Friday, 19 February 2010

Lies damned lies and local history.

Today in the shop is very local history orientated, so this is just a few thoughts in between the enquires.

Because of John Lewis’s History and Antiquities as well Ecclesiastical as Civil of the Isle of Tenet, in Kent, the first history of Thanet that was originally published in 1723 and subsequently in the much expanded edition of 1736, Thanet has a much larger range of history books than many other places of its size.

Once someone starts something like this others tend to follow and particularly here in Ramsgate we have a rich and fairly well documented history.

Lewis’s history was groundbreaking in its time because as well as looking at the history of the local noblemen and the ecclesiastical history, it also looked at what ordinary people were doing in considerable detail, most particularly the agriculture and fishing.

To quote from his preface to the second edition: “Some, it seems have thought I descended too low to tale Notice of Husbandry, and Dung-mixen…..” Lewis’s capitals and if he wasn’t shouting I feel there can be little doubt his voice was raised.

As Lewis is obviously the main source for the Thanet part of Hasted’s history of Kent the main history of the county first published between 1778 and 1799, I will stick my neck out here and go further actually and say that Hasted is like reading Lewis brought slightly up to date, I can only assume that the way Lewis wrote was very influential on the way Hasted wrote and of course Hasted being one of the great county histories is influential in the way subsequent English history was written, dung et al.

Now virtually every local history book has some amount of guesswork or conjecture involved and often this guesswork is perpetuated through subsequent publications and sometimes it is proven to be untrue.

As an example of what I mean Lewis’s wrong guess about Ramsgate was that he wrote that the town is based around a manmade cut through the cliffs to the sea, in fact the three small valleys that run roughly where King, Queen and High Streets are now, for the most part are a natural phenomenon.

I say for the most part so much chalk has been removed from Ramsgate as to make it quite different to how it was naturally, in terms of topographical shape.

The print above showing Ramsgate in 1791 (click on it to enlarge) gives you some idea of what I mean.

Anyway Lewis’s mistake was perpetuated through subsequent histories like Hasted and this highlights a problem with history.

Now the other day I used some pictures that have recently appeared on the web to illustrate a blog post see now unbeknown to me or to the person that published them some of these pictures have the wrong captions.

I received some anonymous comments about this see and to begin with didn’t take much notice, I suppose like most other people who read the blogs don’t give much credence to anonymous comment.

Anyway in this case the comments were correct and I corrected the captions on my blog, local history is like this as just about all of the people involved have limited knowledge and limited resources and one great advantage for me is that if one puts things on the internet people are pretty quick to point out any errors.

I wouldn’t want people to think that this is just something that happens with publication to the web or minor and older local history publications that weren’t checked by our most prominent local historians.
Take the map of Thanet in the Ramsgate Millennium book dated 1872 a most cursory glance at it reveals it to a much earlier map almost definitely before 1820 that someone has drawn the parish boundaries and railways on.

This map also appears in Charles Busson’s book about Ramsgate also dated 1872, so what went wrong?

The answer I am afraid to say is that Charles Cotton one of our more eminent local historians used it for his book on the history of St Laurence and drew the Railways and boundaries on top of the much older map.

Now of the problem here is that virtually every local history publication and website has some element of error in it and of course if we disregarded it all we would have pretty much nothing.

I am very lucky in the way that I publish local history books means that I can adjust them at any time, of course I wouldn’t dream of amending the errors in Lewis or Cotton, but it is always as well to remember that there are likely to errors in many of our history books and that once the book was published there was nothing that the author could do about it.
Oh and I nearly forgot today’s pictures see

A few thing sof note, a new shop in King Street “Bibs and Cribs.

Some shots of the Channel Dash memorial.
Ramsgate town centre was as you see, absolutely teeming with shoppers today.


  1. Michael

    It's one thing to listen to others and learn from mistakes - and after 10 years of publications I soon found out that it's not all as it seems. But I never disregarded the criticisms made nor criticised the people who made them.

    Hopefully I'm adding to the richness of our Local History and its good that material is being produced for others to see, but as for mistakes please take on board what people have to say and not make of them. Michael I know you are always open to suggestions regarding local history and as you say you redily correct instances you find to be wrong. So to those who brought this to my attention keep going don't be put off it's good that someone is keeping a watchful eye.

    Terry Wheeler
    The Ramsgate Historical Society

  2. Read this to find out who wants to change history and why know one in Kent is asking any questions,_quangos_and_the_cabinet_office

  3. In history – particularly local history - there has always been a battle between those who think they know and those who know that they know, and the incestuous repetition and cross-citing which gives mutual justification to local myths and fabrication has gone on for a long time.

    In his Preface to the second edition of “The History and Antiquities as well Ecclesiastical as Civil of the Isle of Tenet, in Kent” John Lewis began begging the indulgence of those more skilled in the “Antiquities of Great Britain” - then went on the offensive, attacking more than one of the established authorities and singling out one in particular:

    “Since the following pages were almost all wrought off at the Press, I had put into my Hands Mr. Baxter’s curious Glossarium Antiquitatum Britannicarum: In perusing which I find I have been so unhappy, as to differ from a learned author in two or three Particulars.

    1. Mr. Baxter guesses, that (Thanet) was called by the Britains infera Insula. But… why should the Britains call this Island the Low island, when it is well known to be high Land, and that the Cliffs at the North Foreland are so visible to our Neighbours on the other side of the channel…?
    2. Mr. Baxter derives the Name of the River Wantsum from Wand-samman, a collection of Water. Whether this be more agreeable…than my Derivation of it from the Anglo Saxon wana-sum, wanting some Water, let the Reader judge who has seen the Place.
    3. Mr. Baxter is of the Opinion, that Mr. Camden has rightly placed Ad lapidem Tituli at Stonhar, as he writes it… But this Guesswork seems to me intirely owing to that learned Man’s having never been at Stonor. Had he ever viewed the place, as those great Antiquaries Mr Somner and Bishop Stillingfleet…had done, he would, I believe, have been of the mind, that the Lapis Tituli of the Romans could not be here…”

    Lewis certainly drummed home the need for familiarity with the physical setting of a piece of ‘history’ to help assess whether fabled events were more, or less, likely to have taken place at a particular spot. He compared documentary and place-name evidence with what he found ‘on the ground’. The choice of Stonor (or Estanore, or Eastanscore, thus Scorastan) as the location for an 11th century battle was dismissed after a site visit by Lewis as:

    “very far fetched; since besides the Improbability, or rather Impossibility of two Armies drawing up to fight in so small and strait a Nook of Land: Alured of Beverly places Scearstan [thus Scorastan]…in Huiccia or Worcestershire, &c. The passage Mr. Archdeacon quotes, only recites that Turkill landed at the port of Sandwich. So says Roger de Hovenden…”

    So here we see an 18th century attempt at linking the records left in the field with those left by the pen. For Lewis the starting point was always the written record, which he tried to fit (or not!) with the physical remnants of history. So a trip to Broad Street and/or Church Hill before committing the caption or counter-caption to ‘virtual’ print is a good example of the value of true local knowledge.

  4. Another example (if we were able to see it) of the value of primary versus secondary evidence is to be found in Ramsgate Maritime Museum. Michael has reproduced a commercial version of Jukes' 18th century view of Ramsgate Harbour. In the museum this can be seen adjacent to Jukes' original watercolour which makes for an interesting 'spot the differences' competition. True - not much of the topography is all that different but by the time it went to print a lot of the detail had been adapted to suit the expected audience.

  5. MAC

    Very well put - a trip to the location indeed would have shown the inaccurate caption!

    The 1835 drawings I have of Ramsgate confirm the location as being High Street seen from Hardres Street - after the George and Dragon Public House was removed to further up George St.(Place)

    If the people who point out these mistakes are criticised/made fun of then historians of the future will be forever going round in circles as nothing would be challenged. I personally have a much greater knowledge of Ramsgate through listening to others, and doing some leg work. As for the association of Charles Busson with the photographs, in C.B.'s book (The Book of Ramsgate) caption on page 73, (that photograph) 'The site of the Palace Theatre'.

    Terry Wheeler
    The Ramsgate Historical Society

  6. It seems that this person has taken comments personally and removed the pictures stating its 'due to (myself) The Ramsgate Historical Society getting involved. Michael kindly added amendments to his blog after I gave him the information some days ago.

    Perhaps it would have been better if all involved had not commented then most wouldn't have known any different - Church Hill, Hardres Street!

    Terry Wheeler
    The Ramsgate Historical Society

  7. MAC I don’t believe Lewis was particularly popular among his fellow historians.

    Of his book “The History and Antiquities as well Ecclesiastical as Civil of the Isle of Tenet, in Kent”, Thomas Alien, Vicar of Murston, sometime Fellow of University College, writes to his friend Thomas Heame, the antiquary, of Edmund Hall that "it has only an indifferent character and is a poor performance." Heame refers to "that vile, silly Pimp, that vile wretch, Lewis the Pyrate, the same poor writer that drew up and published Wicliffs Life. He is a Wiclivist, Calvinist, Puritan & Republican, and hath wrote and published divers other things of no manner of Esteem among honest learned men. Lewis has the character of a rogue and a villain."

    Criticism of our historians has a fairly robust history itself, this is 100 years later; “Irelands history of Kent is a miserable performance, with pretensions to being a county history……….he does not appear to have visited the county…….”

    This could be viewed as a warning to those testing the water of local history in Kent.

    Terry, a difficult one as, yes we have no pictures, not exactly the most desirable outcome.

  8. Quite so Michael - Lewis was unusually restrained and polite in his criticism of Baxter: "I find I have been so unhappy, as to differ from a learned author in two or three Particulars." There is nothing so spiteful as rival historian's critiques of opposing works as the comments on Lewis reveal!

    I find Lewis refreshingly straightforward and modern in his approach. As you point out, his inclusion of the commonplace would not have pleased his contemporary antiquarians - but for us today it is a remarkable piece of foresight, for which we owe him thanks.

  9. Gentlemen, I see my photos are still causing comment. Putting that to one side I’m interested in the debate about the site of The Palace Theatre. Not being a historian, I’ve gained my knowledge of Ramsgate through living here for more than 60 years and listening to what others have told me. I’ve always been lead to believe that the Palace was opposite Hardres Street as shown in Charles Busson’s other photo on page 72 of his book. Was this not the Palace building, and is this not the same place as the photo on page 73 of Charles’s book?

    As a matter of interest I’ve scanned images of the area from my Collard & Hurst map of 1822 and my Ordnance Survey map set of 1872 (scale 1:500). In 1822 the George & Dragon was on the corner of George Place and High Street, and in 1872 it was firmly established on the corner of George Street and Cavendish Street. Interestingly, in 1872 the area on the corner of George Street and High Street was clear of buildings. The maps can be seen via the index page on my blog at:
    Perhaps I can persuade Michael to host them on his site where they can be viewed in greater detail than Picasa allows!

    For anyone who is interested I’ve re-published my photo collection after my altercation with Terry, but please bear with me as it takes time to work through them and enter titles.


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