History of the Centre

The Centre (formerly the Department) has been home to many distinguished scholars, has attracted the support of noted benefactors, and has encouraged and stimulated many talented students. The combination of all these elements has created a very special and distinguished tradition.

Formation

The formation of the Department was approved in 1948 by F.L. Attenborough, the then Principal of the University College, at the recommendation of the then Professor of History, Jack Simmons. The new Department was largely for the benefit of the exceptionally gifted W.G. Hoskins, who is best known for his hugely influential and inspiring The Making of the English Landscape.

Attenborough, who was himself an editor of Anglo-Saxon texts, was also an excellent photographer, and his plates of churches, villages and landscapes illustrate many of Hoskins’s works. Hoskins went to take up a readership in Oxford in 1951, and then returned in 1965-8. He was replaced as Head of Department (and later Director of the Centre) successively by H.P.R. Finberg, Alan Everitt, Charles Phythian-Adams, Harold Fox, Christopher Dyer, Keith SnellPeter King and Richard Jones. In 2000 the Department became a Centre affiliated with the Department of Economic and Social History. Three years later the Economic and Social historians were merged into a School of Historical Studies. In 2016 the Centre became part of the School of History, Politics and International Relations.

Teaching

In its earliest phase the Department was mainly engaged in research, with some undergraduate teaching and supervision of postgraduate research students. Staff numbers in the Department expanded in the 1960s to six, but in the cuts of the 1980s fell back to three, and the Centre now (2019) has four academic members of staff, plus one postdoctoral fellow funded by the AHRC. The growth in staff in the 1960s was associated with the launch of a taught MA degree, which gave students a grounding in the subject which was in most cases an end in itself, but also provided initial training for those embarking on a PhD. At its height the MA attracted as many as 40 students in a single year, and was supported with government funding for a quota of students.

Location

From its inception the MA course has ensured that the Department/Centre was a busy place, with an enthusiastic and friendly atmosphere. The MA teaching, with its emphasis on small groups and field visits, is conducted informally. For almost four decades the Department was located on the main university campus, firstly in the Fielding Johnson building, and then on the top floor of the Attenborough Tower. In 1988 it moved into 5 Salisbury Road, now known as Marc Fitch House, in honour of the benefactor who gave the money to refurbish and convert the house. Marc Fitch also provided his family portraits, and his books (and those of Francis Steer) provided the nucleus of a library. A grant from Marc Fitch to the University has provided an annual income to keep the library up to date.

Friends of the Centre

The Friends of the Centre for English Local History was formed at the time of the move to Salisbury Road, and has given much valued moral and financial support, as well as organising social events, academic conferences and expeditions for the benefit of present and past students.

Local History

Although Hoskins was a great authority on the local history of Leicestershire, and his successors have all taken an interest in the county and its east midland neighbours, he was also a historian of Devon, and the staff and students of the Department and the Centre have always been engaged in the history of many localities. The great project undertaken by Joan Thirsk in her time as Research Fellow at Leicester was to define farming regions in the whole of England, and this was developed by Alan Everitt into the idea that the countryside was divided into pays, that is districts with distinctive landscapes, settlement patterns and societies. This has been subsequently modified by Charles Phythian-Adams with his concept of cultural regions. This engagement with explaining regional differences has been a theme of work at Leicester over six decades, and the concern to understand the interaction between society and landscape has been the characteristic which has allowed outsiders to talk about a ‘Leicester approach’.

Research

The academic work of the Leicester local historians is very varied, and work on place-names, poverty and welfare, vernacular architecture, popular culture, folklore, field systems, settlement patterns, religious denominations, churchyard memorials, regional novels, saints’ cults, the sense of belonging  and many other themes have been the subject of research at Leicester.

Research has been supported by grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (later Council), the Aurelius Trust, the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust, the Wellcome Trust and the Marc Fitch Fund, and various private benefactors. Grants from the William Gibbs Trust supported research into Somerset history in the 1990s, and generous gifts from the Duffield family in the present century have helped towards the fees and expenses of postgraduate students.

Publications

The research themes and achievements of the Department and Centre are reflected in the publications that have flowed from initiatives of its staff. These include four volumes of the Victoria County History of Leicestershire (1954-64), The Agrarian History of England and Wales, which was edited successively by H.P.R. Finberg and Joan Thirsk, and a series of volumes of the English Surname Survey. The Department / Centre’s own series, the Occasional Papers (1952-91), were succeeded by some individual books, and from 2006 the Explorations in Local History series which is published by the University of Hertfordshire Press. Two influential journals were launched from the Department, the Agricultural History Review and Rural History.

Reputation

The Department and Centre have enjoyed an international reputation which has led to many visitors coming as fellows and students from Australia, China, Japan, the United States, Venezuela and European countries. Staff have been recognised for their achievements through the award of two CBEs, and four of them have been elected as Fellows of the British Academy.