A few months ago I recounted how Network Rail, wanting historical information on the construction of a railway line in Kent in order to repair flood damage, had obtained this information from archives and claimed it as a discovery, when it is fairly well documented in secondary sources. Still, this is far better than failing properly to check the historical facts, as has now happened on another part of the network.
The Shepperton branch has long had a propensity to flood after heavy rain, immediately west of its first station at Fulwell. The branch is currently closed for two weeks while the drainage is improved. Network Rail and South West Trains have issued a leaflet informing passengers of these works and giving details of the replacement bus service. It also gives some historical information to show how the line came to be so vulnerable to flooding. “The Shepperton line,” it says, “was first built for freight trains in 1864 but was upgraded to allow pasenger services to use the line in 1901 and then electrified in 1916.”
Now this is rather obviously wrong. No one with the slightest feeling for architecture who looks at the station buildings on the branch such as Fulwell (pictured) could believe they were built as late as 1901, and if there was no passenger service until then why build them before? There was in fact a passenger service from the beginning in 1864, and Nigel Wikeley and John Middleton in Railway Stations: Southern Region (1971) say that these buildings, with their distinctive round-headed windows, are “believed original”.
NR and SWT have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. As Alan A Jackson records in London’s Local Railways (1978) the branch was built with its main line junction facing Strawberry Hill, and trains ran to Waterloo via Richmond. In 1894, largely for the use of race traffic to Kempton Park (and some freight), a chord was constructed from east of Fulwell to the main line facing Teddington. What did happen in 1901 is that occasional ordinary passenger trains began to use this chord to reach Waterloo via Kingston; only with electrification in 1916 did most of the service begin to run by this route, as it still does. All this is easy to discover. How did the garbled version get right through to the press, unchecked in either sense of the word?
I have now embarked on the London Loop. Last weekend I walked the section between Jubilee Park and West Wickham, in the Kentish suburbs, and crossed Keston Common. On a noticeboard there was a programme of monthly winter walks organised by the Friends of Keston Common. These alternated between two kinds, “Enjoyable Walk” and “History Walk”. Surely this doesn’t mean that the History Walks…?
Sir Alec Clegg, then Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire, giving the presidential address to the Association of Chief Education Officers in 1965, asked whether localities going comprehensive should retain direct grant schools when their grammar schools disappeared. He said:
If we believe that it is a good thing to get rid of selection for the 20 per cent who go to the grammar schools but to retain selection for the top 2 per cent or 3 per cent of the ability range and we think this should be done on principle, we should say so, stating the principle. I must say that personally I should deplore it if we did this because it might induce a vicious kind of cramming in the junior schools, because I dislike intensely the exaltation of the intellect above other great manifestations of the human spirit which seems to me a twentieth century disease and because I don’t care for the Führerprinzip.
I do not want to comment directly on this. What interests me is that, whether or not the intellect has been over-valued in the twentieth century and since, there are surely two ways of putting an intellect through its paces and any over-valuation may well come from emphasising one at the expense of the other. We can undertake a slow march through a body of knowledge that simply has to be learned or we can have, to borrow a title of Whitehead’s, “adventures of ideas”; and the latter is likely to appeal to people left cold by the former. The novelist Joyce Stranger once complained that although we all want to encourage children to acquire a habit of reading, too often reading is presented to them as “a chore to be fostered as a sort of daily do your stint”. Reading is not alone in this: academic work has all too often been given the same treatment.
On the other hand Conrad Russell, in a radio tribute to C V Wedgwood, once said that he became a historian because he enjoyed exploring and “her books taught me that the past was one of the things which I could explore.” Although in many languages “history” and “story” have the same word, I believe that exploration of the past is a better root metaphor for the subject. For one thing it subsumes the story aspect: explore the past thoroughly and you will have a sense of the story, you will have covered the body of knowledge. And the exploration is enjoyable in a way that mere coverage is not.
Now archives are par excellence material for exploration. They encode the events of the past in a different way from the narrative history derived from them – I intend some time to examine the nature of the difference – and we explore their often disjointed ways in order to construct a whole. It is our search for integration.
It is of course quite unoriginal to say that we can learn much of the history of a town or city by looking at its buildings, signs, street furniture and the like. But I have had an illustration of this from the buildings of Leeds that is so striking that it is worth some discussion.
The Headrow, opened in 1930 and replacing the old Upper and Lower Headrows, was promoted by the then leader of the city council, Sir Charles Wilson, as the main street of the city – and no doubt as his own monument. Lettice Cooper, in her 1950 portrait of the West Riding in the Robert Hale “County Books” series, says that the Headrow is “much more like a street in a great city than any other that I know of in a West Riding town.” If this is true I do not know that it is saying much. The buildings lining the Headrow are of a subdued baroque style that was then still all too common. Baroque was popular for some decades from the late nineteenth century, and this did produce one or two masterpieces, for example the city halls of Glasgow and Belfast. But as the twentieth century got into its stride it began to lose the exuberance that it needed if it was to produce great work; and yet it was not uncompromisingly severe in the manner of the modernism which was replacing it by 1930. The result is half-hearted ornamentation, seen above in the balustrades and the flaming urns worked into the Portland stone above the parapets, in otherwise plain frontages with an emphasis on the verticals. What was supposed to be the city’s focal point is caught for ever at this decadent moment.
Turn south into Briggate and you cross a fault line. The effect is like a sharp tilt of the earth towards the sun. For from here on you encounter the best of the city’s Victoriana, where high-spirited ornamentation runs free, unashamed in its eccentricity.
The terracotta of Frank Matcham’s County Arcade (right) probably takes this closest to its logical conclusion. Look also at the view along Albion Place and King Edward Street to see just what a long sweeping perspective ought to be:
And by the time we reach Boar Lane the effect is as intense as it gets:
Whatever the grand ideas for what the Headrow was to be, it is abruptly clear as we walk and gaze that the heart and epitome of Leeds remained elsewhere and had been given to us by the vitality and high spirits of an earlier time.
The recent controversy over history teaching sometimes appeared to turn on whether the syllabus should consist of a chronological narrative of events or of a set of techniques for finding and organising historical data.
I see no point in arguing that narrative should or should not enter into history teaching: whatever anyone intends it is bound to be woven into it. No research technique is learned without being practised; and no research technique is practised without being used to gather material on some historical event which constitutes a narrative. The real question is whether pupils are to be presented with an officially approved narrative which they are expected to learn or whether they are to explore something of the nature of historical narrative. I suggest that historical narrative has two characteristics which make the latter course the only honest one.
First, there are many narratives. Any historical event can be seen from multiple points of view, all of which need to be appreciated. And there are the histories not only of each nation as a whole but of every locality in it, of international relations and of a multitude of human pursuits. All of these are worth studying, and it is not clear that any of them is more fundamental or essential knowledge than any other. Which for example takes precedence, the problems of national government through the ages or the history of the neighbourhood we live in?
Second, narratives are fissile. A narrative as presented by a historian has been assembled from multiple and often fragmentary sources which we can return to. Anyone studying history at any level should be introduced to these sources, and made aware that a narrative constructed from them could take more than one form. Preferably they should attempt to construct a narrative from the sources themselves. Here archives play a proud part in history teaching. A few years ago I was in a party visiting the Lancashire Record Office. Our guide asked how many of us had when at school visited a museum. Everybody had. And how many had visited a library? Again, everybody. And how many an archive? Nobody. But the Lancashire Record Office now regularly hosts school parties who handle the documents and surely learn how a narrative which superficially is a smooth progression of events breaks down into its component parts. This is unquestionably an improvement in the teaching and learning of history since the days when schoolchildren never went near archives, and the educational work of archives and archivists is something we should fiercely defend.
There is another point. Any syllabus in any subject must be negotiated, in the sense that one negotiates a hairpin bend: each pupil must make sense of it and make a pattern from it that is their own. This is something that cannot but happen, human consciousness being what it is, and it is beyond the control of any syllabus designer. The use of archives in history teaching helps to ensure that the study of history is not a frontal advance in a single direction and that it is therefore better suited to the individual mind. From the many and discrete sources we learn to make sense and to judge. This is one way of learning to think. And who will deny that as among the purposes of education?
On this blog I shall be posting my thoughts on archives, their nature, capabilities and implications, and some of the things I find in them. It is My Archives in that it is archives as I see them and that it is an archive of my writings on the subject. There may be some bias towards London, which is where most of my historical research is done, and where I have friends amongst archivists, and especially towards Middlesex in the twentieth century, which is my specialism. But I hope to range widely beyond this, in particular to the north of England, where I spend a good deal of my time, and to questions of historiography as they relate to archives. I hope you will enjoy reading it.