The purpose of this essay is to argue that despite developments in the discourses of local history in England undoubtedly influencing those elsewhere; it has by no means provided the template for other nations. Firstly, it will evaluate the historiographical canon of English local history; and secondly, a discussion as to whether this development can indeed be regarded as a template for the other nations in Britain and Ireland is put forward.
In light of this, the essay begins by outlining how local history has developed within England. It then discusses whether the local history of Wales, Ireland and Scotland can be seen to have followed the English model with regard to particular themes of chronology, infrastructure and identity; it is argued that while a relatively similar progression has been made with regard to the country’s historical narratives, there remain distinct frameworks and character regarding local history. Finally, the essay analyses current local historical agendas in the individual countries and differing areas of scholarship. The essay advocates that while many of the questions raised by local and regional history have been investigated more consistently in England than elsewhere, there remain four distinct templates within the selected countries.
The English template can be traced to an early period where engrossment with local history can be seen as a constant characteristic of English life.1 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries antiquarian writing dealing with the topography of individual places began to emerge.2 John Leland, who was appointed the King’s antiquary in 1533, went on to inspire a new generation of scholars.3 Influential among these early antiquarians was Camden, who’s Britannia proved influential for many of his contemporaries.4 Increasingly, descriptions of English counties developed and in the early seventeenth century Dugdale set a new standard in the use of documentary sources.5 Similarly publications dealing with the individual histories of English towns flowed from Elizabethan times onwards.6
Moreover, parish histories began to emerge in the eighteenth century.7 These were further developed with pivotal institutional improvements: With the formation of many local societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the official start of printing records (1783); the establishment of the Public Record Office (PRO) (1838); and a major land mark at the end of the nineteenth century was the establishment of the Victoria History of the Counties of England (VCH) (1899). The aim of which was to outline the local history of the whole of England. For many, VCH accommodates a connection between the foremost scholarship of the antiquarian tradition and that of the local historians of the 20th century.8 Where its volumes exist they will still be the first reference for local historians.9
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that English local history would again become prominent. This achievement owes much to the emergence of the Leicester School of local history in 1948.10 The school’s historians, notably Hoskins, helped to shift the emphasis of local history towards being a discipline in its own right by focusing its unit of study on individual communities.11 Notably, even VCH has shown signs of a change in emphasis.12
In the wake of these new directions in scholarship, local history today is more academically accepted within the scholarly community, and traditional amateur vivacity continues.13 Local studies are now an important dimension of economic history and have proved extremely influential with regard to history from below, women’s history and social history.14 Correspondingly, family history has grown, particularly at an amateur level, rapidly within...