October 2018 Reviews


1. The making of Chipping Norton A guide to its buildings and history to 1750 by Adrienne Rosen and Janice Cliffe Show more → Show less ↓

(Phillimore [imprint of the History Press] 2017 255pp  ISBN 978-0-7509-811-6 3) £16.99

Anyone with the slightest interest in history who lives in or visits Chipping Norton would be lucky to have this book. Adrienne Rosen (a historian) and Janice Cliffe (an architect) wrote it, but a number of other people have contributed to the years of research on which it is rests. It is based on a simple idea: that the story of the town and its people can be told from the usual sources, mainly documentary, and this then feeds into and elucidates the evidence provided by the remaining buildings themselves. A fruitful source of information has been probate documents, both wills and inventories, and the Chipping Norton Historical Research Group, which started off as an adult education class but continued under its own steam, transcribed all those in the county record office for this period, providing a wealth of evidence about families, land, trades and occupations.

Part 1 begins by setting the medieval planned town in its context, from foundation in the mid- to late 1100s, through its development as a ‘wool town’, and the growth of civic institutions. There is an admirable summing up of the Reformation and how this impinged upon the town, particularly the confiscation of all chantry goods under Edward VI, which caused a good deal of property speculation. Almost as an aside, we are told that the vicar of Chipping Norton was hanged from his own church tower in the aftermath of the 1549 uprising. There is much interesting detail about new and substantial building in the seventeenth century, at the same time as quite large houses were being subdivided and sublet, but what is most apparent to anyone passing through the town is the row of handsome eighteenth century facades along the upper side of the Market Square.  Obviously people in Chippy were doing well at that period and Adrienne Rosen teases out what trades were bringing in the surplus wealth to enable this kind of rebuilding.

The second half of the book is organised as a series of walks around the town, in the expectation that readers will explore with book in hand, following injunctions to ‘Notice the ...’  and  ‘Look at the ...’.  A small group of volunteers created the Chipping Norton Buildings Record, working under the aegis of the Oxfordshire Buildings Record, and they persuaded the owners of pubs, houses, shops and offices to allow them to crawl all over their premises, from cellars to attics. What they found was much earlier than what appeared at the front: in many cases, having had access to dendrochronology, they showed that roof timbers could be dated to the fifteenth century.  There are handsome Georgian frontages added to humbler seventeenth century, or earlier, cottages, and many changes of use and physical alterations requiring expert disentangling. Here there is exemplary use of documentary sources to complement, fill out and explain architectural oddities and developments. The book has careful architectural drawings showing the details of, for example, beams and window mouldings, and each street starts with a delightful drawing of the frontages making it easier to pinpoint the architectural features. There are good photographs throughout showing early features. My only criticism is that the glossary is not good enough:  in the second half the reader is expected to cope with many technical terms and to know what ‘rolls’, ‘cymas’ and ‘pintles’ are—none of which appears in the glossary. For a book which is clearly aimed at the general reader and not at experts, this is a pity, but otherwise it is excellent: easy to read, a pleasure to look at, and full of interest. Every town should have one.

Deborah Hayter is an associate tutor at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education and has taught many courses in local and landscape history.

2. Scarcroft School, York, in World War One by members of the Clements Hall Local History Group Show more → Show less ↓

(Clements Hall Local History Group 2017 34pp no ISBN) 

Scarcroft was an elementary school in York. Opened as Board School in 1896, it was extremely large by elementary school standards, with 852 juniors and seniors and 323 infants in 1910. This slim booklet recounts the experiences of the school during the First World War. It ranges widely, covering not just the direct impact of war on the school but also the experiences of those who had been connected with it, such as former pupils. The school archives have been researched and considerable use is made of collections of letters, such as those of Tommy Brown, a billeted soldier who trained at Scarcroft.  Other sources include photographs and eyewitness accounts.

The booklet illustrates the many ways in which a school and its community could be affected by the War. For example, it was requisitioned by the Army more than once, leading to damage to furniture and equipment and the troops having some of their weekly pay docked to reimburse the school. Teachers and pupils certainly played their part and there are sections on the role of scout and guides. Their duties ranged from guarding railways, harvesting, and coastguarding, to tending allotments and recycling.

More than 500 teachers and pupils from the school served in the war and 66 of them died. Biographies are given for some, including not only those who died but also some who survived (including one conscientious objector).  Women are not forgotten and their role in munition factories and transport is considered. The male teaching staff were badly affected by the war. As elsewhere, many pupil teachers were of military age and called up, their place being taken by training college students, married women (it had been the practice for women to leave the profession on marriage) and unqualified teachers. The result was that most male teachers left Scarcroft School, and headteachers in York urged an end to conscription because of the damage being done.

The overall impression is that the school was fairly well-prepared for war. Notices of air raid precautions were sent to the school and there were fire drills, which is perhaps just as well as a Zeppelin raid in May 1916 caused much damage in the area, including several deaths. The outcome was a rise in absenteeism and evidence of children suffering mentally. Compared with some other locations, there is no real evidence of Scarcroft children being released from their lessons to help with war work, but they were involved in the war effort in other ways such as making sandbags, fund raising and sending clothes and food. Children grew food in their allotment and they helped with gathering the potato crop. The school kitchen gave demonstrations on how to use food economically. Later there were conker collections (used to make cordite) and nut stones (for gas masks). A War Savings scheme at the school raised £400 from war saving certificates. The story is taken up to and beyond the end of the war. The impact of the Spanish ‘flu on pupil attendance was considerable and teachers were also affected. More than once the school was closed for long periods. The last teacher from the school on military service was demobbed in March 1919. Scarcroft commemorated the war in many ways, such as events and lectures, and the school’s memorial was completed in 1924.

This very readable booklet illustrates the way in which the war affected a wide section of a local community. The conclusion is that the it had a great impact, but caused no real breakdown in discipline. For those wanting further details and extended sources, an online version exists at  https://clementshallhistorygroup.wordpress.com     

Until June 2018 Tim Lomas was chair of the British Association for Local History. He was formerly an education inspector and adviser.

3. In the footsteps of the Victorians Aspects of change in the Wrey Valley and surrounding area 1837-1901 by members of the Lustleigh Society Show more → Show less ↓

(Lustleigh Society and individual authors 2018 ISBN 978-0-9957122-1-8) £10

Funded by Moor than meets the eye and the Heritage Lottery Fund, a clutch of local historians has published this collection of essays tracing continuity and change in Devon’s Wrey Valley across Queen Victoria’s long reign. The chapters encompass population and occupation change; the coverage of Dartmoor in Victorian guidebooks; the evolution of the high street in Bovey Tracey, Lustleigh and Chagford; mining and quarrying, Lustleigh Board school; leisure activities in the valley; and the philanthropy of the Divetts, paternalistic employers at Bovey Tracey pottery. A common thread weaves through most, that of the transformative impact of the railway from Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead which opened after protracted negotiations in June 1866.

This area of beautiful but often hostile terrain had for centuries been little changed and difficult of access, but within a few years the railway opened up rural Devon to metropolitan influence, had created different employment possibilities, and had brought tourists to stay in new railway hotels and lodging houses and enjoy the sweep of the moorland landscapes, in places like Haytor, Lustleigh Cleave and Fingle Gorge. Devonians experienced the latest in Victorian technology, from those railway engines to new canned foods, just as they were subjected to Victorian reformative enthusiasm for compulsory education and temperance. The railways gave a stimulus to the local pottery at Bovey Tracey, and to the quarries that worked granite and the precious ‘shining ore’ (micaceous iron ore, important in making corrosion resistant paint), for which the Wrey Valley was the primary producer in the country. Local vernacular buildings—often thatched, granite walled and irregular—faced challenges from Victorian architecture, with brickwork and Welsh roofing slate in new villas.

Together these essays provide a wealth of detail about Wrey Valley. Occasionally they overlap and are repetitive, and some would have benefitted from a deeper exploration of the national context impinging, via the railway, on Valley life. Lustleigh Board School was formed under the Education Act 1870. Its governors, we learn, were chaired by an Anglican clergyman—and in a county known for its Nonconformity it would be interesting to discover how Nonconformists (who nationally colonised Board schools) felt about such Anglican control. Bitterly divisive issues like the Conscience clause, Clause 25 and the teaching of the Bible, which bedevilled relations between the denominations nationally, are unexplored as far as they affect the Wrey Valley. In that intensely political century, with some spectacular party realignments, there is barely any examination of how the repeal of the Corn Laws touched this agricultural community or—even more surprising given Devon and Cornwall’s strong Liberal character—how the party ructions over Home Rule impacted on the Valley. It would be good to know why Mid-Devonshire, the Wrey Valley seat, was the only Devon constituency to resist Unionism in the 1886 general election. There is but one tantalising allusion to political loyalties within the Divett family.

Andrew Reekes MA (Oxon), MRes is author of a number of books on Birmingham and the Chamberlain family.

4. The Old Town Hall, St Albans by Chris Green and A Handsome and Substantial Building... A history of Bury St Edmunds Corn Exchange by John Orbell Show more → Show less ↓

(St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society 2017 48pp ISBN 978-0-901194-10-7) £6.99; 

(Taylor’s End Press 2017 vi + 64pp ISBN 978-0-9566111-2-3) £14.00 direct from publisher

Both these books are labours of considerable love; they are well-written and attractively presented and the buildings, St Albans Old Town Hall (addressed as St Albans Court House until 1970) and Bury St Edmunds Corn Exchange, have been meticulously researched. Surprisingly, these are the first published accounts of the two buildings. Chris Green, a former director of St Albans Museums, has drawn on his extensive first-hand knowledge of the architectural development of the Old Town Hall, the main focus of his study, from its neo-Classical origins in the 1830s to the present day. John Orbell, a business archivist with a particular interest in corn milling, has an equally long-standing association with Bury St Edmunds Corn Exchange. His study is primarily the extraordinary story of how the history of the Corn Exchange is intertwined with that of the town.

Each study reveals details of the design, construction and fabric of the respective buildings as well as an account of how the buildings were used, their shortcomings and day-to-day discomforts and how this changed over time. Green gives an account of how the justices, local government and St Albans society used the Old Town Hall, describing how each change of ownership and function produced the much altered building of today and its transformation into a state-of-the-art museum and art gallery. Orbell’s history of Bury’s two corn exchanges emphasises how critical their construction was to the town’s prosperity, the first being built in the 1830s and extended in the 1840s and the second in the 1860s.  He gives an account of Bury Corporation’s role in this, of the trading experience and procedures of the Exchange and of how the building later became a venue for a myriad of uses, from dancing to boxing matches. The first of the corn exchanges was eventually converted to retail units and the first floor of the second building to a Wetherspoon’s pub which opened in 2012.

Each of the buildings was never far from controversy. Green describes how the Old Town Hall became the focus of underhand dealings even before it was built, but most remarkable is the brief account of a spectacular political corruption case during the general election of December 1850 with devastating consequences. In similar vein, Orbell relates how the building costs of Bury’s first corn exchange contributed to bringing the Council to the brink of bankruptcy in the 1840s, while that of the second led to a furious row that divided the townspeople.  This was matched in the 1960s by the council’s decision to demolish the Exchange, which unleashed such a furore that the council was forced to back down.

Both books are in full colour, beautifully illustrated and modestly priced. Green’s text is accompanied by many illustrations of the town hall and related buildings along with the author’s own isometric reconstructions of local architect George Smith’s designs, schematic views of the building, drawings and photographs of architectural features and detailed floor plans showing the official uses and status of rooms. There are also some delightful sketches and cartoons by local artist J. H. Buckingham. If there is one quibble it is that there is no map at the outset indicating the location of the building. Orbell’s study benefits from the inclusion of an early location map in addition to numerous photographs, drawings and paintings, copies of tradesmen’s contracts and various handbills. In the absence of any record of trading activity on the Exchanges, he has drawn both on contemporary press reports and Suffolk Record Office press cuttings file.

Although the intended audience for both books may have been residents and local historians in the St Albans and Bury St Edmunds areas respectively, the stories behind these buildings will undoubtedly have much wider appeal. Both authors have done an excellent job of bringing to life the history of two extremely important buildings.

Sue Moss is an Oxford-educated lecturer and local/architectural historian with a background in town and country planning.  Her research interests are in urban architecture, settlement history and designed landscapes.