British Association for Local History

Richard Cavendish looks at the BALH, a national body set up to promote the popular subject of local history.

Interest in local history has boomed since the Second World War. Local history societies have sprung up everywhere like dragon's teeth, Women's Institutes and Mother's Union branches contribute to the subject, schoolchildren do projects on it, evening classes and public libraries seethe and bubble with seekers after local truth.

In his classic book on Local History in England , which came out originally in 1959, W.G. Hoskins attributed the flowering of interest in the subject to the complexity, pace and fundamental incomprehensibility of modern life. In a world growing daily more impossible to understand and control, people find comfort and a sense of identity in the study of something close at hand, small in scale and of direct personal relevance. The same need which drives some to strange religions and new cults sends others to the nearest archivist.

Christopher Charlton, who teaches local history among other things in the adult education department of Nottingham University, finds that the factor which brings more people to the classes than any other is today's social mobility. 'People move to a new area,' he says, 'feel rootless there and want to find out about its history as a way of establishing a place for themselves.' The recent mushrooming of family history is part of the same phenomenon and many people who start to trace their forebears find their interest extending to the locality as well.

Mr Charlton is chairman of the British Association for Local History (BALH), the national organisation set up to promote the study of the subject. The Association organises and encourages courses and conferences, local history fairs and visits to such institutions as the Public Record Office, the College of Heralds and leading libraries. It produces a lively and unusually substantial newsletter for its members twice a year and a good quarterly magazine, The Local Historian . Besides reviews and useful lists of recent publications in the field, the magazine carries articles on subjects ranging from 'The chapel in the English landscape' to 'The golden age of Uttoxeter'.

Local history has always been fundamentally an amateur pursuit. Until recently it could not be anything else, as there were no academic courses to take or professional positions to occupy. University adult education departments have responded to demand and organised courses and centres, and one of BALH's main aims is to put the amateur local historian in touch with the best professional practice: in dealing with computers, for instance, or with photographic records or oral evidence.

The Association publishes a small but growing range of books and booklets of this kind. Titles include Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting and Writing Local History . A recent book on Newspapers and Local History by Michael Murphy of Anglia College, Cambridge is a practical guide to using newspapers as a source.

The publishing programme involves Phillimore's, the Chichester book publisher which specialises in local history, family history and genealogy. Quite apart from the BALH publications, Phillimore has about 1,000 titles of its own in print in this area, on which it has concentrated since the late 1960s. It publishes the Darwen series of county historians (named in honour of Lord Darwen, who originally founded it).

BALH pays to have its books and magazine published and the choice of what to publish is entirely in its hands. Phillimore's takes care of production and distribution, and also provides the Association with an office which collects subscriptions and handles routine administration. The arrangement has been running for four years now. There were some in the Association to begin with who had misgivings about accepting the embraces of a nakedly commercial organisation, but Christopher Charlton says the operation has worked extremely well.

Noel Osborne of Phillimore's explains that the publisher is in the deal more for the kudos of being linked with the main national body in the field than for such profit as it brings directly in. Mr Osborne is himself a reformed archivist and he, too, sees the growth of interest in local history mainly in terms of the search for roots. Phillimore's experience is that people in new towns like Basildon, Crawley and Milton Keynes are as much or more interested in the local history as those who live in venerable cities bulging with heritage, like Canterbury or Winchester. Records are much more accessible today than they were fifty years ago and schoolchildren have been encouraged to discover local history, so that generations are growing up to whom it is no longer a closed or daunting book.

BALH has a special committee to keep an eye on the schools side of things, headed by David Short, who runs the Field Studies Centre at Ashwell in Hertfordshire. It was busily involved last year in helping to persuade the National Curriculum Council to give more time to local history in the schools. The committee is now planning courses and publications to help the teachers to cope with the subject.

BALH seeks to be the national umbrella organisation in its field, which as usual in Britain is both creative and bewilderingly diverse. There are various regional local history organisations and councils, mostly on a county basis. Some of these are members of BALH, some are not. Closer to the ground are the local history societies in individual towns and villages. These are startlingly numerous. By the end of the 1980s, for instance, the Association of Northumberland Local History Societies had more than sixty local societies affiliated to it.

Not all local histories belong to groups by any means. Many are loners by temperament. BALH's membership, which fluctuates around the 1,500 to 2,000 mark, includes individuals as well as local societies, county associations and libraries.

BALH was founded in 1982 as the result of an initiative by what is now the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. In its early days it was severely hampered by shortage of money and it is not exactly rich now, with an annual income in the region of 30,000 pounds. It receives no money from the taxpayer.

For the future, Mr Charlton would like to see 'greater recognition for BALH as an authoritative and responsible national organisation which truly represents what is now a large body of the general public'. The serious amateur local historian, he believes, working part-time and unpaid, will increasingly carry out the detailed case studies on which the writers of broader histories must rely. Local history is not a marginal or second-rate study. On the contrary, 'it contributes the pieces to a vast jigsaw, in a way which previous generations would not have understood'.


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