Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 14 – Farming Surveys

Another one for those interested in agricultural history today and it is a whole series of books, rather than just one. Most family historians I speak to have agricultural labourers hidden somewhere in the boughs of their family tree. What we need to realise is that these are not some amorphous group whose experiences were all very similar. Farming practices differ according to soil, terrain and climate. The Book of the Farm, that I mentioned earlier in the month, is a general account; you also need something more specific. To find out what life would have been like for a farm labourer in a particular part of the country you cannot do better than consult the appropriate volume of the General View of Agriculture. These county volumes were commissioned by the Board of Agriculture and were produced on the cusp of the agricultural revolution, in the 1790s, although some ran to more than one edition. I have a facsimile edition of Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of Devon with observations on means of its improvement. Vancouver wrote the second edition for Devon and was also responsible for some other counties. I can only write about the Devon volume but I suspect that the others are similar, as they were part of a national survey.

The coverage is comprehensive and in the case of Devon, is broken down in to six regions, so the characteristics of a fairly small area can be discovered. The topics cover: soil, climate, crops, livestock, tools, terms of service for labourers, buildings, roads, markets and ways in which productivity could be improved. My edition had line drawings, a map and tables covering such things as parish by parish lists of population, amounts paid in poor relief, occupational structure, number of houses in the parish and other valuable goodies such as the menu for Exeter House of Industry (the forerunner of the workhouse) and the characteristics of different breeds of sheep. There are line drawings illustrating farm implements and livestock.

In short, if you only read one book to help you understanding the farming practices of your ancestors, or your locality in the past, then it should be the appropriate county volume of this series. The full list can be found here. If all this sounds a bit too good to be true, it is because there is a downside. Although some of volumes are available as internet downloads, others have to be purchased in hard copy and are not always cheap. My advice is to shop around because you and your agricultural labouring ancestors, need these books.

On the subject of agricultural labourers, for some strange reason, one of the most popular posts on my blog is one that I wrote about agricultural labourers. Every year there is a sudden spike in hits on this page via the site of an Australian University. I can’t see the actual page containing the link as it is in a ‘students only’ area but apparently they have been directed to me. I would have thought that there were far more in-depth accounts that they could go to but there it is.


Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 13 – Women’s Work

A Woman's Work is Never Done: History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950As I sit down, having just finished the washing up and sticking what may well turn out to be onion-flavoured marzipan on my Christmas cakes (short but sad story), what better than to introduce you to a book about housework. Caroline Davidson’s A Woman’s Work is Never Done: a history of housework in the British Isles 1650-1950, takes us through three centuries of women’s unpaid labour. There are interesting chapters on ‘utilities’ – water, heating and lighting and the impact that the provision of these had on women’s lives. She considers the specifics of cooking, of cleaning and of laundry. There is also a section on servants. Her final chapters, which look at the time spent on housework (more in a day than I spend in the average month – unless of course I have visitors) and women’s attitudes to housework are particularly thought provoking. This book, with over 100 black and white illustrations, is a fascinating read for both men and women. Yet again it is a volume that will provide family historians with crucial context for those often overlooked female ancestors.

Housework really isn’t high on my list of priorities – too many books to read and write – too little time. When I was editing eighty women’s memories for Remember Then, it was no co-incidence that there was little editorial voice in the housework chapter. Despite being serially undomesticated I really enjoyed this book. Sadly it seems to be out of print but you should be able to pick up a cheap second-hand copy.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 12 – Food in History

Reay Tannahill is probably better known as an historical novelist but her Food in History is described as ‘a serious overview of food as a catalyst of social and historical development.’ Her account of what we have eaten over the centuries begins in the pre-historic period. The earlier sections will be of interest to social historians, to foodies (since when has that been a word?) and to anyone setting a novel in ancient Egypt or sixth century China (surely someone must be attempting the latter). From a family historian’s point of view, it is the last two parts (of six), covering 1492 onwards, that will be most relevant. Many foods that we take for granted were not available in Britain until comparatively recently. The impact of the age of exploration on our diet was unparalleled. It is not a coincidence that section five begins in 1492, when Columbus was sailing blue (or more plausibly grey) oceans. Tannahill also looks at the influence of the European Grand Tour, the industrial revolution and the use of pesticides, on what we ate and how we produced, prepared and stored food.

If you want to make sure that the characters in your novel are not chomping on an anachronistic tomato, if you want to know what great great granny might have served for dinner or if you are interested in the way in which food and historical events interrelate, I can recommend this book. There are line drawings, notes on sources and an extensive bibliography to take you further. I particularly like the way in which the author weaves the history of food in to the wider historical context. This is a true social history.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 11 Women and Work and a bit about the History of the early Twentieth Century

The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (e-Book) book coverThis comprehensive account was first published in 1919 and was written by Alice Clark, of the Quaker shoemaking family. Clark (1874-1934) herself is an interesting character, rising to become a director of the family firm in an era when this would have been very unusual. Her Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century is, justifiably, still regarded as a key work on this topic. Sadly it is not currently in print, although the publishers, Routledge, do offer a Kindle edition. You can get copies on online auction sites and various facsimile reprints are available.

The book considers the vital role of women in the family economy, in a century when we tend to imagine that all women were downtrodden housewives. Women’s roles in business, in agriculture, textiles, crafts and the professions are all considered. Clark’s stance is that seventeenth century women enjoyed an equality with men, that their role was complementary, rather than identical and that they played an invaluable part in the family economy. She has used account books, diaries, letters and other sources to illustrate the central role that some women played. She goes on to argue that women began to lose their place in the economic world with the rise of capitalism. By the end of the seventeenth century, she feels, women were increasingly constrained by household duties. The author’s feminist stance and her interest in economics and I suspect socialism, is in evidence but does not detract from the narrative. My Routledge edition has an valuable introduction and bibliography, contributed by Amy Louise Erickson. These enhance Clark’s own list of contemporary and secondary sources.

I enjoyed this book because it provides information about my favourite (well one of my favourites) century. Although this book is about the seventeenth century, it does also give us an understanding of aspects of the early twentieth century too. Clark was actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement and unusually, was a mature student at the London School of Economics. That a woman could write a book like this at this time is insightful.

A couple of things about the early twentieth century while I am here. First of all, it seem likes a long way away because of the seasonal celebrations in between but it is just five weeks before my online course about researching your family and/or locality in the early twentieth century begins. To save you clicking through to the blurb I will copy it here (see how I look after you). “Family historians often neglect the twentieth century as being ‘not really history’ but there is plenty to be discovered about individuals and the communities in which they lived between 1900 and 1945. Twentieth century research brings with it the difficulties of larger and more mobile populations as well as records that are closed to view. This course sets out to provide advice for finding out about our more recent ancestors and the context for their lives. This course would be of interest to those undertaking one-place studies as well as family historians.” It may surprise you how much there is still to be found about a comparatively recent period and the course contains plenty of hints for investigating the social history of the time. What ever time period you choose, focusing on just a few years really pays dividends, whether you are a family historian or a local historian. Sign up, you know you want to. Put a course on your Christmas list.

The early twentieth century is of course when Barefoot on the Cobbles is set. In between writing these blogs, which take more time than you might think, I am of course writing further chapters (I put that in in case my publisher is reading this). No, I really am writing. This week it is the harrowing death scene of one of the main characters. I am also trying to compose something that I can add to my Barefoot page on this website, to give you more information about what you can expect. The first attempt may even be there by the time you read this.


Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 10 – for those with an interest in agriculture

Henry Stephens's Book of the Farm: concise and revised edition by [Langlands, Alex]This one is for all those family historians with agricultural labouring ancestors and for writers of historical fiction who are using a nineteenth century rural setting. The lavish production and copious illustrations also make it ideal for history lovers in general to browse. Henry Stephens’ Book of the Farm, was first published as a guide to mixed farming in the 1840s. It became the handbook used by the historical interpreters working on BBC TV’s Victorian Farm (DVDs of this excellent series are available). One of the presenters, Alex Langlands, had an abridged version of Stephens’ work reprinted to accompany the TV series. He included an introduction and many coloured illustrations that I assume were not in the original. There are also copious line drawings, which may have been part of Stephens’ work. If you require regional farming specifics, you will need to look beyond this book but here is a wonderful general introduction, written at the dawning of the age of agricultural mechanisation. You will find a season by season account of the many and varied duties on a farm. You can learn how swine were fattened, driven and slaughtered and there are clear instructions for forming a dunghill (always useful). There are sections on training sheep dogs, sowing flax and hemp and making butter. Amazon have a ‘look inside’ feature, so you can see the full extent of the contents. A few short chapters in to this lovely book and you will be treading in the footsteps of your farming ancestors – but beware of the dunghills.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 9 and a bit about me

Product DetailsA much more recently written offering behind today’s advent window: Rebecca Ridal’s 1666: plague, war and hellfire, which was published last year. This might be viewed as a history, rather than a social history but there is so much about everyday life in this volume, that I feel justified in including it. Although the title is 1666, the book starts with an account of the plague of the preceding year. Skillful use of contemporary sources introduces us to a turbulent eighteen months in London’s history and events that reverberated around the country. The account is presented from the viewpoint of key characters, the well-known and the less well-known. We meet Nell Gwynn, Samuel Pepys, Charles II, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, all names that evoke the atmosphere of the age. Others who walk across the pages of the book may not be household names, unless you have studied the history of the period. For example: Aphra Behn, playwright and spy; Cornelius Tromp, Dutch naval commander; Nathaniel Hodges, a physician and Thomas Vincent, who provides a Puritan perspective.

Most of us are familiar with plague and fire from our schooldays. The book also covers the Dutch Wars and the dawning of the scientific age. The fears of a still largely suspicious populous as they faced these disasters, disasters that most believed to be punishments from God, are portrayed well. The style is accessible and the book can be read as you would a novel. I could imagine myself walking through London’s streets as I read. Living as I do in the seventeenth century, I found this book fascinating. I wish this had been published when I was researching my own seventeenth century social history, Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs, as there is an extensive bibliography, together with the endnotes, providing plenty of leads to follow up. There are also some attractive coloured plates and three maps in the printed version.

Yesterday I spent a slightly chilly day, with other authors, attempting to sell books to the local populace. I did duck out for fifteen minutes to take a look at an early twentieth century Magistrate’s Court record that was written in the most appalling handwriting I have seen – think the stereotypical prescription scrawl. If I say that it made my handwriting seem legible you may get the idea. Sadly the case I was looking for for Barefoot on the Cobbles was not recorded at all. Very strange, considering that it was heavily reported in the press. Today I have my non-conformist history hat on as I am off to address the Exeter group of Devon Family History Society about ‘Toleration or Turmoil?: English non-conformity and our ancestors’. This may not be quite what the audience are expecting but I hope they enjoy it. I am told there will be posh biscuits in honour of the festive season – great!


Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 8

With some technical wizardry, this post should appear at a time when I am languishing in a local shopping centre hoping to sell my books to unsuspecting passers-by. I have a small share in a stall, along with other local authors. No idea how successful it will be but I will try anything once.

On the social history book front, I have chosen The Village Labourer 1760-1832: a study of government in England before the reform bill by J L and Barbara Hammond as today’s offering. This is another book that has been on our shelves for some time; the first edition came out in 1911. It looks at the fate of the disenfranchised rural labourer at a time when the government were bringing in enclosures. It considers how enclosures were forced on the agricultural poor and the impact that they had. It also covers the reaction and riots of the 1830s. It does come from a particular political stance but this is a refreshing outlook for a book written over a century ago. A slight criticism is the emphasis on the Home Counties. Seventy pages of appendices include transcripts of particular enclosure acts; there are also examples of family budgets. There is a companion volume ‘The Town Labourer 1760-1832: the new civilisation’, which also highlights the plight of the working classes, this time from an urban perspective. As long as you keep the authors’ biases in mind these volumes provide a valuable and interesting background for our working class ancestors.