November 2013 Reviews

The books reviewed on-line for November 2013 are below.


1. IN THE SHADOW OF THE ABBEY (Reviewed by Alan Rogers) by Michael Chisholm Show more → Show less ↓

(Douglas McLean Publishing 2013 viii+240pp ISBN 978-0-946252-90-9) £15.99 available from 8 St John Street, Coleford GL16 8AR
Reviewed by Alan Rogers

For most people, Crowland (if it means anything) means a medieval abbey and perhaps a three-legged bridge which spans no water and looks like a folly. Professor Chisholm, in what has clearly been a labour of love, shows that it is much more than that. His book started with a study of medieval water-borne traffic in the catchment of the Wash and he has used his geographical expertise to focus on the technical aspects throughout. Crowland grew up at the place where the Welland and Nene-Ouse river systems came close together-a cut between these systems opened up new routes through to the coastal ports. I suspect that Chisholm underestimates the continued traffic on these rivers. He says that it virtually ceased above Crowland in the fifteenth century and cites the 1570 Welland Navigation Act as a sign of decline, but in fact there was a revival of river-borne trade as the leases of tolls by Stamford Corporation in the late seventeenth century show, and in the early eighteenth century a clergyman from London could ride to Stamford and take to the water to reach his vicarage near Lincoln. Nevertheless, the importance of the river system is very clear from this detailed study.

Professor Chisholm spends much time demolishing the myths of local history (we all hate inaccurate public plaques but they exist and the problem is likely to grow with the spread of QR codes on mobile phones). Not many people now believe that Crowland Abbey was founded in the eighth century despite the medieval legend designed to establish it as one of the oldest religious houses in the realm. But his great contribution to our understanding of the town comes from the study of the waterways. The abbey brought one of the courses of the Welland closer, and thereby created a town which depended on waterways, not roads, for communications: it was a minor Venice. The present main roads were all originally waterways, which explains their flowing lines. What is more, despite silting up (for the water in them was not flowing) some of these canals survived into the nineteenth century. At first paths were created alongside and later the channels were filled in. Few signs of them remain but Professor Chisholm has explored this in detail (his first chapters read more like an archaeological report than a local history). The town was almost certainly laid out by the abbey, though he agrees there is no firm evidence for it as a planned town. The story is pursued down to the current situation through the drainage (the contrast between the rich community resource of the undrained fens and the equally rich resource of the drained lands available only to a few farmers is a constant theme). The author has used a very wide range of material including hard-to-obtain plans from local government (the map of underground tunnels is remarkable) and oral tradition from long-established local residents. The illustrations are brought together into a central section, which has some value in that they are referred to in different parts of the book (although the numbering of the illustrations is inexplicable).

The history is perhaps a little less well done, much of the material coming from works long out of date. But it would be churlish to suggest, when so much richness is provided, that much has been missed. The role which the abbey played in national politics is not mentioned: in the fifteenth century (not an unbroken period of prosperity), it took a strongly Yorkist position and created a crisis when in 1460 it accused Margaret of Anjou's troops of being worse than Saracens in pillaging all churches and monasteries, so that the neighbouring population flooded into the abbey for protection. Sixty years later the schoolmaster of Crowland wrote to Thomas Cromwell asking for a new position, for the town was 'unhealthy'. More could have been said on the Dissolution, but in dealing with the historical material as distinct from the technical material relating to the water systems, the author has relied mainly on printed material or what has been supplied by others (especially willing archivists) rather than unpublished original sources. This local history is a good example of how any local study needs a wider context in order fully to explain its key features.


Alan Rogers is a Lincolnshire local historian of many years standing, and an honorary research fellow of the School of History in the University of Nottingham.

2. The Diaries of Cornelius Ashworth 1782-1816 Edited (reviewed by Jon Smith) by Edited by Richard Davies, Alan Petford and Janet Senior Show more → Show less ↓

Hebden Bridge Local History Society 2011. ISBN 978-0-9537217-2-6. Hardback £19. 376pp, illustrated. Available from the Society, The Birchcliffe Centre, Birchcliffe Road, Hebden Bridge HX7 8DG
Reviewed by Jon Smith

Cornelius Ashworth was a no-nonsense eighteenth-century Yorkshire farmer and loom-weaver. Baptised in 1751 in the village of Mixenden, now part of Halifax, at the age of 23 he astutely married a well-to-do widow with three teenage children who owned the nearby farm of Walt Royd. He ran it until not long before his death in 1821, keeping diaries of which four survive covering the years 1782-83, 1785-86, 1809 and 1815-16.

Ashworth was not a man to pour out his heart in his journals. He recorded only the mundane details of his everyday life - the weather, the chores, his daily income and expenditure, the preachers he heard at local chapels, the comings and goings of his family, the occasional birth, marriage and death of neighbours. There is not an opinion, a comment, a hint of emotion anywhere, just the bare bones of his existence.

Putting flesh on these bones posed a serious challenge to his editors, but they have met it admirably, offering not only a meticulous transcription and annotation of the diaries but a lengthy introduction covering the many facets of Ashworth's life -- the sections on the rise of the West Riding evangelical movement, the agricultural practices of the time and the dying days of handloom weaving are excellent -- and bringing the man himself very much to life. He was intelligent, ambitious and God-fearing, his talents not confined to farming and weaving: he could turn his hand to house-building, roofing and joinery, and ran a profitable sideline as a hop dealer. He believed in hard work - his editors suggest that one motive for keeping a diary may have been to demonstrate that the time God had allotted him was not being wasted - and like all true Yorkshiremen, he kept a close eye on his money and maintained detailed accounts.

He also kept some things secret. Scattered through the early entries are tantalising hieroglyphics, the meaning of which remain obscure but seem to denote events that Ashworth wanted to hide from anyone who chanced upon his diaries. It is tempting to speculate whether these symbols recorded illicit meetings of some kind. He was a young man, his wife a woman considerably older than he, their marriage probably one more of convenience than passion. She merited only five brief mentions in the whole of the diaries and although the deaths of almost a hundred neighbours and acquaintances are recorded over the years, Ashworth extraordinarily made no reference at all to her death and funeral in 1815. The editors pass this by, a curious albeit minor omission in a volume otherwise painstaking in its attention to detail and a valuable contribution to our understanding of late eighteenth-century life.

Jon Smith

Jon Smith is chairman of Barningham Local History Group and editor of its BALH award-winning newsletter The Archive. He is a retired journalist and media trainer, and author of the National Council for the Training of Journalists' textbook Essential Reporting.

3. Group review by Various Show more → Show less ↓

Hornsey Historical Society, ISBN 978 0 905794 46 4, £4.50 from Hornsey Historical Society, The Old School House, Tottenham Lane, London, N8 7E6;

Michael Sharpe 
Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry, 2013, no ISBN, 79pp., available from BMSGH, 5 Sanderley Court, Spennells, Kidderminster, Worcs.

Reviewed by Ralph Dickson

These two books are concerned with our heritage. The one a heritage trail, is beautifully produced with excellent photographs; describing many interesting places in Hornsey, North London. There is, however, a slight confusion as to its scope. Although it does refer to neighbouring areas such as Hampstead, there are other similar books for these areas prepared by the appropriate local society; and this book is confined to Hornsey.

The Hornsey Historical Society has its own premises and programme of events. It is, of course, possible to follow the walks on one's own. On the other hand, for those living nearby it might be worthwhile enquiring whether there are regular conducted tours which would be more informative and enjoyable. The telephone number of the Society is 20-8348-8429.

The other book - a history of the Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry concerns heritage in relation to people. It is an inspiring story of what can be achieved by dedicated people who give not only their enthusiasm and ability but also their personalities so creating an organisation for the benefit of the large number of people who are interested in tracing their ancestors. This could well serve as a model for those wishing to create a similar organisation elsewhere.

The book is well written, and the author makes you want to know what happens next. Although a study of cooperation, the author is not afraid of criticising when he believes it is justified. The society is also concerned with heraldry, and this book could well get people interested in that subject.

Ralph Dickson

Ralph Dickson is a retired law lecturer.

4. THE LOST FENS England's greatest ecological disaster (reviewed by John Sheail) by By: Ian D. Rotherham Show more → Show less ↓

History Press 2013 207pp ISBN 978 0 7524 8699 4) £17.99
Reviewed by John Sheail

An attractively-produced volume on the English lost fens, written from the perspective of an historical ecologist, is greatly to be welcomed. The focus is upon the changing perceptions of such environments, 'the ancient fens', their subsequent drainage and improvement, the designation of nature reserves, and future prospects. What did the fen landscape look like before 'the great drainage'? Drawing upon records, sightings and accounts from diverse sources, the book 'aims to give a flavour and a glimpse of what we have lost'.

Palaeo-ecological and palynological research has proved one of the most powerful tools in unravelling a lost ecology. To understand the processes of drainage and reclamation, the historian must take account of the fluctuating land and sea levels, changing human pressures and aspirations, and applications of technology. It calls for an understanding of the relevant pumping, dyking and draining skills, and of the political control and will to implement and sustain such schemes. The so-called improvements to the agricultural productivity of the fens usually became more permanent, and the risks of regression less serious (or at least less frequent) in the post-medieval period. Enterprise and skills were honed, with wind power being succeeded first by steam pumps and then, from the 1930s, by electric pumps.

It is far too simplistic to speak of drainers and anti-drainers. Those fenlanders who lived by the water were in constant risk of major flooding, and everyone required some degree of embanking and flood-risk management. But now the scale of change has become so complete that even the most ardent conservationist can only hope to introduce a more diverse wildlife than that which now survives. Detail is provided of the Great Fen Project, the enlargement of the National Trust's Wicken Fen reserve, the Humberhead Levels and Potteric Carr reserves, as 'flagship restoration projects' or, more probably from an agricultural perspective, as storehouses of renewed fertility for the next untrammelled food-production campaign.

The focus is upon the northern fens of South Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, and the historically better-known southern fens of South Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Amid the detail, there is little originality in the author's account of the Southern fens: the omission of all reference to John Hutchinson's paper on the Holme Fen post, published in the Journal of Ecology, is astonishing. Victorian prints are uncritically reproduced, including one of the Holme Fen post amid sheaves of corn, despite the cartographic evidence suggesting such land was never fully-reclaimed. The volume is considerably more valuable for the account and implications of the more northerly ventures of Vermuyden and fellow-adventurers and turf-cutters, and for the wildlife accounts of those relict habitats.

The efforts of ecologists to interpret the dynamics and relationships of such environments, and of conservationists in seeking actively to manage such systems for their intrinsic distinctiveness and diversity, are poorly-served by such emotive straplines as the book's sub-title, 'England's greatest ecological disaster'. Even if the reader were to indulge in such a-historical handing-down of judgments, surely the urban/industrial impacts, the prehistoric stripping of vegetation and soils from the Southern chalklands, and more recent human impacts upon the Southern Heaths, would come just as readily to mind.

John Sheail

Professor John Sheail is a Senior Principal Scientific Officer in the Natural Environment Research Council, and Deputy Head of the Monks Wood site of its Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. He has written extensively in the areas of historical ecology, policies for the management and conservation of terrestrial and water resources, and the interface between the environmental sciences and public policy-making in the UK.