on 23 September 2008
William George Hoskins (1908-1992) was a pioneering figure in the field of English local history, and in 1965 was appointed as the first ever university professor in that discipline (at the University of Leicester). This book, first published in 1955, has become something of a classic of its kind.
I bought it in the 1970s Pelican edition when I came across it recently in a second-hand bookshop, largely for the purposes of comparison with Oliver Rackham's more recent work "The History of the Countryside". The two works cover slightly different ground. Hoskins (as his title indicates) limits himself to England, and does not touch on Wales, Scotland or Ireland; Rackham covers the whole of the British Isles, although in practice he deals with England in greater detail than the other three countries. Rackham (as his title indicates) confines himself to the countryside, whereas Hoskins also covers industrial and urban landscapes, and even in rural areas deals with villages and the built environment as well as woods and farmland. Their methodologies are also different. Rackham devotes a chapter to each different type of rural habitat- woodland, fields, heathland, moorland, marshes, etc, whereas Hoskins' book is written in chronological order from prehistoric times to the twentieth century.
A key moment for Professor Hoskins was what he calls the "English Settlement"- the coming of the Anglo-Saxon invaders in the fifth century AD, after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. Few features of the modern English landscape can, in his view, be attributed to the Roman or pre-Roman period. Each succeeding age, however, has left a mark which still survives. The Saxons' great contribution was the English village; most of the population in Romano-British times either lived in towns and cities or in isolated hamlets and farmsteads. A few new settlements were founded in the Middle Ages, chiefly in upland districts or those with poor soil, which were consequently the last to be settled, but outside the industrial areas most of the settlements in existence today were founded between the fifth and eleventh centuries and mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Like Dr Rackham, Professor Hoskins tends to concentrate on some parts of England more than others. In his case there is a particular emphasis on the East Midlands; Rutland may be the smallest county in England but more space is devoted to it in this book than to larger counties such as Cumberland, Hampshire or Norfolk. One reason for this emphasis may be that Hoskins (originally from Devon) lived and worked for a long time in Leicestershire, but another may be that it was this area, more than any other, which was affected by the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although he does not use those terms, Hoskins makes a distinction similar to the one Rackham was to make between "Ancient Countryside" and "Planned Countryside".
In the "peripheral areas" of England- the south-west peninsula, the Home Counties, eastern East Anglia, the Welsh Border counties and the upland North- the countryside had, broadly speaking, taken on its present appearance by the sixteenth century. These are the regions of small (often irregularly shaped) fields, winding lanes and small villages and hamlets, with isolated farms scattered among them. The rest of England, however, especially the East Midlands, was still dominated by the open-field tradition, and would remain so until the open fields were enclosed by Act of Parliament. This is the "chequer-board" countryside with larger, more regular fields, straighter roads and larger villages with few isolated farmsteads. Because these areas did not acquire their current appearance until around 1800, or in some cases even later, the processes which shaped them are better documented and therefore easier for the historian to study.
Hoskins also has some interesting points to make about the growth of towns and the built environment. He shows, for example, that traditional regional styles of building mostly developed during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a period when growing prosperity made it possible for the middle classes to rebuild their homes in local stone or brick; previously most houses, except those of the very rich, had in all parts of England been made of wattle-and-daub on a timber frame. The Enclosure Acts also had unexpected effects on urban landscapes as well as rural ones; Hoskins demonstrates this by comparing the growth of two East Midland cities during the Industrial Revolution. Nottingham was surrounded by unenclosed open fields over which numerous people possessed complicated grazing rights and which for many years made it virtually impossible to expand the city outwards; the result was overcrowding and some of the worst slums in England. At Leicester the surrounding fields had been enclosed before the growth of industry and it was easier to obtain land for building; consequently the city was more spacious and living conditions were better, even for working-class inhabitants.
For most of its length the book is not only very informative, but also a delight to read. In order to tell his story, Hoskins relies upon not only official documents but also literature and poetry; John Clare (another East Midlander) seems a particular favourite. At times his own prose style verges on the poetic itself. There is, nevertheless, a serious flaw in the book, which is why I have only given it four stars.
Hoskins was clearly a small-c conservative (which is not necessarily the same thing as a large-C Conservative) who tended to look back on the pre-industrial era as a lost Golden Age. He could see little good about the nineteenth century and nothing good about the twentieth. For him the Industrial Revolution achieved nothing other than the despoiling of once-beautiful landscapes and townscapes by dark satanic mills; he ignores the fact that by 1900, and certainly by 1955, most people enjoyed far higher standards of living than their ancestors had done in 1700 or 1800. In his final chapter Hoskins simply rails at the changes in the landscape wrought by the twentieth century without analysing the social causes of those changes or even saying in much detail what those changes are. He even bewails the large number of Air Force bases in Suffolk and Lincolnshire, even though only ten years before he wrote his book the nation had been very grateful for those bases and for the men who flew from them.
A book about something as subjective as landscape cannot simply be a record of objective scientific or historical fact, so I have no objection to personal opinions in a book of this nature. Opinion, however, cannot simply be a substitute for analysis.