Writing the VCH

Researching and writing the history of Essex communities is a fascinating, but time-consuming, project. In the process we discover much more information than we can possibly fit into a short VCH article, so that the writing-up process involves much sifting, condensing and even discarding of material which, however interesting, does not fit into the basic article structure.
 

Documentary Work

Our guiding principle by VCH accounts is that the text should be based, as far as possible, on primary evidence and that each observation should be supported by a footnote citing the source. We maintain detailed checklists of types of original source material that must be examined for each parish, of both local and national origin, that must be examined for each parish, and often identify further types specific to a particular place. Most of the sources we use are found either in the Essex Record Office or the The National Archives at Kew, but some are held in other public, county or private archives such as the Guildhall Library, Suffolk Record Office, and London Metropolitan Archive.

 

We also make extensive searches of printed primary sources and secondary publications, guided by the three VCH Essex Bibliography volumes which list books, articles and other printed sources relating specifically to individual parishes and individuals. This work involves us in the use of University libraries in Essex and London, The British Library, the Essex Record Office, and the Essex County Council Local Studies libraries. The VCH Essex office also has its own reference library which is generously maintained by the VCH Essex Appeal Fund.

Maps

VCH research pays detailed attention to the development of the landscape, and we therefore make great use of cartographic resources. Essex is particularly fortunate in having valuable early map resources. The Essex Record Office has a large number of estate maps dating from the Tudor period onwards, including the marvelously detailed surveys by John Walker snr (d. 1626) and jnr (d 1618), as well as fine collections of county, road and coastal maps. Particularly significant is the fine county map by John Chapman and Peter André published in 1777, for at a scale of 2” to the mile it is detailed enough to provide information on the general settlement and road pattern and on great houses, parks, gardens, heaths and other landscape features.

Other standard sources include parish enclosure and tithe maps which contain comprehensive information on field names, roads and tracks, land-use, settlement patterns, and on the owners and occupiers of farms and houses. They provide detailed 'snapshots' which can be tied in with other evidence, such as farming records, census returns, and Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes (free access to 'Ancestry' in every Essex Library). VCH staff use the information from these historic maps alongside the accurate surveys carried out by the Ordnance Survey. The OS 1" (and surveyor's drawings) from 1805, followed by the OS 25" from the 1870s, are again available in the Essex Record Office's extensive collection which also includes many later editions.

Archaeology, buildings and fieldwork

Local history cannot be written from documents alone. The Prehistoric, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods may all hold vital clues to the evolution of the landscape and communities, and here the VCH relies upon the advice and specialist knowledge of archaeological experts and their databases, excavation and finds reports. Similarly, 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. The VCH’s Architectural Editor (based in London) helps with building interpretation, either directly or through subcontracted experts
For Essex, the most important repository of archeologocal data is Essex Historic Environment Record. The Historic Buildings Conservation section at County Hall also has an extensive archive of reports and photographs. Additional data, including the earlier reports and photographic archive of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) and important collections of aerial photographs, are held by the National Monuments Record. Important excavation reports appear in monographs published by East Anglian Archaeology, the Colchester Archaeological Trust, and others. Annual reports and articles on Essex archaeology and buildings appear in journals such as Essex Archaeology and History published by The Essex Society for Archaeology and History and publications of the Essex Historic Buildings Group.

Data from documents, maps, archaeology and buildings cannot be fully understood without close attention to the form and character of the local landscape. We therefore familiarize ourselves with the layout of settlements, the nature of farming and other economic activity by fieldwork. A camera, binoculars, and notepad are useful equipment - and a comfortable pair of walking boots often proves essential! Towards the end of our research together with the Architectural Editor or a consultant we visit, by arrangement with the owners, houses of particular architectural significance. This helps us to construct an integrated account of the development of the local built environment. Throughout the research process we also make contact with many other residents, who can provide a unique repository of local knowledge - about recent changes, about individuals and buildings, or about farming and industry
 

New Technology

During the last 20 years new technology has revolutionized the way the VCH works. Not only are all texts word-processed, but notes are frequently taken on laptops and 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 seperate items, ranging from a few lines to several pages. Additionally, computers are increasingly being used for mapping and for digitized imaging as well as writing text, and published VCH volumes are gradually being made available on the web in fully searchable form.

Even so, to research, write and publish the history of a parish takes more time than one might think. Producing a volume for the Essex VCH of perhaps ten or twelve parishes would normally take at least 5 years for two full-time staff. Although the new tools facilitate the key tasks of research, analysis, writing up, and making work available, the local historian's fundamental role remains the same - 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.

Once the articles have been written they are now peer-reviewed by external referees and finally have to receive the approval of the General Editor/Director of the VCH at the University of London. Proof-reading, making indexes, selecting illustrations, preparing maps and setting our preliminary pages are all time-consuming, and by the time one volume is published, research on the parishes to be included in the next one will already have been underway for some time
 

 

 

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