This website is about Local Local History: the building of the histories of extremely small areas, sometimes of only a few dozen streets, but all put into a much wider context.
Local History can be very rewarding. Both adults and children enjoy it because it is familiar and yet full of mystery and surprise. The local houses reveal themselves by their styles, materials, dates. New houses stand next to old, often in completely different materials. The reasons for the differences may tell a whole story about the development of the area, about changes in technology, about the absence or presence of cars at the time of building. Basements or no basements can reveal the nature of the local geology. Site size and whether the houses have large gardens, reflect the price of land when the house was built. These and a thousand other details allow the expert, in Asa Briggs’ phrase, ‘to read a house like a book’.
It all goes back to Leonardo da Vinci’s motto, Sapere Vedere, which is Tuscan dog Latin. As Denis Healey says in his "My Secert Planet" it is an untranslatable phrase which implies both ‘learning how to see’ and ‘getting knowledge from seeing’. Most people do not notice much because they have seen things like it before and take it all for granted. This is how it is. What is there worth looking at?
In 'A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology’ by Jim Enndersby, the author is talking about recent genetic work on zebra fish, a very important section of modern biological research. Zebra fish are very small and they are transparent. This means that the development of nerves and other tiny details of growth can be watched through a microscope as they develop over a few days. The splitting of cells, the creation of nerves and other minute details can be studied for hours. The author describes Darwin watching the tendrils of his climbing plants for hours as they twisted in one direction, despite all his attempts to make them twist in the opposite. Why? What made them twist in one direction and not the other? The author then says:-
Leonardo once again, almost word for word. Sempere Verdere. Perhaps leaning when young to look closely at local houses, and learning to understand what you see, may lead to a PhD in Biology or some other apparently unconnected field.
And what is there to about local houses? Behind every house there are hundreds of stories. Why does the house design change suddenly in a street? Did two small builders lease adjoining plots and build their houses in different styles. Did one speculative builder go bankrupt before he sold his few houses and the other survive? But no! There is twenty years between the styles. The 1887 Slump came between the two. In that gap, when unemployment was everywhere, there was no building. By the time building re-stared, the Sweetness and Light Style had come into fashion and so Maida Vale contrasts with Paddington. Different brick, different design, mansion- blocks, not villas: architecturally they are different worlds.
Further along is a solitary 1960s building. That was a lone German bomber getting rid of his last bombs before hurrying back to Germany. We dart backwards and forwards in history as we walk along a street. Here is a row of houses built in 1893. What forced the builder to cram five tall houses into the space of four? They were speculative houses. Who were his potential customers? Where were the first Victorian occupiers coming from and why? What was happening elsewhere to make them move? Why years later, in the 1960s, was there a sudden rush of four storey blocks of flats with flat roofs and tall chimneys? Why have modern houses no chimneys? When did this change start? What was the design before and what caused the change? Here, in 2007, is a builder building a house with cavity walls. Why? When did this practice start? As soon as one starts to look closely and learns to look with interest, a myriad questions arise. These questions provoke more questions and it can become a life-long quest to understand.
Teaching through Local Local History
A child’s footprint in a particular area is extremely small. It is the area around his/her home, the local shops, the way to the park, and the way to the local school. Much of the rest is unexplored territory, foreign and in another world. A school’s footprint is the few streets immediately around it and perhaps the walk to the swimming bath. A teacher’s footprint may be no more than the walk from the local bus stop, or even across the car park.
The teacher may have come from miles away and know nothing of London. The children will know the houses but no history: the teacher may never have heard of the Fire of London Building Regulations, or the different phases of London’s building expansion over the past couple of centuries. It can be the blind leading the blind. Both teachers and pupils need the information at the click of a mouse and the information must be precise, detailed enough to satisfy adults and pupils, accurate and about the house you are looking at, not some typical house in an unknown street.
One might expect the information about the locality to be printed as Local History booklets, but not in the detail required and, even if it were available, nobody could afford to print it. How many copies could you sell? The only solution seems to be to encourage each school to compile its own Local History of its own immediate site in the context of its own borough or district and put it on a cheap computer disk. The cheap disk puts a completely new face on teaching through Local History. Pupils could have their own copies and, next day, learn while walking and thinking to school. A 20 pence disk could change the face of Local History.