What is Local History?

Circumstances have made me into a Local Historian over the last decade – I research issues that have happened within 30 miles of where I live in Stafford. My last book, Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire, (2019) dealt with the Queen when imprisoned in Tutbury Castle and Chartley Manor, and I am pursuing research into the Devereux family at Chartley while writing about Charles II’s escape after the battle of Worcester (1651), which happened largely on the Gifford estate in South Staffordshire, which is where the famous Royal Oak was.

Yet the people I research are national and usually international figures – with the exception of Lettice Knollys, chatelaine of Chatley Manor when married to Walter Devereux, and the people of the Forest of Brewood saviours of King Charles, who never left England. Most of the folk I research are national or international even if the stage they acted on was local – so what is local history and what national history? Is there a distinction? With this in mind I wrote the article below which was published in The Local Historian, journal of the British Association for Local History in October 2020.

William Evans in his recent article (1) makes some important points about local history. He makes a valid distinction between two aspects of the discipline – the study of what makes a locality unique even though it will have features in common with other parts of a wider totality, and secondly those localities where distinctive features have emerged to show differences from neighbouring areas even when ‘their pasts may have had common features’. This is not however exhaustive. It is also possible to see local history having other important features.

One might be lessons from a relatively commonplace area where something memorable has happened. I fear Much Wenlock would be obscure without its claim to be the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games, but when the local games adopted the term ‘Olympic’ this put the village on the map. Another  is the local area where a development took place which exemplified what was happening on a wider canvas – the agricultural revolution or the growth of Nonconformity or the suffrage movement for example – and where a development of wider importance was shaped by what happened in that locality.

Peterloo in 1819 is a good example of the latter. Suffrage demonstrations took place across England in the post Napoleonic era, and the March of the Blanketeers started from St Peter’s square in Manchester in 1816. But it was the attack by the yeomanry and mass casualties which shook public opinion, made St Peter’s square famous – and led to the founding of the liberal Manchester Guardian.

The massacre has often been seen as a deliberate national government attempt to suppress the reform movement, but it is more likely that this was a genuinely local disaster. Large working class demonstrations were seen in Birmingham, Leeds and London, but only Manchester had the fatal combination of a sizeable, highly disciplined and peaceable reform movement, met an undisciplined and visciously class conscious volunteer cavalry deployed to aid the regular troops and ordered into action by local magistrates. Peterloo is local history – and remembered as such in the North West – but with a national impact.

Peterloo also shows how ‘local’ can include county wide and regional themes. Peterloo happened in Manchester but drew demonstrators from the mill towns around the city. Samuel Bamford, the weaver who wrote the best eyewitness account of the massacre, came from Middleton in Lancashire. The 2018 film Peterloo was uniquely premiered by the British Film Institute in Manchester. The director, Mike Leigh stressed that as he was born in Salford he regarded Peterloo as part of his heritage (2). Studying Peterloo involves studying characters who would never be known outside their region were it not for the attack.

Clearly it is rare that local history commands this level of attention. In his classic work The Making of the English Working Class, E P Thompson touches on the Battle of Blean Wood (3) in Kent in 1838, in which farm labourers fought soldiers. An officer and over a dozen rebels were killed, with a higher death toll than Peterloo. It has largely been forgotten because it had no national consequences. The Pentridge uprising of June 1817 is well remembered locally as the signs on the way into the village show, but has little national resonance because it was not a massacre and was located in a provincial area on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border (4).

Local history flourishes because of local appeal, but to survive the discipline needs a wider appeal. At its most influential local history strikes a chord outside the locality. This is often because the local historian can throw light on a theme with a more than local focus. In researching my study of Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire (5) my aim was to show how a woman pre-eminently an international figure, Queen in two countries, had her fortunes shaped by two places in Staffordshire. In her first year of explicit captivity in the County, 1569, she was moved to Tutbury castle three times because of national political developments, with the castle playing an increasingly important role. But in the final period, when she was put back into the fortress at Tutbury for the year of 1585, and then moved to the now lost Manor of Chartley, local factors took on a major role which are still not fully understood.

Two local issues continue to resist research conducted from a national perspective. The first is whatI have called the ‘Brewer’s Sting’, the manner in which Queen Mary was entrapped by the use of a local Brewer to smuggle her letters in and out of Chartley to the French embassy in London. It has long been known how this was done, and that she trusted the use of a hollowed out bung in the beer barrel as a foolproof method because she believed it was invented by her agents. In fact it had been devised by the agents of Walsingham, Elizabeth 1’s Secretary of State, for the purpose of intercepting and reading her correspondence.

One of the reasons Queen Mary failed to look this gift horse in the mouth was the very fact that brewing was commonplace – vital to meet the need for sterilized water – and for those houses which could not brew their own, a small cottage industry existed supplying beer by the barrel load. Burton-on-Trent, then as now ideal for brewing pale ale due to the high quality of the water supply, was in a position to supply the beer. Perhaps no other town in England was so well placed to do so. Mary asked no questions of so familiar a system. She should have done. The Brewer may have been Catholic, but he was certainly a mercenary who was open to offers.

In compiling the letters of Amyas Paulet, Mary’s jailer, three centuries later the Jesuit priest Father John Morris noted that Paulet had installed the Brewer in the empty house in Burton of Lord Paget, a Catholic who had fled abroad when the Throckmorton plot was discovered. Morris comments that this, the first mention of the Brewer, ‘seems to show that the scheme of her (Mary’s TF) betrayal was already sketched out’ (6). The letter to Elizabeth’s Treasurer, Lord Burghley stating the Brewer was brewing in Paget’s house was dated 28th May 1585, and if the plot was formulated that early then historians have to revise their accounts of what happened. All accounts agree the plan depended on Walsingham’s chief spy, Gilbert Gifford. He was on the continent till early December 1585.

The second major problem in understanding how the locality shaped events derives logically from the mysterious role of the man from Chillington in south Staffordshire, the home of the Giffard family (as the name is now spelt) continuously from 1178 to the present. His role in the Babington plot which in 1587 brought Queen Mary to the block is so complex that in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Gilbert Gifford, Alison Plowden skirts round it. Yet some historians think Gifford was the agent provocateur who set up the Brewer’s Sting – and Gifford’s role in setting up the ‘Brewer’s Sting’ centred as much on London as Chartley. He had to be credible with the French Embassy who held the letters that were blocked from going to Chartley. Plowden deals with this byfollowing the account currently accepted which certainly does not start as early as May 1585.

Antonia Fraser established the current account of Giffords role in her 1969 book by arguing Gifford returned to meet Walsingham ‘and it was at this point that the details of their secret compact were arranged’ (7), this being early December 1585. She does not therefore accept the view of Morris that the plan might have been devised before then. There is no dispute that on 16th January 1586 Gifford took the first letters to Chartley, a remarkably quick turnround given Gifford had only been in England for around six weeks. But he was almost tailor made to operate the Brewer’s Sting, being Catholic, a Staffordshire man and above all a Giffard.

For the Catholic gentry family of Giffards, which saved Charles II in 1651 via the famous Oak Tree at their estate at Boscobel in Shropshire, Gilbert is the black sheep of the family. He possessed the ability to act plausibly as courier for Mary’s letters in part because his was the leading recusant family in Staffordshire. His family had fallen out with the regime when Elizabeth 1 visited their home at Chillington in south Staffordshire in 1575 and discovered they were recusants.. But while Gifford was a recusant and indeed a deacon of the Catholic Church, the mysteries surrounding him have so far proved impenetrable.

Queen Mary trusted him as a fellow catholic. Gifford was a compelling and intriguing manipulator who was credible to Mary because the Giffords were local, linked by family ties with the Throckmortons, with a prominent role in the Catholic community of Staffordshire enlivened by the arrival of Catholic missionaries in the 1580s. Yet he threw himself wholeheartedly – and secretly – in working for Walsingham, the most proactive and uncompromising Puritan Protestant in the Elizabethan government. Why he did this cannot be easily understood and unlike the Brewer, Gifford was not purely a mercenary.

Gifford appears on the surface, and notably to Mary’s agent in Paris, Thomas Morgan, to be wholly reliable. There is currently no adequate explanation of why this recusant from South Staffordshire turned into a double agent. It is however clear that Mary was misled into trusting Gifford as a courierbecause of his impeccable record – on the surface – as a Catholic with strong local roots.

Mary Queen of Scots assumed that the two local men, rooted in their communities, both Catholics allegedly, would serve her cause. They were instead key agents of her downfall. We still do not understand how the scheme that brought her down was set up one hundred and forty five years after Father Morris asked if the scheme was already in place before Gilbert Gifford had begun his journey home. The answers will have to be found in local, national and international history. It was happenstance that the exiled queen was placed in Staffordshire. But once she arrived there, she fell into a sophisticated plan devised to trap her.

The details remain obscure. But there is no doubt that the local factors were critically important and the key figure, Gilbert Gifford, could visit relations ten miles from Chartley and had been a trainee priest in Catholic seminaries on the continent. The story of how an international figure, and enduring legend, met her fate depended on the local history of people and places in East and South Staffordshire – but there is a European dimension. It is a mistake to make too sharp a distinction between local, national or international factors: if most of the time developments fall into one or other camps, sometimes the most challenging research involves both.


  • William Evans, The end of local history and the last local historian,Local Historian, BALH April 2020, 152-153
  • Guardian, London, 16th August 2018.
  • E P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Victor Gollancz 1963, this edition Penguin 2013 880-881
  • E P Thompson op cit 723-726. The insurgency of Folley Hall which followed is covered in these pages.
  • Trevor Fisher, Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire, Youcaxton 2019
  • John Morris, The Letter Books of Sir Amias Poulet, 1874 p31
  • Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969, this edition

Phoenix Press 2003 599.

6th April 2021

Shugborough – the 1847 Bottleneck

Many years ago when I was studying O Level Social and Economic History, the chapter in my textbook on the building of the railways talked about a row with an aristocrat. The line was to be built through the land of powerful people, which meant an Act of Parliament had to be passed to give the company permission. The local Lord objected to his land being used. The trains would go less than a mile from his front door and he did not want to have to look at the trains or cope with smoke and noise. As he could make trouble in the House of Lords when the Act was discussed, the company agreed to build a cutting going into the tunnel through the hill near the house, so the trains could not be seen. It made the project more expensive, but the company building the line did not want an argument. The story stuck in my mind.

Much later when I was teaching in a school in Stafford, I took a party to Shugborough, the mansion near the school which dates from the eighteenth century. It was once owned by the Earls of Lichfield. As I walked around the estate on a winters day with the leaves fallen from the trees I looked across the Capability Brown style landscape with not a blade of grass out of place and suddenly realized there was a railway line less than a mile away. The modern electric cables popped over the edge of a cutting where once only smoke from a passing steam locomotive would have been seen.

This was the very place in my textbook. The railway is the West Coast Main Line (WCML) between London Euston and Glasgow via Stafford. The line went through a hill which has monuments on top and a massive tunnel cut through to take the railway. The tunnel entrances can only be seen close up and the southern end has the cutting hiding the line. When I looked closely, the entrances have mass-ive mock castle ornaments making the tunnel part of the Gothic revival. It is no surprise they have listed building status.

The Bottleneck

Built in 1847 the tunnel has never been rebuilt or expanded. Wikipedia now claims the line takes 40 per cent of all freight traffic in the UK – not a reliable source of information, but the West Coast mainline is obviously of vital importance. And apart from being electrified, the tunnels have never been changed. Calls for the line to be expanded have been around for a long time – and according to Wiki have succeeded. There are now four tracks south of Stafford going to the tunnel, to replace the two tracks of 1847. The old pattern was one going north, one going south.

But it is not true the job was completed.

South of Stafford station the four tracks have two slow, two fast, one of each north and the same going south. But just before they go into the Shugborough tunnel, the tracks reduce to only 3 and then only two tracks go through the tunnel. It is the same pattern as in 1847.. If the Earl of Lichfield of 1847 could come back now he would recognize the arrangement as the one he fixed with the company when Victoria was Queen.

One of the key issues underpinning this site is the idea that History is not mainly about the past. It is about how the part shapes the present, how we got here and where we are going. The Shugborough tunnel is just such a lesson. It is clearly not up to the job needed in the C21st, it is a bottleneck. In the disastrous development that is the HS2 high speed train, I can’t recall any discussion of the bottleneck in why we need a new line from London to Wigan and Leeds.

HS2 is mainly a blank cheque for wasting money, but one valid argument used to justify HS2 is that the West Coast Main Line needs more capacity. This is true, we have more traffic than in 1847, and the problems at Shugborough are not difficult to understand even though there is not a lot of traffic on the line during the day.. But the solution to a bottleneck at Shugborough, given that the tunnel is a listed building and can’t be touched, is to build another tunnel. Another two lines next to the existing tunnel would add 100% more capacity. Job done. It would cost an arm and a leg, but far less than the full HS2 project. Not the full solution, but a step in the right direction. And a nod to the Earl of Lichfield of 1847 who forced the company to build a cutting that was not actually needed showing we no longer waste money on vanity projects.

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