Feeling your way through local history

[Written by Alf Wilkinson]

‘I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
The love that’s all around me
And so the feeling grows……..’

The Troggs, 1966 [for those of you old enough to remember!] or Wet, Wet, Wet 1995 if you prefer! I feel exactly the same way about history – and local history in particular. Nearly every day I drive past Waterloo Farm. What’s the story there? And how can I find out? Well, there are tithe maps and enclosure maps [yes, even for Birmingham before it was built up!] that tell me enclosure happened here in 1816 and yes, it is named after the Battle of Waterloo. What about street names. In Melton Mowbray I frequently pass a street called ‘National School Court.’ What is the story there? Did the school come first, or the name? Old OS Maps and trade directories might help us with this little mystery.

Trade Directories are a veritable mine of information. Take this one, for example, about my local village:

It starts with a general description of the village and its services, then lists all the “important” people, followed by the commercial people:

[Post Office Trade Directory, Lincolnshire, 1861]

This small Lincolnshire village in 1861 had its own police station with a sergeant and three men. It also had doctors, surgeons and schools – remember the narrative that children didn’t really go to school until the 1870 Education Act? What else would you find in Heckington in 1861 that isn’t there today, and vice-versa? So often one explores local history and finds that the Grand Narrative of history is wrong, and local newspapers can be a valuable archive for exploring this.

Trade Directories also contain lots of adverts, both national and local. There is a full page advert for Madame Tussaud’s in London in this issue, but I was most intrigued by this one from the 1885 edition of ‘Kelly’s Lincolnshire Directory’:

How intriguing – the thought of getting blocks of pure Norwegian block ice delivered to your door, next day by train. Who would buy these? Why? How did the Norwegian ice get to Grimsby? What does it tell us about cooking and eating habits in 1885? And as one child told me, ‘How stupid, Sir, all they had to do was use the fridge!’ Simple adverts like this open up the past in a way millions of words cannot.

And don’t forget old photographs. Record offices and local newspapers, as well as long-term residents of the area have plenty of these. A visit to a local old people’s home can reap benefits, both on pictures and in oral history. How about this photograph, from Little Hale in Lincolnshire:

Both the shop and the pub in the background are both there today, but are private houses. You can stand in the same place and take a modern photograph and compare then and now. The old lady crossing the street obviously could not stand still long enough to have her photograph taken!

And of course don’t forget the buildings that all are around us – both in design and ornamentation they can tell us the story of our area and our neighbourhood. Take this very ordinary Victorian terraced house:

Not much changed since it was first built, or is it? Are there new doors? New windows? Telephone cable? Satellite dish? Close examination can tell us lots about the changes over time. But a close look at the ornamentation helps us chart the expansion of the area.

History is all around us, and looking closely at the area can tell us much about our heritage.

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