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The past lies at your feet

The streets around your school can be ideal sources for local history studies, says AD Harvey.

Local history is part of the national curriculum, but local studies librarians in charge of local history collections and municipal archives in a number of London boroughs say that, though often called on for help by primary school teachers, they are rarely approached by history teachers in secondary schools.

It is true that about a third of A-level students preparing "Personal Studies" or "Individual Studies" opt for projects in local history: but a few years ago, according to one LEA adviser, the proportion was more like 60 per cent.

Some of the local history projects that A-level students are tackling, though narrow in geographical focus, can be approached only through national archives or through publications that formerly circulated throughout the country. At the Public Record Office at Kew you often see sixth-formers in quest of documents relating to local history. In some cases the localness of the topic is largely adventitious: prisoner of war camps, for example, have to be located somewhere, but they in no sense cater for purely local needs or grow out of the previous social history of their neighbourhood, and the personnel to staff them and even the labour and material required to construct them would probably have been brought from some distance.

A more fundamental problem is that, though the PRO has vast quantities of documentation of primarily local reference (relating, for example, to railways, canals, local government issues, litigation) it is not always in a form that is easy to come to grips with. An inexperienced teenager might well be able to discover, after only two minutes' advice from the assistants at the research enquiries desk at the PRO, what the schools inspectors thought of the Convent of Notre Dame High School for Girls in Wigan in 1912 (ED 1093289), or how many bicycles passed heading north in Wimbourne Road, Bournemouth, on an average August day in 1938 (MT 4424), or how much damage was caused by German bombs at Breedon-on-the-Hill on the night of June 24-25, 1942 (HO 192171), but even an accomplished post-doctoral researcher might have problems putting such information into a meaningful context.

Most secondary school history teachers have little or no familiarity with archive sources, and even experienced researchers are constantly astonished at how differently yesterday's bureaucrats organised their paperwork. Urging a sixth-former to make a day-trip to Kew might be as friendly and helpful as recommending a back flip from the top diving board when the pool has been drained for cleaning.

A lot of worthwhile original historical research can be done without using any documentary sources at all. Whereas diplomatic history, for example, can hardly be said to exist separate from the written word, contemporary books and papers have little to tell us about the history of ladies' underwear or children's toys before 1850: much less than dusty survivals in the show cases of small-town museums.

With regard to local history, the physical wreckage of the past is thickly strewn throughout our land. It is no thicker in London than anywhere else. Particular items of wreckage unearthed or continuously visible in city centres may be more physically impressive than what youmight dig up on a grassy hillside, but they are not necessarily older or more historically illuminating. Terraced housing built in 1840 might be as worthy a historical phenomenon as a railway terminus of the same vintage. Grave markers from the 1930s in a suburban cemetery are just as interesting as the monuments in Bath Abbey: if you are interested in Art Deco or in post-Christian Symbolism, considerably more interesting.

Any number of topics in local history which are researchable on the spot in most British towns have almost never been systematically studied or written up by professional historians, and there are, effectively, no useful documentary sources. They include advertisements or business signs painted directly on the walls of buildings (some surviving examples dating at least from the 1880s); street bollards (pre-1820 examples still in situ are by no means rare); manhole or coal-hole covers (some examples still in their original location are datable to the 1870s. Coal-hole covers are especially interesting as they often bear the manufacturer's address, which in London is rarely more than a mile from the coal-hole).

Topics that can be studied only or primarily by looking - and thinking - and looking again have one essential advantage over other A-level project topics: nobody else knows anything about them. This does not mean you can make it all up: a suspicious teacher can check out a lamp-post on the other side of town as easily as they can a book in the public library (more easily: sixth-formers cannot take street furniture home on loan and then lose it).

The value of topics that nobody else knows about is that they offer one of the most exciting things in scholarly research, the sense of being a pioneer, of being a sole proprietor: the sense of having discovered answers to questions nobody else has even thought of asking, the sense of having discovered what was always there but nobody previously had noticed.

This kind of excitement is not an uncovenanted and unnecessary bonus: it is the key to scholarship. Research should enhance researchers' self-confidence, give them the nerve to ask larger and deeper questions, give them the commitment and the pride to take extra pains, make extra efforts with regard to accuracy and presentation to do justice to what has been discovered. This is what A-level students should be obtaining from their projects. Confusion and discouragement are the lot of each and every one of us in life, but there is no need to teach them at school: young people might find themselves better able to handle inevitable confusions if they are pointed towards projects that invite them to practise giving their best energies and attention.

A D Harvey is a former history lecturer and author


* Outside a railway station - walk in the opposite direction from the newest, smartest buildings. The most neglected district of town, with the best-preserved relics of the 19th century, is frequently behind the railway station.

* At a cemetery - the oldest and largest tombs are usually located around the chapel and alongside the drive between the chapel and the main gates.

* In the inner suburbs - inspection hatches for street lighting and electricity supply installed in the late 19th century are often on the pavement at street junctions.

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