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Writing the Oxfordshire VCH
The VCH draws on a wide variety of source material - documentary, architectural, archaeological, and topographical - to create a comprehensive account of how the places around us have developed. Locating and working through the relevant material is only the beginning. More important is extracting a coherent story from the mass of evidence - distinguishing the commonplace from the unusual, and building up a picture of the changing people, societies, and landscapes of the past.
The first stage in researching a village, town, or parish is to work through a VCH 'checklist' of printed and manuscript sources. The checklists are constantly updated, and list the basic sources, indexes, and online resources relevant to most English places. Even for a small rural village this can involve several weeks' work. Standard printed sources for Oxfordshire parishes run to several hundred items, many of them still only searchable by sifting through printed indexes. Then there are the numerous classes of documents to be searched at Oxfordshire History Centre and the Bodleian Library, as well as at the National Archives and British Library in London.
Once we have discovered who the chief landowners were, this often leads onto private archives. Many Oxfordshire estates were owned at some point by Oxford colleges, which usually have extensive estate records. Other archives used in recent VCH research include those of Blenheim Palace, Holkham Hall in Norfolk, Eton College in Buckinghamshire, and Lincoln cathedral, along with county record offices in Lincoln, Chichester, Winchester, Gloucester, and Aylesbury. Material in private hands, including photographs, deeds, or memoirs, often comes to light once contact has been made with local residents.
Sources can range from Anglo-Saxon charters and medieval court rolls through to 20th-century planning reports and parish council minutes. Whatever the source, all this material has to be searched, noted, and interpreted in the light of other evidence. In the process, VCH researchers often find themselves demolishing long-cherished local myths - if local historians had a motto, experience shows that it should be 'Take Nothing on Trust'.
Particularly valuable are early maps. Ordnance Survey 1-inch maps are available from the early 19th century, and larger-scale editions from the 1870s or 1880s. Many parishes have earlier tithe and inclosure maps, preserved usually in Oxfordshire History Centre. Most include detailed surveys, with information on field names, land-use, and on the owners and occupiers of farms and houses. They provide a detailed 'snapshot' which can be tied in with other evidence, such as the census records available at Oxfordshire History Centre. Private archive may include earlier, more detailed estate maps and surveys.
Local history cannot be written from documents alone. For Oxfordshire, the most important repository of archaeological data is the county Historic Environment Record (HER). Additional data, particularly collections of aerial photographs, are held by the Ashmolean Museum and the National Monuments Record. Fuller reports appear in monographs, or in journals such as Oxoniensia and South Midlands Archaeology. All these are searched for VCH research.
Equally important is the physical evidence of landscape, settlement, and buildings. VCH researchers, like all local historians, must get to know their area - not only tramping around village and town centres, but wherever possible walking boundaries and exploring the surrounding countryside, armed with the knowledge gleaned from documents, maps, and local information. A long-resident farmer may well know of some obscure stone-scatter or other feature which has escaped the 'professionals', and which could indicate a deserted medieval hamlet or manor house site.
Into the same category comes the built environment. The date, status, and layout of buildings can reveal a great deal about settlement, about personal wealth and aspirations, and about how people lived in the past - particularly where buildings can be related to documentary evidence. The VCH's Architectural Editor (based in London) helps with building interpretation, either directly or through subcontracted local experts. Oxfordshire staff also benefit from more informal local advice, whether on buildings of particular type or date, or simply on those of especially puzzling complexity. For its recent Burford work, the VCH teamed up with the Oxfordshire Buildings Record.
During their research VCH staff will make contact with local residents, who can provide a unique repository of local knowledge - about recent changes, about individuals and buildings, or about farming and industry. In return, VCH researchers share and discuss their own findings - through informal chats, sometimes through formal lectures, and through dissemination of draft texts on the web or in hard copy.
During the last 20 years new technology has revolutionized the way the VCH works. Notes are taken on laptop computers and stored on electronic databases, facilitating retrieval of information on particular topics . This is invaluable, since the database for even a small rural parish can contain well over a thousand separate items, ranging from a few lines to several pages. Computers are increasingly being used for mapping and for digitized imaging as well as for writing text, and published VCH volumes are gradually being made available on the web in fully searchable form.
The Historian's Task...
These new tools make easier the key tasks of research, analysis, writing up, and making work available. The local historian's fundamental role remains the same, however - to extract from a mass of complex and varied source material a coherent, plausible, and comprehensible story of how and why particular places have developed over time, shaped by the ordinary people who lived, worked, and died there.