History of the Middlesex VCH

The VCH started in 1899 as a national project researched and written at a local level, and in the first flush of enthusiasm work began in more or less every county, with the consequence that the VCH Central Office in London was rapidly overwhelmed.

The intention behind the VCH was to produce a history for each English and Welsh county. In England, the intention was to produce a series of 160 volumes, which would usually mean four volumes per county. It was intended to tackle Middlesex and Surrey without separate reference to London, because towns were only ever expected to be treated at county level, even when they crossed county boundaries. The thinking was that this would produce a measure of uniformity. As a result, VCH Surrey handled Wandsworth, Lambeth and other historic parishes in the same manner as rural parishes elsewhere in the county.

It was soon clear that to ignore the existence of London in this way was a mistake. In a departure from the original VCH plan it was decided to add three additional volumes to the overall series by treating London as a county, separate from Middlesex and Surrey. For this purpose London was defined as the city within the Bars, the borough of Southwark, and the ancient parish of Westminster.

This scheme made only faltering progress, but one volume in the London series was published in 1909. It included essays on Roman-British London, Anglo-Saxon remains, and ecclesiastical history and religious houses. The religious houses sections from London I, and Middlesex II have subsequently been republished with updated material: Caroline Barron and Matthew Davies, eds., The Religious Houses of London and Middlesex (2007)

For the London volumes much of the research was undertaken by some of the many women who were employed in the pre-First World War days by the VCH. The ecclesiastical history was largely written by two sisters, Miss E. Jeffries Davis, who held a London B.A., and her sister Joyce, who had been a student at St Hilda’s and had passed through the Oxford Honours School of Modern History but, as was the case in those days, had not been permitted to graduate. They worked with Miss Margaret Cornford. Miss E Jeffries Davis struggled with the sheer quantity of the records. In a long letter to William Page, the general editor, in May 1906 when she and her sister Joyce were working with Miss Cornford on the parish records for the London volumes, she complained about how problematic they were finding it to undertake the work in the time Page was allowing. As this section was reduced to only a couple of pages in the published book, her concerns were probably well founded.

Miss Jeffries Davis was a contract worker rather than a member of what she referred to as ‘your ordinary staff’. She was probably referring to some of the other female contributors to the London volume, including Miss H.L.E. Garbett, Miss Minnie Reddan, and Miss Phyllis Wragge. Miss Jeffries Davis lived in Croydon and taught at a college, working for the VCH in her spare time, although she seems to have been granted leave of absence in 1907 to push forward with the VCH work, only to be annoyed to find the British Museum library was temporarily closed.

The Jeffries Davis sisters were still working on the VCH in 1908, by now on the political history of London during the Reformation, material which was never published.

Some of the VCH researchers seem to have been less diligent than the Jeffries Davis sisters. Reginald Sharpe, Records Clerk of the City of London, complained to Page in June 1908 that the researcher sent to work through the papers in his custody, a Mr Unwin, was ‘not making the most of the time allotted by the Corporation for finishing the examinations of the City’s Records for the purpose of the Victoria County Histories Society’. Unwin was working on the constitutional history of the City and had been allowed three months to complete the research, but Sharpe was unimpressed by the hours he kept: ‘he has not worked (on an average) more than 3 hours a day, although it was understood that when he commenced he would work the whole day and every day (except Saturdays).’

Even when he was examining the records, Sharpe feared that Unwin was ‘more concerned with the ordinances of various Guards than with the constitutional government of the City’. Unwin was not a named contributor to the London volume, although it seems more likely that his work was destined for one of the later volumes, which was never published.

Given what we know of the funding of the VCH, and particularly of the funding crisis of 1908-9, which nearly led to the collapse of the whole project, it must have been the case that both the Middlesex and London VCH sets were part of the guarantee offered by the VCH to attract funding to sustain the project. The funds made available were for work in ten counties, and helped to ensure the appearance of volumes on London and Middlesex in 1909 and 1911.

Work on Middlesex had gone ahead separately. It was expected to include those parts of the historic county outside of the city. VCH Middlesex II (1911) included general essays covering ancient earthworks, political history, social and economic history and industries, agriculture, forestry, sport (including short articles on the MCC, and on the Australians playing at Lords in the 1880s and 1890s), and the topographical entries for Spelthorne Hundred, including Feltham, Hampton (with an article on Hampton Court), Hanworth and Laleham.

Work was still continuing on London when the First World War broke out. For a while, VCH research went forward across the country, although in conditions which created difficulties for the VCH. A researcher in Lancashire examining church bells was ‘carried off to a police station two miles distant as a spy’, while an Oxford don taking notes of the Roman wall ‘had to be protected from an angry mob who took him for a spy, and two members of the staff of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments were taken to a police station in Essex under similar circumstances.’

William Page, the general editor, contacted the Commissioner of Police in the Old Jewry to seek ‘a pass or permit to allow me and Mr John Quekett and Mr Sidney Toy, members of my staff, to examine and take notes, measurements and photographs of ancient buildings within the City of London for the purpose of our work on the Victoria County History’. The Commissioner referred him to the military authorities, and the outcome is not known.

By the end of 1915 all work on the VCH had stopped, and it was not resumed until the 1920s, when funding was sufficient only for Page to edit for publication volumes which had been completed, or largely completed, before the First World War. As a result of this hiatus, the proposed volumes II and III of the London set never appeared, and new work on Middlesex remained in abeyance until the 1950s.

After much discussion 1950-5, the project was revived at a meeting on 18 July 1955. Much credit for this was down to Sir Archer Hoare, chairman of the Middlesex County Council. He was able to persuade the other localities to join the initiative, and they all seem to have regarded financial support for the history of their locality as part of their civic responsibilities. Such an attitude was by no means uncommon in the post-war years, and it helped to provide the context for several counties to recommence VCH work. The classic post-war model saw a local authority or, in this case, a consortium of authorities, undertaking to raise the funding to employ a local editor. In turn, the University of London, which had acquired all rights to the VCH in 1933, undertook to publish the volumes.

As a result, half a century after the publication of VCH Middlesex II, the research was complete to publish VCH Middlesex III in 1962. The volume included general essays on political, social and economic history and sport, together with further topographical entries for Spelthorne Hundred (essentially the area around Staines, Richmond and Twickenham).

The VCH has always thought in terms of county ‘sets’, with particular subjects being covered in the same volume in a set for ease of comparison. Slightly bizarrely, at least outside the world of the VCH, the next volume to appear came out in 1969 and was VCH Middlesex I in 1969. This contained general essays about the county, excluding the earlier tradition of writing on natural history and ecclesiastical history, but including archaeology, Domesday Book, religious houses, and education. The latter included a short entry on the University of London.

VCH Middlesex then started to fall foul of difficulties caused by changes in local government boundaries in 1965 and 1972. Middlesex ceased to exist as an administrative county with its VCH history still incomplete. Surrey, incidentally, had been researched and written before 1914 so that London south of the Thames was not affected in the same way.

Fortunately, funding was found from the new authorities in the old county of Middlesex which enabled volumes to come out with some regularity: ‘the topographical volumes marched steadily inwards from the north-west of the county towards central London’:

Volume IV (1971) the area around Harmondsworth, Hayes Norwood, and Harrow
Volume V (1976) Hendon, the Stanmores, Enfield, Tottenham and South Mimms
Volume VI (1980) Finchley and Hornsey
Volume VII (1982) Acton, Chiswick, Ealing and Willesden.

Administrative arrangements changed again in the 1980s, but funding was found from the inner London boroughs to continue with work on what came to be referred to as Inner Middlesex, by contrast with the work to this date on outer Middlesex.


Volume VIII (1985) Islington and Stoke Newington
Volume IX (1989) Hampstead and Paddington
Volume X (1995) Hackney
Volume XI (1998) Early Stepney with Bethnal Green
Volume XII (2005) Chelsea

Since work resumed in the 1950s what are known as the topographical (or place) volumes have been researched and written in a relatively logical order, and have followed the VCH style proceeding parish by parish. As there was no further expectation of the London set being completed, it made sense to think in terms of historic Middlesex, even if the inner and outer language was a little awkward.

After Chelsea, the decision to tackle Westminster presented the VCH with a major headache – how to handle such a large and complex area in a single volume. It couldn’t! Instead it planned three volumes, which were designed as a mini-set within the Inner Middlesex set. The first of the three proposed volumes to be published was

Volume XIII (2009) Westminster part 1 (of 3) landownership and religious life, largely researched and written by Patricia Croot, whose remarkable work on landownership included a definitive account of all the estates along the Strand.

Forthcoming are:

Volume XIV (2013) Westminster part 2 (of 3) local government from the medieval manor court through the various commissions and local boards established in the nineteenth century to the creation of Westminster City Council in 1900. Also the social life of the community including care of the poor, education, and leisure facilities - theatres and cinemas, opera houses and music halls - with the overall intention of providing a flavour of community life rather than just reflecting Westminster’s national role as a cultural centre.

Volume XV (2016) will examine in some detail the physical growth and topography of Westminster from the medieval period to the present, and also examine the area’s national role.

Taken together, volumes XIII - XV will provide a VCH-style history of the parish of Westminster based as ever with the VCH predominantly on deep research in the primary sources.

The VCH is famous for its big red books, but it also makes its material available through other formats. All of the Middlesex volumes so far published have been mounted on the website British History Online (www.bhol.ac.uk). Between 2006 and 2009 the Middlesex volumes attracted more than 2 million visitors.

Westminster Council has continued to show enthusiasm for, and provided financial support to, the VCH Middlesex project as work on other boroughs has been completed. The Westminster project goes ahead as a result, and draft text, as it is prepared, will be posted on the website:

www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk/Middlesex

The site also includes details of how to contribute to the ongoing work of the VCH in the historic county of Middlesex.

See also: I.W. Davies and C.R. Elrington, eds., The Middlesex Victoria County History Council, 1955-1984 (1984).