1955 – The Making of the English Landscape published
Throughout his time at what was then University College Leicester in the 1930s, WG Hoskins studied the villages around Leicester, both topographically – by walking and cycling the lanes – and historically, by ploughing through boxes of long-ignored parish documents. As new information was revealed to him and new ideas were suggested, he would present his findings to the adult education classes in history and archaeology which he taught in the evenings at Vaughan College – a protozoic example of the University’s distinctive ‘synergy of teaching and research’.
Ironically, Hoskins was not at that stage employed as a historian but was actually Assistant Lecturer in Economics in the Department of Geography and Commerce. During the war he was sent to London as a Civil Service statistician where, separated from the pure research of countryside landscape and dust-covered file boxes, he was able to consider the work he had done at Leicester and conceived a radically new way to piece together the evidence he had amassed.
‘History’ as an academic subject was seen as the grand story of kings and countries, wars and laws. The population of England at any time were viewed as horizontal strata: peasants, merchants, nobles, servants, priests. ‘Local history’ was little more than a hobby, the personal chronicles of notable families. Hoskins’ great insight was the realisation that populations could be categorised by location, a sequence of vertical divisions which grouped together whole communities – from peers of the realm to Piers Plowman - and linked them to the town, village or estate where they lived and worked.
By considering how economic, agricultural and industrial developments contributed to (and derived from) the population of a place, the ‘Leicester Approach’ revolutionised both academic and public understanding of the history of England. When Hoskins returned to Leicester in 1946 the country’s first Department of English Local History was created around him. Finally able to devote himself full-time to this new academic discipline, Hoskins continued the research which led, in 1955, to his seminal work The Making of the English Landscape.
In 2013, the University of Leicester’s Centre for English Local History continues to apply the ‘Leicester Approach’ to local history, not just in Leicestershire but throughout the UK, while also teaching the MA in English Local History which Hoskins set up in the 1960s. The Making of the English Landscape was republished in May 2013 and remains as powerful, relevant and fascinating as ever.