The University Library houses an exceptional local history collection (arguably the fullest outside Oxford, Cambridge, and London) covering all counties of England and Wales, and includes not only recent publications but also volumes dating back to the sixteenth century. The holding, together with the Marc Fitch Fund Library, makes Leicester unique among provincial English Universities for the comprehensiveness of its holdings in local history.
The Joan Thirsk Gift: The Agrarian History of England and Wales
Joan Thirsk is a very distinguished historian of the early modern society and economy, and especially of agriculture. After a degree in modern languages, and period at Bletchley Park in World War II, she worked on the history of the crown lands, and then on the staff at Leicester she researched and wrote a book on peasant farming in Lincolnshire. Her greatest achievement as an agrarian historian was to explore and define the regional differences that everyone thought important but which few could define. At Leicester in the 1950s a scheme for an Agrarian History of England and Wales was developed, and was driven forward by H.P.R. Finberg, who had succeeded Hoskins as the head of the Department of English Local History. Joan Thirsk devised a strategy for writing volume 4 of the series, devoted to the period 1500-1640, with such success that it was published in 1967, well ahead of the other volumes. She realised the importance of reflecting in the new volume the variety of the English regions, and a modest amount of funding allowed researchers to be employed to gather documentation from all over England. In particular the probate inventories were systematically calendared and summarised, which provided the best evidence for crops, animals and equipment, and therefore allowed the different farming systems to be identified.
Joan Thirsk went on to a post in Oxford, edited vol. 5 of the Agrarian History, and researched new subject such as economic projects (including woad cultivation), alternative agriculture (which deals with new products such as tobacco and llamas), and then early modern food. This year she decided to make a deposit in her old university of the data collected for the Agrarian History volumes 4 and 5, and the Special Collections in the David Wilson Library received 5 boxes of material. These are not the discarded papers of an old project - they provide researchers with the opportunity to make use of a carefully assembled and meticulously transcribed set of records. They were gathered by such well qualified researchers as L.M. Midgley, following a template which enabled comparisons to be made across the country. They contain information which could be used for new investigations, for example into the layout of houses and the types of farm building, of which only limited use was made in the completed Agarian History volumes.
It is a privilege for Leicester that Joan Thirsk thought of our library as the natural home for this material, and we expect that future researchers will benefit from our custodianship of this deposit of unique materials.