by David Cant and Alan Petford.

Each volume opens with an explanation of what probate records are and who required them, followed by complete transcriptions of the wills, inventories and associated documents (in the case of Northowram there are 30 testators, of whom 7 were women). It closes with indexes of people, places and, of particular fascination, a glossary. An ark and chamber could be guessed at, but half thick (not actually an insult) or hoppit (not an instruction)? From ‘apparell and purse’, from room to room, and out into the farms, every item of use is listed and valued. There are the essentials: meale, hanged beef and bacon, pewter ware and trenchers, ‘one old Bakeing board Four great brueing Tubbs’, tables, stools and beds. There are hints of luxury—a glass shelf, monogrammed tumblers, even ‘seaven pieces of Gold and two Rings’—and of literacy: ‘several books and a great Bible’. Glimpses of life beyond can be seen as the testators sought to put their affairs in order. Elizabeth Appleyard explained that her late husband’s illness having left nothing to ‘bestow upon Phisitians Doctor Threapland was pleased to do much for him gratis’, while Richard Hoile’s will showed a more qualified mercy to several poor debtors, instructing his executors to ’abate them such parte of their debtes [as they] are not able to paye without bringing them to absolute poverty’.

Fascinating and important though such original documents are, it is only through publications such as these that they become available to a wider public and a springboard to further research. Twenty-four people contributed to this volume, but it is only fitting that there should be a special acknowledgement of the sympathetic and enthusiastic leadership of the late Alan Petford, who inspired so many to appreciate and study their Pennine heritage.

Keith Brockhill is a member of the Huddersfield Local Studies Society and a former editor of its Journal.

2. OF CHURCHES, TOOTHACHE AND SHEEP Selected papers from the Norwich Historic Churches Trust conferences, 2014 and 2015 edited by Nicholas Groves Show more → Show less ↓

(Lasse Press 2016  viii+114 pp ISBN 978-0-993069-2-1) £14.99

Five of the six essays in this attractively-illustrated volume concentrate upon the churches and church people of East Anglia and the East Midlands in the later middle ages. In a wide ranging paper Victor Morgan examines the ways in which ecclesiastical buildings and artefacts reflect changing religious preoccupations, most particularly the medieval obsession with the fate of souls in purgatory which resulted in the foundation of so many chantry chapels in cathedrals and parish churches. A single church, St Giles in the hamlet of Holme near Newark in Nottinghamshire, was transformed in the fifteenth-century by the wool merchant John Barton into a prayer house for the souls of himself and his family, and is the subject of a beautifully-executed study by Allan Barton. Wealthy testators almost invariably provided for the celebration of multiple masses at their death and Susan Curran analyses in depth the huge expenses incurred in 1466 at the funeral of the lawyer, John Paston, whose body was carried in a slow procession from London to Norwich for a dirge to be offered in the family’s town church of St Peter Hungate before burial in Bromholm Priory. Landowning families frequently held the right to appoint clergy to the churches on their estates and, choosing her examples from thirteenth and fourteenth-century Norfolk, Elizabeth Gemmill draws attention to the usefulness of inquisitions post mortem, the enquiries made on the death of the Crown’s tenants in chief, for valuations of the annual income of such churches.

Protestants at the Reformation set out to obliterate the memory of non-biblical saints, among whom was the now little known St Apollonia, patron saint of sufferers from toothache: John F. Beal lists surviving medieval images of the saint with her pliers on rood screens, in stained glass windows and in stone. The one post-Reformation contribution, by Francis Young, describes the establishment of Catholic chapels in Norwich, first by the Jesuits in the mid-seventeenth century and after the French Revolution by secular priests, the predecessors of the impressive, late-nineteenth century neo-Gothic church of St John the Baptist, now the city’s Catholic cathedral. In their very different ways these papers demonstrate, in the words of Victor Morgan, how ‘the material form of religious buildings and objects can be used as a point of entry to understanding the changing spiritual concerns of the past’. They also invite comparisons with similar developments elsewhere in England.

                                                                                                                        CLAIRE CROSS

Claire Cross, a BALH vice-president, taught history at the University of York from 1965 until she retired in 2000. She is currently working on aspects of Yorkshire monasticism in the decades before the Dissolution.

3. EARLY RECORDS OF UNIVERSITY COLLEGE, OXFORD edited by R.H. Darwall-Smith  Show more → Show less ↓

(Boydell Press for the Oxford Historical Society new ser. vol.46 2015 xxv+414pp ISBN 9780904107272) £35

This volume provides transcripts or calendars of the most significant documents in the archives of University College, Oxford, relating to its history from the foundation bequest by William of Durham in 1249 to the 1570s.  Various types of documents are presented here including statutes of the College from different years, documents concerning early masters and fellows, those regarding the College’s fabric, those detailing benefactions to the college, and title deeds of college properties. In the 1380s the master and fellows posthumously adopted King Alfred as their founder in order to attract Richard II’s attention to a lawsuit concerning land bequeathed to the College, and thus their successors needed to provide documentary ‘evidence’ of this royal foundation. The edited documents demonstrate three different attempts to solve this problem by concocting a fictitious history. There is also a detailed discussion of the lawsuit and transcripts of relevant original and forged deeds.

Some of the documents shed light on life in University College. For example, the statutes of 1292 ordered that ‘all are to live decently as clerks, as befits holy men, not fighting, not uttering scurrilous or abusive words, not telling, singing or willingly listening to songs or tales about mistresses and the loose-living, or which incline them to lust’. There is an inventory of the implements in the buttery, dated 1423, among which were iron, brass and pewter vessels, various towels and ‘one pipe [large cask] for preserving bread locked with a key’ and ‘one cask for verjuice and another for preserving lentils and one other for vinegar’.  In 1474 William Asplyon made a detailed bequest to the master and fellows of thirteen volumes which were to be chained in their ‘common library’ for the benefit of the students; four of these volumes are still preserved in the College. Benefactions were usually made with the proviso that the benefactor be remembered in College prayers. A somewhat egotistical benefaction was that of William Holcot in 1575. He bequeathed books to be chained in the library, but in return after the last grace at dinner he required a response to be repeated: ‘Lett us geve thankes to the Lord our god for William Holcotte’; response ‘Yt is meete and right soo to dooe’.

Where applicable, the editorial decision was taken to publish Latin texts on left-hand pages with English translations facing on the right-hand pages thus providing a very useful reference book for medieval Latin statutes and grants. The title deeds, which are more formulaic, have simply been translated and calendared. There is a brief general introduction and a document-specific introduction at the beginning of each section. The volume is a companion volume to editions of documents relating to the early history of Balliol and Merton Colleges already published by the OHS.


Heather Falvey teaches medieval and early modern local history for the Continuing Education departments of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. She is secretary of the Hertfordshire Record Society, for which she has edited a volume of late-eighteenth century recipes and co-edited an early modern parish ‘memorandum’ book. For other societies, she has co-edited and indexed two volumes of fifteenth-century wills and is in the process of editing a collection of nineteenth-century letters.  

4. NOTTINGHAM A history of Britain’s global university by John Beckett Show more → Show less ↓

(University of Nottingham and Boydell Press 2016 xii+552pp ISBN 978 1 78327 121 4) £25

Like other northern civic universities in the nineteenth century—others including Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle or Sheffield—that at Nottingham first came into being as the result of local initiative. A series of extension lectures sponsored by Cambridge; a mechanics’ institute; an art gallery; and a museum became an educational cluster that led to the formation of a university college, opened by Prince Leopold in 1881, with students receiving degrees from the University of London. Despite considerable efforts in the early years of the twentieth century, it was not until 1948 that Nottingham received its own charter and could award its own degrees. The necessary resources were also local and Nottingham was especially fortunate to receive substantial and continuing major funding from (Sir) Jesse Boot, who at the age of ten had helped his widowed mother with her herbal medicine shop in Nottingham and who became its greatest self-made entrepreneur. He bestowed land and cash on the college in the 1920s, giving a boost to the young institution that enabled it to edge ahead of its civic peers which had previously outstripped Nottingham. At the grant of its charter, the university had 2000 students: it now has well over 40,000, studying in the UK, China and Malaysia. Women seem to have been admitted on equal terms from the start, the first professors were all allocated to either arts or sciences, and from 1887 one of them was elected as the college principal.  The long-desired medical school was announced in 1964 and the Science Park opened in 1984.

This volume falls into three parts. Chapters 1 to 4 recount the development of the university college and thence of the university until 1979. The period is lightly sketched in and at times the reader wishes for more detail.   The second part marks a change of pace and tone, as a harder-edged institution becomes more focused on competitive advantage, including overseas.  Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor for twenty years (1988 to 2008) appears as something of a hero, despite the many controversies of his period of office, and the chapters deal with some of the dilemmas of a modern university, including how to bridge key financial gaps. The third part, Chapters 10 to 14, is thematic with governance, research, teaching and learning, and people (students and staff), giving a more domestic and localised tenor.

The author, professor of English regional history and a member of staff at Nottingham for more than thirty years, is fully on top of his material and writes vividly. Two colleagues assisted:  Andy Souter, who assembled the nearly 500 pictures, and Lorraine Blackman who was centrally involved in the many interviews with alumni and others that are skilfully used to enliven the text.  The treatment of recent years is thorough and one pleasure of the book is the extent of the innovative and exciting architectural treatment of the most recent building stock.

There are flaws. Too often interesting information is not contained in the index, the illustrations are not listed, the chronology is sparse, and vital information is concealed in footnotes of the tiniest font size at the end of chapters. More troublingly, at the conclusion of a frank appraisal of the dilemmas of writing institutional histories, the author refers to the filtering of documents by organisations, noting that universities inevitably come into this category.  Given the tendency throughout the volume to state the conclusion of difficult issues rather than show the direct evidence of debate from university documents, there might perhaps be some concern about what has not found its way into the final text.

The value of the book is nevertheless high. Universities like Nottingham, with its annual turnover in 2013-14 of £560 million, its employment of 6549 people, its large student population and its high reputation bring an enormous boost to the local economy. Being people-intensive and stable organisations compared with industry and commerce, universities also bring cultural and reputational gains to the areas in which they are based. Nottingham’s record of success gives back, many times over, the contributions of Sir Jesse Boots and other local donors, and as a centre of excellence and innovation, helps inward investment into the region. There is much to celebrate, and the author is rightly proud of the institution to which he belongs.


Marion McClintock is the honorary archivist of, and author of two histories (1974 and 2011), of the University of Lancaster.

5. IRONWORKS OF THE RISING BROOK VALLEY at Cannock Wood and Rugeley by Harry Thornton Show more → Show less ↓

(Landor [Local History] Society 2016 ii+64pp ISBN 978-0-9521038-5-1) £6+£1.50 p& p contact Margaret Neal (01889 582709)

This closely-packed compendium of information about a major aspect of Staffordshire’s industrial history well serves the purposes of local historians in the Rugeley area. It fully acknowledges the source of all information in the numerous books, articles and documents in record offices which have been carefully searched to assemble a chronologically-arranged listing of relevant material. The focus is on the mid-sixteenth century to the 1870s in one Cannock Chase valley, that of the Rising Brook which leads into Rugeley town. Iron manufacture was a significant feature of the valley’s economy from the age of bloomeries—and especially from the introduction of blast furnaces, slitting mills and rolling mills—until other manufacturing businesses took over well before the end of the nineteenth century. The author has been especially keen to exactly locate on the ground the sites of key buildings and their changing industrial function; to highlight the involvement of the Paget and Anson families as landowners in leasing properties; and to establish the precise succession of industrialists and business partnerships who occupied the variety of forges, chaferies, mills, furnaces and their associated pools. Complexities abound and no pains are spared as explanations, rich in detail, are unfolded. It is no mean feat to bring together so much information otherwise so widely scattered in the works of others, and to weave in original research findings to produce an invaluable data store from which local readers can derive great benefit.

Among the gems which could attract the attention of a wider audience is the account of the involvement of the Chetwynd family in ironmaking through much of the seventeenth century. Another concerns Thomas Hopkins and the relationship between his Rising Brook valley enterprises and huge investments in South Wales. It is not obvious to an outsider that the creation of the town of Blaenavon (Gwent) might have links with Rugeley. A third narrative centres around Edward Barker and what appears to be a significant cache of material in the papers of a solicitor, John Hickin. A substantial part of the book is given over to the wider interests of Barker in tinplate manufacturing and his acid works. Integral to this are more investigations into the particular location of two slitting mills, various pools and Cannock Wood forge. This same interest runs through subsequent accounts of later business ventures in which neatly-drawn maps play a large part on the discussions.

This is a document-led inquiry which tends towards a staccato rather than discursive style and the presentation reflects a determination to pack as much as possible into the space available. As a guide to the basic information on which to write a key chapter in a local history of Cannock Chase the volume has much to commend it.


6. THE LONELIEST HOUSE IN ENGLAND: Skiddaw House. 1830-2015 by John Martin Show more → Show less ↓

(author 2016 83pp No ISBN) £10 from author: contact dijon.martin@virgin.net

John Martin modestly describes this publication as a booklet but it is more than that. It is a rare example of a history of a single otherwise un-noteworthy house with no particular claim to fame or notoriety. The author has used a number of publicly available sources and private papers. He has interviewed the descendants of families connected with the house and those who have known it in more recent times.

Skiddaw House, in the fells north of Keswick, seems to have been built between about 1827 and 1830 as a keeper’s lodge in the Skiddaw Forest estate of Lord Leconfield. It stands alone on the northern slopes of Skiddaw near the head of the Caldew valley, several miles from any neighbouring habitation. During the 180 or more years of its existence, the house has undergone many changes in use and configuration, including being extended and improved with modern amenities being added to make it more comfortable for twentieth and twenty-first century visitors. The occupants have ranged from shepherds and gamekeepers to school parties who used the house as a base for short visits. More recently it has been a bothy for travellers in the fells (under the Border Bothies Association) and a youth hostel, and it is now run by the Skiddaw House Foundation.

Martin quotes from the reminiscences of people with connections to the house and has given the reader a lively account of what he has discovered of its history. There are two minor points of concern. First, a corpse is interred, not interned, an error which may be the result of relying on a spellchecker. And second, the huge number of exclamation marks throughout the book becomes very irritating. This is a short book about a house which the author knows well and he has shown that an unremarkable dwelling—potentially in any location—whose past has been carefully researched can be a subject for an interesting publication. In this case, the book also adds another dimension to the published accounts of Cumbria’s past.


Margaret Shepherd is an emeritus fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. She is the author of From Hellgill to Bridge End: aspects of economic and social change in the Upper Eden Valley, 1840-95 (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003) and Across the Oceans: emigration from Cumberland and Westmorland before 1914 (Bookcase, 2011).