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The Making of England

W G Hoskins, founder of the Department of English Local History

The Making of England

Half a century ago, a publication changed people’s views about landscape and history. (Article first appeared in LE1 autumn 2006)

W G Hoskins’ book, The Making of the English Landscape, had a dramatic effect, not just on historians but on the general public, who realised they could find clues to history in what lay around them in gardens, fields, along roads and in cities. It was the first time anyone had thought of landscape as a historical record.

The 50th anniversary of the publication was recently celebrated at the University of Leicester’s Centre for English Local History. The event, sponsored by English Heritage, celebrated the discipline of landscape history which Hoskins inspired, and looked at some of the themes from his book – rural settlements, towns and buildings, and added some new ones such as perceptions, ritual and spiritual dimensions and scientific analysis of the environment.

To claim that Hoskins inspired people was no exaggeration. The Making of the English Landscape covered the whole of England from prehistory to the 20th century, and spawned radio talks and two television series, One Man’s England. In a recent feature in BBC History Professor Christopher Dyer, Head of English Local History at Leicester, illustrated how innovativeHoskins’ ideas were and how they encouraged people to see their world in a different way.

That Leicester should commemorate Hoskins’ anniversary was no accident. Originally an economist, in 1948 Hoskins founded the Centre of English Local History at the University, where he was working at the time. Although he was a Devon man by birth and retained an interest in his home county, he has also become strongly associated with Leicestershire and Wigston Magna, where he lived.

The departmental seeds he sowed in 1948 have taken root and the University’s Centre for English Local History is now renowned throughout the country for its landscape history. “What is so distinctive is that we place people on the map,” Professor Dyer said. “It is social history leading to landscape history. “We recognise that different landscapes have different social complexions. For instance, Nonconformists were more prevalent in woodland areas than in champion (open field) landscapes, because woodland societies were less settled and so the people who lived there were more independent.

“Woodlands are also where you get fuel and coal for industry, bark for tanning and so on. They are where you find farmers who keep cattle and who have spare time for other activities. So places like Birmingham, Manchester and the Black Country not only had the right sort of materials but also the right sort of people to develop their industries. Industry is rare in champion areas, one exception, interestingly, being Leicestershire which saw the development of framework knitting.”

What has now become known as the ‘Leicester School of Local History’ identified and peopled the different types of landscapes. Among the major contributions Leicester has made is a study of village origins, notably through the Whittlewood project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

If Hoskins was inspirational and one of the great characters of his age, he has not always been proved right, nor was he always easy to work with. While some of the premises in The Making of the English Landscape are merely controversial – for instance his description of the 20th century as ‘an age of barbaric vandalism’ – his views on landscape pre-500AD are now known to be incorrect. Hoskins saw the development of today’s landscape as the result of Anglo Saxon invasions, dismissing prehistory and the Romans as having contributed virtually nothing at all.

“We now know that this was wrong,” Professor Dyer said. “The legacy from prehistory and Roman times is very important. Contrary to Hoskins’ opinion, archaeological finds have proved that areas like East Leicester – far from being heavily wooded, as he believed – were densely settled right from Roman times. There was a lot of cultivated land which never dropped out of cultivation.”

Even at the time of the compilation of the 11th century Domesday Book, the amount of woodland in the country was quite small. There were then, as today, Professor Dyer says, “very few parts of England where you could get lost in the woods.”

The Making of the English Landscape was written at Oxford, where Hoskins worked between two periods of employment at Leicester. Even so, it has a Leicester connection. Frederick Attenborough, the Principal of what was then the University College, Leicester, was a keen photographer and in his spare time took many photographs of the local landscape which Hoskins used in his book. Many of them are now housed in the Library store.

It was Frederick Attenborough who encouraged Hoskins to set up the ‘Department’ of English Local History in 1948. Hoskins was only at the head of his new department for a few years, but he has been followed by an illustrious line of academics, including HPR Finberg, AM Everitt, Joan Thirsk, Charles Phythian-Adams and currently Christopher Dyer.

The study of English Local History is the study of ordinary people in their local landscape: our history is there for everyone to see. When we look at the ‘typically English’ farmland of small hedged fields, we are looking at the results of the Enclosure Acts passed between 1760 and 1830. When we see a bend in the road we may be looking at all that is left of a ridge and furrow farming system, originally ploughed in the 9th century and worked into late medieval times.

Looking to the future of English Local History at Leicester, Professor Dyer believes that the highly acclaimed Leicester School of Landscape must remain embedded at its core. He also argues that the Centre’s approach should be multi-period if it is to continue integrating landscape into historical interpretation. “It is a characteristic of landscape history that you can’t study it in small periods,” he said. “Hoskins thought you could start in 500AD. Now we know you have to start with 5000BC.”


Article first appeared LE1 autumn 2006 which can be found here

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