We are excited to share our interview with Kate Tiller where she discusses her new publication English Local History, which has been expanded and brought up to date. Dr Tiller takes us through her work and what’s next for her as her book is published this month.
Kate Tiller, you are Reader Emerita in English Local History at Oxford University, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society and a founding fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, your career is extremely interesting and fascinating. Can you tell us how you found your calling for English Local History?
That rather formal list reflects one side of what has been a very fortunate life in history, one where I have been able to combine personal enthusiasm and professional career. So ‘calling’ is a good word for my relationship with history. Local history grabbed my attention early. Growing up in south Lancashire in the late 1950s and early 1960s history really was all around and I soon became aware that what I saw on walks and bike rides, bus and train journeys was both very local and very ‘big’ history. When we visited my grandparents we travelled on the Liverpool to Manchester line to Rainhill, famous for the locomotive trials of 1829, all seminal ground for globally important industrial, transport and urban revolutions. My grandfather had worked in the family metalworking firm, small-scale specialists making files. The family were stalwarts of the local Congregational church. These family and community identities intersected with wider histories. I realised more of this dynamic in history between the particular and the general through my father’s library of books, the local grammar school and then BA and PhD studies in history at Birmingham University. This put me on the personal and professional road to local history.
Why this particular new book?
After Birmingham I moved to Oxford and a university lectureship based in the Department for Continuing Education (OUDCE). My task, as well as my own research and teaching, was developing new courses in local history, opening up historical studies to a wide range of students, many coming to or returning to study later in life. There was no specific text available, so I wrote one. Since then local history has grown, developed and changed and this successor book sets out to capture that. It introduces how local historians think about and interpret different periods, the shared questions they pose, and the contrasting communities and conclusions they uncover. Those discoveries are fascinating at a local level. They also have a great contribution to make to the understanding of ‘big’ history. Local history often leads people to want to find out more for themselves. English local history is extraordinarily rich in available evidence. This ranges across a tremendous time span and comes in many forms, from documents to images, landscape, buildings, artefacts and personal testimony. This evidence, where to find it and how to use it, provides the second strand of the book. The opportunities to contribute fresh findings and new perspectives are one of the great attractions of the subject.
English Local History covers everything from the Saxon Centuries up until the 20th century, how did you tackle such extensive research?
I had my own research to draw on with themes like rural change, religion and community, and the impact of the First World War, and studies of varied localities. But for a book like this it is important to bring together and synthesise the work and ideas of the wide range of colleagues who have been involved in local historical studies. So you will find reflected the mass of work and pooling of information and ideas that is now happening on the emergence and development of settlement, landscape, institutions and regional character in the Saxon period. This shows how modern local history is interdisciplinary, drawing on early documents, archaeology, landscape and map analysis and name studies and using archival and online evidence alongside fieldwork techniques. The scope of the book is deliberately wide because local history is too. That is true whether you are interested in a particular period, or in realising how the more recent character of a particular place has been influenced by longer term factors and earlier roots. Although more remote in time and concepts, accessible material and guidance, examples from local history.
There are many people with English heritage all across the world, and it is becoming more and more popular to explore one’s family tree. Do you think this book would also be of interest to overseas readers?
I expect it will. I am always struck that one of the most popular and long-running courses at OUDCE is the Advanced Diploma in Local History, delivered online, and that it attracts students from far beyond the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and Ireland to name just some. English local history is inherently interesting historically and often links to travels and, as you say, shared cultural roots and family connections. There is also interest in how we study it from a range of academic colleagues in other countries, which is why most recently I found myself in Portugal last October to visit the New University of Lisbon and the University of Evora to talk about local history, ‘Trends, achievements and challenges: the English perspective’.
What is next for you?
One project picks up a particular theme and period, and the other homes in on the history of a particular place. Communities of Dissent is all about chapels during their Victorian and Edwardian heyday and their wide-ranging role in the family and local lives of English and Welsh communities. In a book and a conference in 2021 I will be writing and editing findings from members of a network of local researchers organised by the Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS) and two OUDCE DPhil graduates. The second project involves a holistic overview of the history of one rural parish, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire, revisiting an account I first published in 2000 and which can now be updated and reissued in the light further history, archaeology, buildings studies, oral history recordings and much more. Fresh thinking is in order. Local history never stops!
This guest post was written by Kate Tiller, Reader Emerita in English Local History at Oxford University, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society and a founding fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford. In 2019, she was appointed OBE for services to local history.