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Natural History and Local History in Late Victorian and Edwardian England: The Contribution of the Victoria County History

  • JOHN BECKETT (a1) and CHARLES WATKINS (a2)

Abstract

In 1899 the Victoria County History (VCH) was established as a ‘National Survey’ of England which was intended to show the present day condition of the country and trace the ‘domestic history’ of all English counties to the ‘earliest times’. Natural history was seen as a key component to be included in the first volume for every county. In this paper we examine the reasons for the prominence given to natural history and demonstrate how the expert knowledge of natural historians was marshalled and edited. We use the contrasting counties of Herefordshire and Nottinghamshire to examine key intellectual debates about the role of the amateur and the expert and concern about nomenclature, classification and the state of knowledge about different groups of species. We emphasize the importance of the geography of the natural history and the way in which the VCH charted concerns about species loss and extinction. We examine the reasons why the VCH later abandoned natural history and finally we assess the value of its published output for modern historical geographers, historical ecologists and environmental historians.

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Notes

1. Stebbing, Thomas, Crustaceans, Victoria County History Nottinghamshire (London, 1906), Volume 1, p. 151.

2. We have not discussed geology in this paper, despite close links to natural history in the period we are discussing. All the first volume in pre-First World War Victoria County History county sets included thirty pages or so on geology written by some distinguished scholars, most notably perhaps, Horace Woodward. Linsdall Richardson wrote on Herefordshire and Professor J. F. Blake on Nottinghamshire, the two counties discussed in this paper: for background see E. J. T. Collins, ed., Agrarian History of England and Wales Volume VII 1850–1925, part II (2000), especially pp. 1623–7.

3. Clutterbuck, Richard, The History and Antiquities of the County of Hertfordshire I (London, 1815), pp. iiiv.

4. Bartlett, W., ed., History and Topography of Essex (first edition by Wright, Thomas, London, 1851), pp. 1422.

5. Nichols, J, History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, Volume 1, Part 1 (London, c. 1795), pp. clxxviiccviii.

6. Hutchins, John, History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (3rd edn, London, 1861), pp. lxxviiicxlvi.

7. Darby, Michael, ‘WANHS and Natural History’, in Thomas, J.H., ed., Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society: the first 150 years (Devizes, 2003), pp. 210–11.

8. www.wiltshireheritage.org.uk, accessed 10th February 2010; Levine, Phillipa, The Amateur and the Professional (Cambridge, 1986), p. 46; The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society 1853–1953: A Centenary History (Devizes, 1953).

9. www.sanhs.org (accessed 10 Feb 2010).

10. Allen, David Elliston, The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (London, 1976), pp. 94117; Collins, Agrarian History, 1627–31.

11. Levine, Amateur, pp. 63–4.

12. Lincolnshire Archives, Goulding Papers, 5/6 includes information on plants and insects, botanical specimens, lists of plants etc., 1897–1928 as well as nomination slips for the Lincolnshire Naturalists’ Union and correspondence with the Louth Naturalist Society.

13. N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary, eds, Cultures of Natural History (1996).

14. Allen, Naturalist, p. 106.

15. David Elliston Allen, Books and Naturalists (2010).

16. Secord, Anne, ‘Corresponding Interests: Artisans and Gentlemen in Nineteenth-century Natural History’, British Journal for the History of Science 27 (1994), p. 385.

17. Collins, ed., Agrarian History, p. 1621; VCH A58.

18. January Searle, Leaves from Sherwood Forest (1850), pp. 72, 104; George Searle Phillips, 1816–89: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

19. Alberti, Samuel J.M.M., ‘Placing Nature: Natural History Collections and their Owners in Nineteenth Century Provincial England’, British Journal of Science, 35 (2002), 291311. Natural historians were also of crucial importance in the identification, collection and dissemination of plants and animals around the world, but this is not a topic we cover in this paper. See, for example, Fa-ti Fan, British Naturalists in Qing, China: Science, Empire and Cultural Encounter (2004), and Tachibana, Setsu and Watkins, Charles, ‘Botanical Transculturaltion: Japanese and British Knowledge and Understanding of Aucuba Japonica and Larix leptolepis 1700–1920’, Environment and History, 16 (2010), 4371.

20. R. J. Morris, ‘Clubs, Societies and Associations’, in F. M. L. Thompson, ed., The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750–1950 (1990), chapter 8.

21. David Elliston Allen, Naturalist, pp. 170–2; Collins, ed., Agrarian History, p. 1633.

22. Chandler, John, The Reflection in the Pond: A Moonraking Approach to History (London, 2009), pp. 67–8.

23. VCH A37, 1903 report.

24. The Times, 22nd May 1900. See also Chandler, Reflection, p. 65.

25. List taken from early prospectuses. Copies in VCH Archive, box A37.

26. VCH Archive, A30, Hugh Blakiston to Doubleday, 14th June 1899, See also Strong, Roy, Country Life, 1897–1997: The English Arcadia (London, 1996).

27. VCH A 21 H.A. Doubleday to A. Trevor-Battye, 5th June 1899.

28. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 95419 (2004). The biography is by Martin H. Evans. VCH A51 includes Trevor-Battye's incoming correspondence.

29. VCH A37. Report (1903) prepared for a meeting of the Victoria County History Advisory Council.

30. Eric L. Mills, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

31. William Page to Stebbing, 8th March 1905, VCH Archive.

32. Stebbing to William Page, 22nd June 1908, VCH Archive.

33. VCH Archive, A57, Stebbing to Page, 18th February 1908; Page to Stebbing, 20th February 1908, Stebbing to Page, 24th August 1915. This file also reveals that Stebbing regularly wrote more than he was asked for and then resisted being edited for length.

34. Stebbing to William Page, 24th August 1915, VCH Archive.

35. Eric L. Mills, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

36. VCH A37, ‘Natural History in The Victoria History’. Also H.A. Doubleday and W. Page, eds., A Guide to the Victoria History of the Counties of England (c.1903), pp. 27–32, which includes a list of approved sources that should be used. For Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing, see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 38300 (2004), William Warde Fowler Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 33229 (2004); Henry Horatio Dixon Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 32838 (2004); and George Clarence Druce Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 32898 (2004). Victoria County History correspondence with them is in VCH A51–57.

37. VCH Archive, A21, Doubleday to Sir Roper Lethbridge, 1st December 1899.

38. VCH Archive, A37, Printed list: ‘Natural History in the Victoria History’.

39. VCH Archives, A21, Doubleday to Sir Roper Lethbridge, 1st December 1899; A22 Doubleday to Lethbridge, 1st August 1900.

40. Cornwall Record Office, X1254, Doubleday to James Clark, 24th June 1902.

41. See below. The correspondence can be followed in Cornwall RO, X1254.

42. Turner, N. S. (2000) ‘Catalogue of the type, figured and cited fossils in the Nottinghamshire Natural History Museum, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, U.K.The Geological Curator, 7 (3), 111–21.

43. Wood, A. C.A History of the University College of Nottingham 1881–1948 (Oxford, 1953), p. 37.

44. VCH Nottinghamshire, Vol 1, p. 101.

45. Whitaker, Joseph (1909) Nimrod, Ramrod, Fishing-Rod and Nature Tales (Nottingham, 1909). See also Sterland, W. J. and Whitaker, Joseph, A Descriptive List of the Birds of Nottinghamshire (Mansfield, 1879); Whitaker, Joseph, A Descriptive List of the Deer Parks and Paddocks of England (London, 1892); Whitaker, JosephThe Birds of Tunisia (London, 1905); Whitaker, Joseph, Notes on the Birds of Nottinghamshire (Nottingham, 1907); Whitaker, Joseph, British Duck-decoys of Today (London, 1918).

46. George Strong to H. A. Doubleday, 24th April 1899, VCH Archive, A8.

47. George Strong, The Heraldry of Herefordshire being a collection of the armorial bearings of families which have been seated in the county at various periods down to the present time, illustrated with richly emblazoned shields; Together with the Commission of the Peace for the year 1847, &c. adapted to form a supplement to Duncumb's county history (London, 1848).

48. George Strong, Handbook to Ross and Archenfield; also notes on the geology (by W. S. Symonds) and botany of the Wye Valley [by W. H. Purchas], (Ross, 1863).

49. Arthur Doubleday to Lord Biddulph, 24th July 1903, VCH Archive, A8.

50. Clifford Cordley to William Page, 31st December 1908; 12th April 1909; 3rd May 1909, VCH Archive.

51. Jones, Mary MunslowThe Lookers-Out of Worcestershire (Worcester, 1980), pp. 133–4. ‘He was a study in brown. . . brown-shaded tweed knickerbocker suit, brown woollen stockings; brown brogue shoes, well polished, snowy white shirt and stock; with his ruddy face, piercing eyes and gleaming monocle, he was a very distinctive figure around Worcester over so many years.’

52. Massee, George, British Fungus-Flora. A Classified Text-book of Mycology (London, 1894).

53. Fries, Elias MagnusHymenomycetes Europaei (Uppsala, 1874).

54. Carleton Rea to A. Trevor-Battye, 2nd July 1900, VCH Archive, A8.

55. Saccardo, Pier AndreaSylloge fungorum omnium hucusque cognitorum (Padua, 1882–90) 9 vols.

56. Carleton Rea to Page, 20th February 1906, VCH Archive.

57. Arthur Doubleday to Augustin Ley, 20th February 1906, VCH Archive.

58. Mark Lawley, A Social and Biographical History of British and Irish Field-bryologists at http://britishbryologicalsociety.org.uk/.

59. Mark Lawley, A Social and Biographical History of British and Irish Field-bryologists at http://britishbryologicalsociety.org.uk/.

60. Augustin Ley to Arthur Doubleday, 17th February 1906, VCH Archive.

61. William Page to William de Winton, Zoological Society of London, 21st February 1906, VCH Archive.

62. William Page to Lindsall Richardson, 8th January 1907, VCH Archive.

63. Lindsall Richardson to William Page, 2nd February 1907, VCH Archive.

64. VCH A6, Lethbridge to Doubleday, 13th December 1899, 14th, 22nd February, 13th August, 17th November 1900; SirLethbridge, Roper, ‘Apple Culture and Cider-making in Devonshire’. Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 32 (1900), 142–94; and xxxiii (1901) for his presidency.

65. VCH A49, James Clark to Page, 11th January 1906

66. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 54.

67. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, pp. 68–9.

68. VCH Herefordshire p. 80.

69. VCH Herefordshire, p. 86.

70. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 96.

71. Allen, David Elliston, Books and Naturalists (London, 2010) p. 271.

72. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 109.

73. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, pp. 132–3.

74. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 77.

75. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 112.

76. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 118.

77. The Times, 23rd August 1901.

78. VCH Archive, A44, W.O. Massingberd to W. Page, 3rd April 1906; Page to Massingberd, 5th April 1906.

79. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 39.

80. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 40.

81. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 42.

82. This insect was exhibited at the Entomological Society of London, 6th December 1905; “Mr. E. K. Bankes showed . . . a specimen of Cerostoma asperella, L., discovered by Mrs. Hutchinson near Leominster, on September 21st, 1881, and only taken, as regards Britain, in Dorset (formerly), and Herefordshire very rarely” The Entomologist, XIX. (January 1906) 512, p. 48.

83. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 86.

84. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 42.

85. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 45.

86. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 93.

87. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 100. Alfred Russell Wallace in Island Life noted that ‘the excessively minute Trichopterygidse described by Mr. Matthews’ were distinguished ‘by very minute and obscure characters’.

88. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 156.

89. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 161.

90. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 128.

91. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 53.

92. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 43.

93. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 75.

94. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 138.

95. VCH Nottinghamshire, Volume 1, p. 163.

96. VCH Herefordshire, Volume1, pp. 142–3.

97. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 149

98. VCH Herefordshire, Volume 1, p. 153.

99. VCH A21: HAD to Trevor-Battye, 5th June 1899.

100. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 72414

101. VCH Archive, Q40, Miss M.K. Dale, to Miss E. Joan Gibbons, 23rd January 1950, Ralph Pugh to Miss Gibbons, 30th March 1950, 13th March 1952; Gibbons to Pugh, 25th June 1951, 18th March 1952; Susan Reynolds to Gibbons, 24th, 27th May 1954.

102. VCH Archive, Catalogue of MSS, A-L, p. 10.

103. The Natural History Curator at the British Museum told John Beckett that library collections (books and manuscripts) went to the British Library in 1973 (19th February 2010), and the Library and Information services at the Natural History Museum are not aware that they have it (22nd February 2010). Nor has it turned up in the Western Manuscripts in the British Library (25th March 2010).

104. Landscapes, 7: 2 (2006), 96, 100; Chandler, 64; Muir, Richard, The New Reading the Landscape (Exeter, 2000)

105. Tubbs, Colin, The New Forest: An Ecological History (Newton Abbott, 1968); Sheail, John, Historical Ecology: The Documentary Evidence (Abbotts Ripton, 1980); Peterken, George, Woodland Conservation and Management (London, 1981). See also Russell, Emily, People and Land through Time: Linking Ecology and History (New Haven and London, 1997).

106. Moreno, Diego, Dal documento al terreno. Storia e archeologia dei sistemi agro-silvo-pastorali. (Bologna, 1990); Cevasco, Roberta, Memoria Verde. Un nuovo spazio per la geografia (Reggio Emilia, 2008). See also Balzaretti, R., Pearce, M., and Watkins, C., eds. Ligurian Landscapes: Studies in Archaeology, Geography and History (London, 2004).

107. Hey, David and Rodwell, John, ‘Wombwell: The Landscape History of a South Yorkshire Coalfield Township’, Landscapes, 7:2 (2006), 2447.

108. Email from Dr Lisa Tommaso, Natural History Museum, 22nd February 2010.

109. Amato, Joseph, Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History (Berkeley, 2002). See also Beckett, John, Turner, Michael and Afton, Bethanie, ‘Agricultural Sustainability and Open-Field Farming in England, c.1650–1830’, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 1: 2 (2003), 124–40; Timothy Cooper, ‘British Environmental History’: www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory, 9th March 2010.

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