January 2017 Reviews


1. It Started With Coffee In The Vestry. The history of Kingston and Surbiton Young Men’s Christian Association, 1858-1908 by Audrey C. Giles  Show more → Show less ↓

(revised edition Kingston University Press 2015; originally self-published in 2013 xv+262pp ISBN 978–1–899999–75-0) £20

This book promises much: it is beautifully illustrated and presented, with an appealing title. The subject of study is the locally observed nineteenth-century development of the YMCA, the author having been familiar with its work in this part of south-west London from the age of ten. Though sparingly used, secondary sources point the reader towards YMCA history in London and New York, and though contemporary national issues such as secularisation, denominationalism, the early-closing movement, the temperance debate and changing planning regulations are aired, this is in essence a local history, written by a scholar with a vast and deep knowledge of the history of Kingston and Surbiton. Because of Dr Giles’s deliberate aim of allowing her cast of individuals to ‘speak for themselves’ in ‘unwitting testimony’, the text—almost entirely taken from newspaper reports and YMCA minute books—frequently resembles an edited collection of documents rather than a monograph. Thus, readers interested in the history of the YMCA in the area now have easy access to the most relevant original sources, all contained within one volume.

However, the book does present some difficulties. Though YMCA activities are the backbone of the main text, information is often tantalisingly sparse:  we are told, for example, that there were YMCA libraries, but one could wish to have seen evidence of their library-book lists; and the study would have benefited from a fuller analysis of the denominational difficulties which are referred to throughout. There are also inconsistencies in spelling and punctuation. The main problem, however, centres on the chronological format. As the introduction is extremely short, those readers unfamiliar with the histories of the YMCA or of south-west London may find it helpful to read the conclusion first, before tackling the mass of minute detail contained in the main body of the text. Here, the format often results in the disappearance of themes and dramatis personae from view, their reappearance much later in the study occasionally baffling this particular reader. Though a useful index serves as an aide memoire, the lack of an overview in the form of a themed introduction is greatly felt. Nevertheless, readers interested in researching the history of the YMCA in their own localities may regard the study as a useful model, though they may wish to interpret their own findings more fully, and from a wider British perspective.


Jane Platt is a visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University. She is the author of Subscribing to Faith? The Anglican Parish Magazine 1859-1929 (2015) and the editor of The Diocese of Carlisle 1814-1855: Chancellor Walter Fletcher’s ‘Diocesan Book’ with additional material from Bishop Percy’s Parish Notebooks (2015). She is also the author of journal articles and book reviews on nineteenth-century English religious history.

2. Wiltshire Almshouses and their Founders by Sally M. Thomson  Show more → Show less ↓

(Hobnob Press for the Wiltshire Buildings Record 2016 249pp ISBN 978-1-906978-35-8) £10.50 + £3 p&p from Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Cocklebury Road, Chippenham SN15 3QN

This book started as a dissertation, and so was originally an academic text which was reworked, concentrating on the buildings, history and constitutions of almshouses.  The author then became interested in the founders.  Some of the foundations no longer exist and a cut-off date of 1900 was chosen. A brief introduction describes the origins of almshouses, with information on early Wiltshire examples, although for many institutions it proved very difficult to date their inception. Information is also given on leper hospitals, of which seven were known to exist in Wiltshire in the twelfth century; the Black Death wiped out most of the remaining lepers and the hospitals either closed or changed their function, including being converted into almshouses.

Of 26 known medieval hospitals in Wiltshire, listed with their dates of foundation and possible founders, eight are believed to have been leper hospitals and seven survived as almshouses. The bulk of the book (pages 21–187) is a gazetteer; some of the almshouses have more details than others, and some have footnotes. A further three pages list buildings traditionally considered to be almshouses but for which no evidence has been found. In most cases they were cottages built by an estate or farm to house its retired workers. The last section (pages 191–242) consists of short biographies of the founders, alphabetically by surname.  One of them was Seth Ward, bishop of Salisbury, who also founded almshouses in Buntingford, Hertfordshire which Thomson mentions. This raises the issue of comparison with other parts of the country—and the unfortunate conclusion is that this is minimal. Sadly, there is no reference to the very large project undertaken by the Family & Community Historical Research Society, which resulted in the publication of the work of many volunteers edited by Nigel Goose, Helen Caffrey and Anne Langley:  The British Almshouse: new perspectives on philanthropy circa 1400-1914. This was published earlier in 2016 but sadly Thomson seems unaware of it.

There is a comprehensive bibliography but no index; it might be argued that one is unnecessary given the nature of the book, but its inclusion would have added to its academic credentials.


Kate Thompson was county archivist of Leicestershire 1979-1990 and of Hertfordshire 1990-1999.  She has edited the letters of Julian Grenfell and with Paul Carter wrote Sources for Local Historians. She is a former chairman of BALH.

3. Sir Charles Raymond of Valentines and the East India Company by Georgina Green Show more → Show less ↓

(Hainault Press 2016 184pp ISBN 978-0-9507915-2-4) £15

The East India Company hired the ships which were required to carry its cargoes to and from the East. As the specifications were similar to those of naval frigates, tendering in the open market was not possible. A small circle of London-based shipowners soon hammered out a system with the Company’s Committee of Shipping to provide the fleet and, from a position of strength, negotiated very favourable freight rates for the next hundred years.


The subject of this bibliography, Charles Raymond (1713-1788), became the most powerful of these shipowners, but his life is a template for many members of the group. The book has three parts. In the first, ‘Living by the sea’, the author considers his origins. Born into a West Country shipping family which was involved in the provision of these ships even before the merging of earlier companies to form the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies, Raymond progressed quickly from purser to the command of a ship, acquiring enough money from his privilege of private trade to marry, move to London and retire at an early age. Part 2 shows the family moving to rural Essex, where Raymond bought Valentine House in Ilford and embarked on the business of ship ownership, managing (from offices in the City) vessels on behalf of syndicates of up to twenty part-owners. Several of his neighbours were fellow commanders and managing owners whose careers, including descriptions of voyages, are discussed, as are their close interrelationships and intermarriages, which furthered the wealth and power of this privileged East India shipping circle.


Part 3 is concerned with Charles Raymond’s extended interests in later life. He invested his wealth in property for rent, became a banker, was elected a director of the prestigious Sun Fire Office and South Sea Company, and served as a governor of two charities—Christ’s Hospital and the Bridewell and Bethlem Hospital. Locally, he was appointed high sheriff of Essex. One glance at his portrait reveals a kindly, benign person, described by even a political opponent as ‘a man universally beloved’. He ended his life as Sir Charles Raymond, one of only a handful of managing owners whose public service and charitable works were rewarded with a baronetcy.


I have rarely read a book in which information is presented so clearly. It has comprehensive references and bibliography, an excellent index and many tables, and the reader also benefits from this author’s great skill in information technology. As the owners of the ships hired by the Company were entirely independent, all the papers relating to them are in private hands. Very few have so far come to light, so the business affairs of what was probably the most powerful and wealthy group in the City of London in the eighteenth century remain largely a mystery. Many records must exist in county archives throughout the country, but especially in the south-east, awaiting discovery by a local historian.



Jean Sutton is the author of Lords of the East: The East India Company and its ships (1981 and 2000); The Maritime Service of the East India Company, 1746-1834 (winner of the Anderson Medal for the best volume of maritime history published in 2010); and the East India Company entry in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Maritime History (edited by John Hattendorf, 2008).

4. Proper People: early asylum life in the words of those who were there by David Scrimgeour  Show more → Show less ↓

(Scrimgeour Yorkshire 2015 480pp ISBN 978 0 993371509) £14.99

There is already an extensive literature on the Victorian treatment of mental health, but this study of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Wakefield adopts the less typical viewpoint of the patients themselves. Thanks to surviving case notes, annual reports, letters and newspaper accounts, backed up by the records of fourteen archives and museums, David Scrimgeour has resurrected the stories of 158 of the forgotten thousands who passed through the Asylum during the first fifty year of its existence, from 1818 to 1869.

He calls his unfortunates ‘proper people’ as a play on their committal warrants declaring each a ‘proper person’ to be admitted. And what a varied, sad and sometimes intriguing collection of people they were—a wood carver, discharged as recovered after eight months, who put his stay to good use carving an eagle lectern for the Asylum chapel; a Gomersal cloth weaver made suicidal because of ‘the reading of Writings rendering him dissatisfied with his condition’; a twenty-year-old iron moulder from Halifax, who thought it his duty ‘to pray on the Hills and Highways’, and who escaped only to be found drowned in the River Calder; a tailor from Bradford, ‘disappointed in love’, confined for 49 years at a total cost of £2000; an alcoholic ‘stage player’, cured of mania within two months, who treated 400 of his fellow-patients to a dramatic entertainment which included performing dogs; a laundress, discharged to the care of her daughter after 32 years, who paid fanatical attention to her physicians’ linen; and a Sheffield housekeeper who after a brief incarceration thanked the Asylum management by way of a published poem. There was even a young man from East Ardsley who had served as an officer throughout the American Civil War, and who may have been suffering from the then undiagnosed post-traumatic stress.


Cases of the criminally insane offer the sequel to some sensational local events. When John Holdsworth, keeper of the Hawcliffe toll bar near Keighley, shot his wife dead in 1861, he made headlines throughout the West Riding, but having been found not guilty on the ground of insanity and confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure, he disappeared from the newspapers. Here, however, we follow his subsequent progress, from the Wakefield Asylum to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum wards of Bethlem Hospital in Southwark, London, and thence to the new Broadmoor Asylum in 1864.  From there he wrote a number of poignant but fruitless letters requesting release, almost up to the time of his death in 1886.


This half-century of ‘proper people’ charts, incidentally, a growing humanity and understanding of mental illness.  Early forms of treatment could be harsh: the circular swing, ‘a curious mechanical device which patients either sat in or lay on to be spun at speed until nausea and vomiting were induced’; the pouring of cold water over a patient’s head; the cold shower bath (one woman ‘wept very much and promised the nurse to talk and be more cheerful if it might be omitted’).  Bleeding , blistering and purging were still being practised in the 1850s, yet by then the Asylum chaplain was running classes ‘to afford instruction, interest, and amusement to many of the patients’, a select thirty of whom were invited out to a picnic at naturalist Charles Waterton’s Walton Hall, where ‘a band of music added much to their recreation’.


Proper People presents, beyond its immediate subject, a fascinating broader slice of Victorian social history.  For good measure it includes a useful glossary of medical terms and treatments for the reader unaccustomed to the likes of albuminuria, cephalalgia, ipecacuanha and leucophlegmasia.


Ian Dewhirst MBE is a local historian and author from Keighley, West Yorkshire. Holding an honorary doctorate from Bradford University, he has written numerous books on Yorkshire and makes regular appearances on local television. This review has been reproduced with permission from that previously published in Keighley News.

5. The Victoria History of Hampshire: Steventon by Jean Morrin with contributions from John Hare Show more → Show less ↓

(Victoria County History Publications 2016 108pp ISBN-978-1-909646-21-6) £14 inc p&p from Dr Jean Morrin, 23 West Road, Emsworth PO10 7JT (cheques made out to Hampshire Archives Trust)

The VCH was rededicated to its original concept to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee and to make its work more accessible. This volume is the second of the in-depth parish histories for Hampshire, generally known as the ‘shorts’ series, and has been produced in a more modern style to include the social, economic and religious life of the ordinary people and not only those of the gentry.

The parish of Steventon appears to have been selected for two reasons: a comprehensive set of documents survives, and its association with Hampshire’s most famous author, Jane Austen, gives it a special status. She spent her early years in the old rectory and wrote three of her novels there. Like so many Hampshire parishes, Steventon had always been a small agricultural village of mixed farming, with some cows and some sheep on the chalk downland. Life seems to have passed the village by, for the turnpikes were on the northern and southern borders and the village has never had a station even though the high railway embankment sliced through the parish in 1840. Many of the local gentry were absentee landlords, and Jane Austen in her letters complained of the lack of social life, assemblies and balls.

Some tried to improve their land and upgrade their tenanted farms, with the introduction of strict covenants to their leases as did Edward Austen Knight, Jane’s brother, who inherited the property of the Knight family—an explanation of the link is given, and thereby the connection with the parish of Chawton where Jane eventually lived. With so many absentee landlords, the social life of Steventon was dominated by the tenants and the rector but it was not always harmonious. There are reports of conflicts: of contested ownership, of change caused by enclosure and purchase and of accusations of poisoning. The church was locked, the rector accused of being insane and a local landowner excommunicated. Local poverty eventually led Edward Knight to reduce rents. Little is known of parish relief for the poor although Beggar’s Clump is named on the map. The church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century; farm buildings were improved; and educational provision grew. There were the usual traditional crafts to provide for the parish but little evidence of a cloth trade. All that remains today, of a range of village services, is a mobile shop. The account continues into the present times with coverage of local government, the Women's Institute, Primitive Methodism and a Montessori weekly school at the Village Hall.

This detailed study of Steventon, touching every facet of life, is very readable. The references are clearly placed as footnotes on the relevant pages; and the excellent maps, photographs and watercolours, placed within the text, firmly ground the parish in its location. The text is divided into six general chapters, each subdivided into headed sections (a useful framework for other parish histories). A list of abbreviations and index completes the account, which ends on a sad note: the chapel was sold to the lord of the manor of Sutton Scotney for £1 in 1973.


Jan Shephard has been a member of the BALH for many years, serving as a trustee and until recently chairman of the Events Committee. As a mature student, she received a degree in local and regional history from Hull University. She taught in London, New Zealand, Surrey and Lincolnshire and now lives in Hampshire.