THE Celebrating Hampshire’s Historians project is uncovering some of the different approaches to writing history.

We all know that while geography is about maps, history is about chaps. But precisely what history is about, other than chaps, is a constant debate amongst historians, with debates on the boundaries of the subject and different schools of thought about methods and approaches to history, forming and arguing with each other. And they all produce books and publish periodicals.

When we started work on Celebrating Hampshire’s Historians, the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society’s contribution to the Institute for Historical Research’s Centenary celebrations, we decided to cast the net widely, and include those who modern historians would call antiquarians. Perhaps even more daringly, we decided to include even archaeologists. As the completed profiles grew it became clear that we were looking at many different views of history and, in particular, the evolution of what we now call local history. Here are two strands that are emerging as important topics: the first is approaches to an overall county history and the other is looking at small local areas, such as a single parish.

Attempts to write a comprehensive history of the county of Hampshire began as early as the middle of the 18th century. Sir Thomas Gatehouse sought subscriptions to his History of Hampshire/ Survey of the County of Southampton in the 1770s. Despite his claims for his research, the little that survives is not impressive. He was only saved from bankruptcy by his son in law, after he had to auction his library.

Richard Warner, a curate of Boldre, began collecting material for a history, and in 1795, after he had left the county for a living in Bath, a five-volume Collections for the History of Hampshire was published in London which Warner called “bare faced piracy”. His notes fell in to the hands of George Rose MP who commissioned another Hampshire clergyman, William Bingley, a curate at Christchurch, to complete the work. Bingley assembled a massive 6,000 pages of notes and a 144-item archive. Only one volume was published, The Topographical History of the Hundred of Bosmere, of 212 pages, before he appears to have lost interest when he moved to a chapel in London. The archives are now in the Hampshire Record Office.

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1899, work began on another attempt on a county history, this time as part of the national effort to create the Victoria County History of England. Hampshire was the first county acting as a testbed for how to collect, write and arrange a county history. An assumption was that parish histories would be written by local clergy, using information provided by researchers working in the Public Record Office, and guided by an editor. This failed. Initially the Hampshire entries were written by Rev G. H. Gotley, and then after what appears to have been an acrimonious falling out by other members of the editorial team. This made the work of the researchers, most of whom were young lady graduates, even more important. One of these was Audrey Locke, the daughter of the porter of Winchester College, who won the first Charlotte Yonge Scholarship from Winchester High School for Girls, and attended Somerville College, Oxford. This was well before Oxford granted degrees to women, unlike some other universities, but she was awarded a 2.1 in Modern History. While she worked on a number of counties at the Record Office, her main contribution was Hampshire, where she also carried out field work on her bicycle.

Now, a further hundred years later, Hampshire’s big red books are being revised. This time it is being carried out by a team of volunteers and the initial thrust is on Basingstoke and surrounding parishes, an area that has changed significantly since 1900.

In parallel with people working on sweeping county-wide histories, there began studies of individual villages. One of the earliest of these was by Gilbert White. While he is most widely known as a nature writer, the full title of his book, published in 1789, is The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the County of Southampton. While the antiquities section is very much what modern historians would call “antiquarian”, it is still an important early contribution to the village and parish histories of Hampshire.

A hundred years after Gilbert White there was an outstanding contribution to parish histories by Dr Joseph Stevens. His work as a GP in St Mary Bourne and as a medical officer for the Whitchurch Poor Law Union Board of Guardians provided some of the input to his meticulous A parochial history of St Mary Bourne, Hants. This account of the history and archaeology of the parish was initially published in 1888 with several updates.

A further history of St Mary Bourne, Life in a Hampshire Village, appeared in 1945. This was written by a daughter of a physician, Kathleen Innes (nee Royds). She lived her teenage years in St Mary Bourne before going to Cambridge in the very early years of the 20th century. Like Oxford, Cambridge did not then award women degrees. However, she received a degree from the more enlightened London University. During WWI she worked with refugees in Salonika, before joining the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Between the wars she married George Ines, continued her work with WILPF and wrote and broadcast on peace and suffrage issues. During WWII she returned to Hampshire and studied the Bourne valley villages.

Another writer who developed a local focus was Isabel Sanderson. From school in Alresford, she went on to read for a science degree at Reading University in the 1920s and progressed to be the first woman to be awarded a PhD at Reading. After a career in teaching, she retired to Abbotstone and devoted the next 20 years to the history of her immediate surroundings, including Itchen Stoke and Alresford. She wrote monographs, and contributed regularly to the HFC Proceedings, and Newsletter. Her considerable collection of working papers is in the Hampshire Record Office.

Hampshire Chronicle: Audrey Locke, from Sarsen Press

In drawing the project boundaries one decision was to include memoirs. While not strictly histories, they frequently provide valuable information to later historians. A good example is A Hamlet in Old Hampshire, written by Anna Merritt nee Lea and published in 1902. Merritt was born to an affluent Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1844. The family relocated to England where after a short marriage to Henry Merritt, (who died aged only 55) she built a reputation as a painter. In 1890 she moved to Hurstbourne Tarrant, which was the subject of her book.

Although published correspondence was not a criterion for inclusion, it can also provide valuable information, and in one case the existence of a collection of letters is making its way into the entry for Jane Austen. She was included partly because her novels are a wonderful depiction of the upper middle and upper classes at the end of the 18th century, but also for her hugely enjoyable History of England, written, largely tongue in cheek, when she was 15.

Hampshire Chronicle: Anna Merritt: Hurstbourne Tarrant history

It is interesting that the two approaches, county-wide and local are converging, since the VCH is, after all, largely a collection of parish histories. Later updates on the Celebrating Hampshire’s Historians project will look at other long-term trends – such as Hampshire’s important role in the development of archaeology and the work on transcribing and publishing mediaeval records.

Author’s note: To forestall an avalanche of comments I checked the original provenance of “Geography is about maps…” and found that E. C Bentley originally wrote “Biography is about chaps.” But I have always known it was history that is about chaps so I stand by the quote.

Hampshire Chronicle: Isabel Sanderson: schooled in Alresford

More about the Hampshire Historians mentioned is at

New VCH of Hampshire is at and there is an exhibition to celebrate 120 years at the Hampshire Record Office, until May 12.