Local historians write about the past. Well, not always. In Suffolk, some 250 of us record the present. We belong to the Suffolk Local History Council Recorders’ Scheme. Our aim is to ensure that the ‘present’ is adequately recorded at parish level, to look out for items of interest that might otherwise be lost forever, and to record the daily activities of a village or town.
Recorders are rare creatures
The scheme has its roots in an initiative of the Suffolk Rural Community Council in the early 1950s to mark the Festival of Britain with exhibitions of parish histories. The Suffolk Local History Council (SLHC) was formed and the Recorders’ Scheme developed. Although there are many local history societies around the country, I can find only one other Recorders’ Scheme, in our neighbouring county of Essex.
We are all volunteers, some of us not even historians, but all understand the importance of preserving the present for the future. Under the auspices of SLHC, recorders come together once a year to exchange views, listen to short talks, inspect and sometimes buy other recorders’ books or pamphlets. Many recorders are inspired by each other to conduct surveys within their parish, to photograph village houses, or to keep a photographic record of the changing landscape.
Preserving the present for the future
Recorders undertake their work in various ways. Some simply collect the parish and church councils’ minutes and the village newsletters. Others are meticulous and visit shops, post offices, schools, pubs and cafés to obtain flyers, posters and general news to add to their archive. They are asked by SLHC to write an annual report, and they retain everything they collect while they are in post. Should they resign the post at any time, their collection is sent to Suffolk Archives for retention. Thus the information is made available to all researchers and the general public.
Everything can be of interest
Naturally, in the course of their work, recorders also look to the past with interest and many take up their pens and laptops to write about a subject which has captured their imagination. A local WWII airfield, round tower churches, an interesting or notorious village character, windmills and pub signs are among the subjects of Suffolk books written by recorders. And some (myself included) diligently record the present whilst researching the past and producing books on the history of a particular village. Thus a volunteer becomes immersed in the whole panoply of village or town life: the past, the present and the potential future.
From my perspective, recording the life of a small village entirely surrounded by agricultural estates, the scale of the changes in rural life becomes clear.
The past was tough
The village and the landscape that now surrounds it would not have existed without those who, in the past, toiled on the land in sometimes appalling conditions. With the assistance of oxen or horse power, every task was performed by hand. Walking behind one or a pair of shire horses with a primitive plough, or in earlier days pulling the plough himself, it would take a man a day to plough an acre. The ploughman needed to keep the horses in a straight line, not an easy task in poor weather, and to manipulate the plough at the same time. Women and children would sometimes be involved in lifting vegetable crops, bending and collecting the potatoes, turnips or beet into sacks.
Before the harvesting of sugar beet, the green tops needed to be sliced off. This entailed bending low with a hand sickle, slicing off the tops for hour after hour, with a sack tied over the shoulders to keep out the wind and rain. The cultivation of cereal crops, wheat, barley and oats was equally onerous, ploughing, sowing, harvesting and stacking through the course of the year. It is no wonder that many men working on the land would wear a very broad leather belt round their waist which supported their spines against the constant bending. Nor is it surprising that the end of harvest was celebrated so enthusiastically with beer and cider.
At the end of a very long day, the men would return to their tied cottages, often two small rooms on the ground floor and two above. No bathroom, of course, and no lavatory. Water would come from a well in the garden (which might be shared with neighbours) and a small shed at the far end of the garden would house a seat made from a broad plank with a hole cut in the middle and a deep hole beneath.
Lighting in the cottage would be candles or oil lamps if you could afford the cost of oil. If you were lucky, the floor of the cottage would be laid with bricks. In 1841, the census discloses a local shepherd’s cottage of two tiny ground floor rooms and one above housing the man and wife, a lodger and eight children. This is not an unusual example.
The present: all change
Although the estates still exist in some form, the villages are, of course, markedly different in the 21st century. Gone are almost all the families who had lived in the village for generations, driven into the towns by the mechanisation of agriculture over the last century. Their cottages have been renovated and sold to ‘incomers’ who can afford the ever-rising purchase prices.
This is not a new story; it is replicated in the majority of rural villages in the country. New blood is necessary and ‘incomers’ are to be welcomed when it is evident that they love the village. Many form clubs and societies to ensure the development and continuation of a vibrant life within the community. Whoever the inhabitants of a village were and are, whether agricultural workers in the 17th century or residents in the 21st century who have to commute and work away, those who understand the importance of protecting the village from slipping into dilapidation and decay are to be admired and respected.
A noteworthy milestone for recorders
There are some 500 parishes in Suffolk. There is a long way to go to fill the posts of recorders in the whole county. Recently, however, we celebrated having more than half the recorders Suffolk needs. Anyone interested in becoming a recorder is immediately seized upon, encouraged and supported. You have been warned.