October 2016 Reviews


1. A RURAL REVOLUTION The history of a Staffordshire family and their village by David R. Roberts Show more → Show less ↓

(Matador: Troubadour Publishing 2016 xv+176pp ISBN 978 1784625 207) £13.95

‘To be academic, or not to be academic’, that’s the question David Roberts asks, and he finds the answer in Bill Bryson. Chronological narrative is to be condemned as ‘just one bloody thing after another’, and too narrowly academic. In seeking to emulate Bryson’s discursive At Home: a short history of private life Roberts substitutes the Sproston ‘family’ for the rectory house, and five generations for the rooms Bryson toured in a logical order. Six particular individuals (out of 32 named) are the chief hooks on which hang whatever seems appropriate by way of history. Yet there are 552 endnotes and a bibliography to satisfy academic requirements.

Sprostons appear as dramatic effect requires. Collectively they are on a short journey across the Cheshire-Staffordshire border from Middlewich to Colwich, a Trent valley parish south of Stone. The opening episode reports a traffic accident there in 1896. Three year old Nel Sproston is introduced as a child who will not remember how her grandfather, William, was killed when his pony and trap collided with another cart. This justifies noting that five months later the first fatality caused by a motor car will be recorded, in London. It ignores the car that killed at least one woman at almost the same spot in Colwich in 1905. William’s lifetime from his birth in 1822 defines the core of the book, with references back to grandparents, Job and Mary in Middlewich, and Thomas their son in Church Lawton, and forward to children and grandchildren. They were spread around the hamlets of Great Haywood and Little Haywood in Colwich parish—in effect the village of the title. Nel died in 1988, but her life after the Great War is omitted.

The family’s journey is presented as a thin warp thread paralleling Britain’s journey through an industrial revolution. In the process the village was affected, but was not transformed into an urban community. Three thicker weft threads wrought a rural revolution, however, and roads, canals and railways as agents of that change are Roberts’s principal themes. Colwich parish was cut to ribbons by all three. The focus is not directly on either the family or the village, but on aspects of changes in methods of transportation and related themes of industrial development. William Sproston’s peripheral farming activities, for example, lead to a disquisition on the difference between urban and rural living conditions, quoting Engels quoting The Artisan on Glasgow. An account follows of the agricultural depression (or was it restructuring?) in the later nineteenth century. Chapter 2, ostensibly about William and his second wife, contains a long meander along the River Trent from Bronze Age through Celts, Vikings and the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. The Battle of Hopton Heath and J.R.R. Tolkien are included. Thomas Sproston (1789-1848) built canal boats, and hanging on him is a discussion of selected characteristics of British industrial change and the historiography thereof, especially the processes of division of labour and of capital accumulation. The chapter on roads recounts at some length opposition in South Wales to turnpike trusts. No space for Thomas Peploe Wood, the Great Haywood painter, who as a teenager sold his sketches at the toll house door.

By creaming off work on a huge selection of transport themes from such sources as Dan Snow’s BBC television programmes on railways, Jeanette Briggs on the Trent-Mersey canal and William Albert on the turnpike road system, Roberts introduces readers to a variety of topics highly relevant to an understanding of British social and economic history since the late eighteenth century. He laces this with revealing asides—critics of the behaviour of canal boatmen were the ‘Melanie Phillipses of the day’; recent government encouragement given to a return to ‘kings and queens history’ in the school curriculum is by implication regretted; the prevailing orthodoxy today of neo-liberalism repeats that freedom which allowed so much frustrating variation in the quality of turnpike roads.

Enjoyable, informative and provocative reading, this book leaves open the question as whether the title of ‘a’ rural revolution and ‘the’ history of a family and their village is justified. Roberts skilfully uses the conversational model, and the fashion for family history, as the means of gaining the interest of a reader, but the focus of his attention is on modes of transport, not Staffordshire rural life.

Paul Anderton was formerly senior lecturer in history at North Staffordshire Polytechnic, and associate lecturer at Keele University. He is the author of books on Whitchurch in Shropshire and Leek in Staffordshire, and numerous articles on Staffordshire and Cheshire, including recent work on Belgian refugees in 1914.

2. AYLSHAM BAPTIST CHURCH by Lynda Wix and Jim Pannell Show more → Show less ↓

(Aylsham Local History Society 2015 24pp no ISBN) unpriced: contact Aylsham Local History Society www.alhs.weebly.com.RO

Throughout the United Kingdom there are many reminders, in the built environment, of towns and villages of the rich Nonconformist heritage of this country. Many churches and chapels survive, not necessarily as places of worship but as evidence of a time when identity was very much bound up with a person’s denominational allegiance. One such is the Baptist church in the historic north Norfolk market town of Aylsham. In charting the circumstances surrounding the foundation and the subsequent history of Aylsham Baptist Church, Lynda Wix and Jim Pannell have drawn heavily for their source material on surviving church records deposited with the Norfolk Record Office. They have not, however, made any use of the local newspapers which frequently provide helpful insights into the life of churches.

Their account recognises that churches are far more than simply buildings and, in addition to their consideration of the layout and fabric of the premises and adjoining burial ground, they devote sections to the congregation, pastors, finance, missionary work and teaching, including the Sunday school. As the authors acknowledge, most attention is given to these aspects of the history of Aylsham Baptist Church in the nineteenth century. Although there is a section entitled ‘More Recent Developments’, this does not provide any information about, for example, the character and contributions of the twentieth-century pastors, who are simply listed on page 18. That said, for the earlier period the authors have gone into considerable detail in their exploration of how the church responded to a variety of challenges during its sometimes fraught history. Pleasingly, since 1993 when it merged with Cawston Road Brethren Chapel to form Emmanuel Church, Aylsham, there continues to be a Baptist presence in the town.

With respect to presentation, while the booklet is well laid out and profusely illustrated, in places the signposting is relatively weak and, on occasions, the authors beg a number of questions with a chance remark. For example, in their scene setting section on ‘Baptist Belief and Practice’ they make passing reference to the ‘rapid spread of Primitive Methodism in the middle years of the nineteenth century’ (p.3), but no attempt is made to compare and contrast the beliefs and practices of Primitive Methodists with those of General and Particular Baptists. Moreover, they make no mention of the denomination which was closest to the Baptists, at least as far as church governance was concerned, namely the Independents, later Congregationalists. Similarly, in discussing the burial ground, they comment that ‘there are several poignant stories to be told from the headstones’ (p.11), but do not provide any examples. These shortcomings could be have been addressed if the authors had used the services of an editor, charged with the task of viewing the text from the perspective of a reader unfamiliar with the setting of their narrative. Nevertheless, the booklet can be thoroughly recommended as a useful contribution to Baptist history as well as that of the town of Aylsham.


Roger Ottewill retired in 2008 after 35 years in higher education. He has recently completed a PhD in Modern Church History at the University of Birmingham. His interests include local political, administrative and religious history and he has contributed articles on these topics to various journals. He is currently researching Protestant Nonconformity in Basingstoke for the new Victoria County History project.

3. MAGDALEN COLLEGE SCHOOL by Laurence Brockliss Show more → Show less ↓

(Bloomsbury Shire 2016 96pp ISBN 978-1-78442-151-9) £9.99p

This attractively-presented A5 publication is a reminder that not all prestigious schools have had a long and successful journey. Magdalen College School was created as part of the foundation of the College as early as 1480, to provide free tuition in grammar. Its founder, William Waynflete, bishop of Winchester, also established schools in Brackley and Wainfleet, but the College School was much the most significant. This is the first book on the school since Nicholas Orme’s 1998 Education in Early Tudor England: Magdalen College and its School 1480-1540.  This one, in fewer than 100 pages and with plenty of attractive colour illustrations, takes the story to 2007. As one might expect from Professor Brockliss, a fellow and tutor at Magdalen and author of serious educational books including a history of the University of Oxford, this is not the type of educational book that depicts the sporting and other achievements of the school with masses of school student photographs. It is much more concerned with the organisation and management, and the relationship with the College.

To describe the school’s history as chequered would be an understatement. Throughout its history, there were various attempts to disentangle the school and Magdalen College—the taking of valuable land for the school in the College grounds, the relatively small numbers at times in its history, and its often precarious finances made it less than a ‘jewel in the crown’ of the College.  It began well enough as an innovative and well-regarded Latin school, educating a range of famous people including William Tyndale, Bishop Longland of Lincoln, Archbishop Lee of York and William Camden, but its contribution to a new style of humanist learning may have been exaggerated by some and certainly rival schools found it relatively easy to poach students.

The long period 1688-1854 is described by Professor Brockliss as the ‘quiet years’, perhaps a euphemism for ‘not very successful’. Funding was always an issue and there were rows over the fees. The original purpose was soon, of necessity, replaced by fees in various guises. Poor staff and low numbers are nearly always intertwined and Magdalen College School had its share of the mediocre. In the early-nineteenth century George Grantham, head of the school, was a drunk who fell to his death from a window while intoxicated. The school did not find it easy after the introduction of compulsory education in the later nineteenth century. Its fees meant that it was largely for the sons of professional classes and numbers stayed relatively low until fairly recent times. As so often with this type of school, it was hit hard by the First World War: 187 of the 930 old boys who bore arms died. By the 1920s its future was in real doubt, with the triple challenges of competition from neighbouring schools with better facilities, financial problems, and a lack of enthusiasm from the College. Through most of the 1930s it failed to fill all the places.

But old boys, led by the publisher Basil Blackwell, were not prepared to let the school die.  Perhaps oddly, the Second World War proved a saviour as Oxford was deemed a safe place for evacuees. The opportunity to become a direct grant school with the support of the local education authority was on, just as College support for the school waned. Politics meant the end of the direct grant scheme in the 1970s and the school has thrived since then as an independent institution. Better academic results, new facilities and a string of excellent staff and leaders all helped, as did good financial management and fundraising. Boarding came to an end but a successful junior department has more than compensated.

This history has been well captured in an efficient and readable way.  Pictures of the different designs and key personalities abound, many of them full page. The main readership is likely to be those with an interest in Oxford or directly in the school itself but in many ways this would be a pity as a history of over 530 years provides a good illustration of how education was established in late medieval times and the challenges it faced through different periods subsequently. The book shows how a small publication can convey in an erudite but interesting way (there are plenty of references) the changing face of education.  This history is clearly part of a continuum. The book ends by referring, among other developments, to the debate about the admission of girls.   There will no doubt be plenty of history to write up on the future development of Magdalen College School.


Tim Lomas is the current chair of the British Association for Local History.