Overview of my history project

Submitted by edpope on

Complete short article

My dad, who died when I was 19, back in 1967, had showed me the Pope family tree, mostly researched by his father. He let me pore freely over the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, from which I copied out lists of Egyptian pharaohs. And he sent me to St Neots' School, Eversley, Hants, where at the age of 10 I came top in a school of 8 to 13 year old boys in a history test sat by the whole school.  I've always liked history and it came naturally to me, but it has come and gone in different phases of my life.

Art, poetry, protest, philosophy, sex, romance, community and living in the wild took me more into the present and the future, but in more conservative eras like Thatcher's eighties I was drawn back to history and antiques. The books that most influenced me were WGHoskins' Making of the English Landscape and EPThompson's Making of the English Working Class, and I took part in Raphael Samuel's History Workshop Centre for Social History as an amateur in Oxford. Come the 90s and I flowered back into protest, communes, songwriting and wild living.

Around 2005 I came to realise that history research, which I had never entirely dropped, but had regarded as somewhat escapist, was an easy source of happiness compared to trying to find a happy love life. This realisation both improved my love life and taught me to be happy with just the history. Even my songwriting began to fade, though I also saw how history, story and song are all part of the bardic tradition I reckon to be part of.

Inspired by the micro-historical detail of Thompson and Samuel's work on individuals in community, I've long desired to bridge the gap between the popular world of family history  and the abstract tendency of academic social history. While I appreciate how fascinating it is to investigate your own ancestors, eventually the attraction palls unless you start to fill in the details of the real social network they lived in. Until I discovered the Godwin Diary website, I was working on the family of the artist John Raphael Smith and on various people and events tangential to their lives.

I was saddened by how little discovery the academic historians engaged in. Just as in present time you can't understand say, "relationships", or political change without getting involved in them yourself (while asking questions), so also useful historical understanding, which is of course only useful through its relevance to present  and future time, can only come about through a process of discovering and reconstructing the past. Regurgitating the work of other historians just produces vomit. And we now have computerised search facilities that have made that discovery easy.

Yet so little has been done. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography may seem a monumental work but to me it seems a mass of errors, omissions and "nothing is known"s. I don't see anyone else doing the sort of research work I am doing. And I am doing it for pure pleasure, no-one pays me. With information technology and open access information we could eventually reach the point where every individual in recorded history has an entry in the DNB.

The Godwin Diary provides an excellent grid from which to explore the time and place he lived in. But I really hope to discover others working in projects similar to mine, or else to inspire others to undertake them, whether in nearby or distant historical constellations. My tutorial blog is an attempt to outline all my research techniques. But I don't appreciate being told by academics how helpful my work is, as though the researcher were some humble technician assisting the elevated generalising historian. It is really the other way round. Anyone will begin to form general impressions once they have made enough discoveries. But you can't reach other people's conclusions for them