AT ONE level, local history is what it says on the tin. In other ways, it is an intriguingly complex activity that keeps thousands of people busy in Hampshire – as in any other county – working on puzzles that swing from detective work to philosophical debate.

Most people get drawn into local history because they want to know more about where they live – their house, their family, the surrounding countryside. After they have finished with the parish registers and the census returns family historians may turn to the places where their ancestors dwelt. Calling in experts to work out the structure of a building – and perhaps taking timber cores to date it – helps to understand how the local community lived. Hampshire Houses by Edward Roberts shows what can be discovered.

Landscape raises other fascinating questions. Farms often have a story that stretches back centuries. Prominent landmarks and tracks, and even trees, may be found in charters written more than a thousand years ago. Land ownership often reflects great changes in the country – the Reformation, the Civil War, the growth of the City of London.

The basic aim of any historian is to find out “what happened”, which is often much harder than it seems. Different sources may give different answers. Memoirs are almost all written by the ruling classes, who often remember their forebears as “friends of the poor”. And care also needs to be taken with the views of extreme radicals, such as the Botley farmer William Cobbett and the Andover grammar school alumnus Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt.

The lives of ordinary people are sometimes recorded in some detail, albeit unintentionally. They may have been “removed” from one parish to another under the poor laws, in which case their troubled lives will be described. Other records include the Assizes and Quarter Sessions (court cases), Electoral Revision Courts (rights to votes), Military Service Tribunals (appeal against conscription) – and many others.

Old documents are, of course, the bedrock of local history, but there are other important sources – photographs, paintings, buildings and objects. It sometimes turns into a fun chase around the countryside in search of clues. Memorial inscriptions and graveyards speak of the dead, and buildings may also have messages. Like the time I found the initials of Dr Newton Ogle, Dean of Winchester, on a drainpipe of his family seat in Northumberland, where his family originated.

Most places have a basic history that is like any other. There is the “big house”, the church, the nonconformist chapel (now probably a private residence) and, of course, local administration, from work of the vestry and overseers of the poor and the highways to the parish council created in 1894. Since nearly every parish demonstrates similar stories, it is reasonable to ask why “reinvent the wheel” everywhere? And there are two very obvious answers.

First, an account of anything at the national level is usually harder to grasp, and less attractive, than something that “happened down the road” and involved people whose lives can be documented. And secondly, there were (and are) very considerable local variations in the way that national laws and events affected different localities.

During the Reformation, for example, tolerance of “the old faith” varied enormously in the county. Tichborne even has a separate Catholic aisle. And there is much local colour in the lives of clergy challenged by Cromwellians, like the story told by John Spaul of the Rev. Robert Clarke, rector of Andover, whose battle with parliament ended when he broke a leg jumping a ditch! Local justice varied considerably, with some JPs doling out hardline judgements and others showing more empathy.

Differences in the way that history played out in small places inevitably depended on the characters involved, as graphically demonstrated in the new VCH “short” for Steventon. In the late 17th century it had a scandalous lord of the manor, Sir Richard Pexall, who ran a sort of stud farm with servants, and he the stallion. A century later and gentility had returned, with a rector who had a daughter who became a rather famous novelist.

Local history gets even more interesting when it moves beyond “what happened”, especially when it “asks why”. Why did the rioters of Andover in 1830 trash the works of agricultural manufacturers Taskers in the Anna Valley, even after local farmers had agreed to increase their wages? Why, on the other hand, did those at Avington in the Itchen Valley support the local landowner, as told by David Taylor in his meticulously researched Life and Times of the Reverend Robert Wright?

So, local history may start locally, just chasing the story, but can lead to other places, with questions that require broader research and analysis. And it offers something to everyone, whether it’s getting into the minds of people, interpreting old maps, or peering into the lives of the great. For those who get hooked, there are local history groups, courses at university, research for a PhD, and papers published in national journals.

New members are welcomed by all local history societies and for the county as a whole there is the Hampshire Field Club ( For more on the New VCH and Hampshire history, visit:



Local history research at its best, by David Taylor.

A story of temperance and the People’s Refreshment House Association, Grayshott.