The Oxfordshire Record Society 1919-2009

A talk given at the 2009 AGM to mark the Society’s 90th anniversary

Reverend Professor William Whyte, St John’s College, Oxford, former General Editor of ORS

On 24 January 1919, the Oxford Chronicle carried a report on the first meeting of a new society. Squeezed in between articles on the Bishop of Oxford’s pointed enquiry ‘WILL GERMANY REPENT?’ and Hugh Walpole’s views on the Russian Revolution, there came an account of the inaugural meeting of the Oxfordshire Record Society. Two days earlier, with the historian Ernest Barker in the chair, a gathering of the great and the good and the simply antiquarian had met in New College Library to create a body which would yield an output ‘… so varied that all classes would get something of value and of use. There would be the generally intelligent reader, the technical, historical, and economic student, the teacher of history and geography in schools, including the elementary schools’.

This was certainly optimistic – especially as the committee elected to supervise the ORS reflected a far less diverse constituency. In addition to Ernest Barker (a fellow of New College), there was the Honorary Secretary, F. N. Davis (the Rector of Crowell), and the Treasurer, James Rose (a magistrate and Diocesan Registrar). As this suggests, the academic, the clerical, and the legal professions dominated: also on the committee were four other vicars; three Oxford dons; and another JP. Their interests were aptly embodied in the Society’s first publication: a transcript of the records produced by the commissioners on the seizure of church goods in 1552; a project that brought together the legal and the clerical, and which was carried out by Rose Graham, a member of the committee and a fellow of Somerville. Nonetheless, there were already 160 members – and the society is, of course, still going today.

It was in 1918 that the Oxford Archaeological Society first published a pamphlet bemoaning the fact that ‘Hitherto there has been no organised effort to render accessible to the economic historian, the archaeologist, the historian of the parish and the manor, the topographer, the genealogist, and others, the abundant material relating to Oxfordshire which exists in the great national collections in London, and in University, College, and other libraries’.

For 10/6d yearly, and an entrance fee of 5 shillings, it was argued, all this could be rectified. With a couple of hundred members, a couple of hundred pages could be produced each year. Yet if the immediate origins of the ORS lie in the First World War, then the inspiration for it was somewhat older. The start of the twentieth century had seen an efflorescence of record societies: Canterbury and York in 1904; Lincoln in 1910; Bedfordshire in 1912. The British Record Society had been founded as long ago as 1889. Oxfordshire was far from the first.

The impulse for this interest in local records was threefold. In the first place, it grew out of the well-documented rise in interest in local history experienced in the nineteenth century – a movement that had, of course, led to the establishment of the Oxford Historical Society in 1884. Secondly, the turn of the century had created a new demand for historical publications. The consolidation of the Grammar School system in 1902 and the establishment of new universities like Birmingham and Bristol – chartered in 1900 and 1909 respectively – all demanded new materials for students (and their teachers) to study. Thirdly, and just as importantly, the ORS was founded in an atmosphere of historiographical innovation: the product of historians’ interest in new sorts of history. The twentieth century witnessed a turn towards social and economic as well as political and constitutional history – and several of the Society’s founders were in the vanguard of this move. Ernest Barker, Rose Graham, and another member of the committee, the economic historian Elizabeth Levett, all worked in this area and it is clear that the ORS was funded to cater for these interests as much as anything else.

Enthusiasm, and the presumption of an interested audience, was naturally not enough to get the enterprise going. For the Society to flourish, it needed members and it needed publications. It was agreed at the very first meeting of the ORS Council that ‘complete volumes rather than small portions in serial form should be aimed at’, but this of course meant that the editors were effectively producing whole books – and books take time to write. J. R. H. Weaver’s Medieval Oxford Wills was first promised in 1931, and continued to be ‘forthcoming’ for the next quarter of a century, finally appearing in 1958. The production of the Henley Borough Records proved equally taxing. It was initially discussed in 1928 and was eventually published in 1960 – having in 1936 prompted the resignation not only of Professor Maurice Powicke, but also the Honorary Editor, John Hautenville Cope. Powicke objected to ‘certain things’ that Cope had done; Cope objected to the criticisms made against him by Powicke. Still more striking is the case of the survey of Oxfordshire parish sources, which was first proposed by C. H. Firth, then Regius Professor of History, in November 1919. It remained a mere suggestion until 1928, when a committee was formed and a questionnaire sent out to all the incumbents of the county. Within months, 55 replies were in, and the following two years were spent chasing up those who had not answered. Inertia then set in, as other projects dominated the Society – not least the establishment of the County Record Office. In 1936, another attempt was made – and another in 1939. But it was a project destined never to be completed, and the War killed it off in the end.

If publishing proved problematic, then this was nothing compared to the continuing problem of both recruiting members and exacting fees from them. Within four months of the Society’s establishment, it was already being remarked that 56 members had not paid their dues – ‘but were expected to do so when reminded.’ By 1923, it was agreed that ‘Steps should be taken to increase the membership of the Society’, and the secretary agreed to ‘circularize possible supporters among landowners, magistrates, county councillors and others.’ Similar calls came in 1927, 1932, 1935, and most years thereafter. The Council also intended (as they put it in 1930) that ‘each new volume should be of sufficient value to attract subscribers and bring in fresh offers of help’, but practice did not always live up to this commendable theory. In 1934, R. H. Gretton recommended her own Oxfordshire Justices of the Peace in the Seventeenth Century, on the grounds that ‘when it was published she believed it would bring an increase in members.’ It was a nice idea – but, unfortunately, membership actually fell. In 1939, an appeal for members was published and efforts were made to persuade the 92 defaulters to bring their subscriptions up to date. This was, however, a hard slog – and even the leading lights of the ORS could not be trusted. At the AGM for 1924, for example, it was reported that ‘two members of the Council appeared to have ceased interest in the Society’s work and had not paid their subscriptions for several years.’

The first twenty years of the Society consequently saw a number of – rather familiar – problems as well as the predictable teething troubles of a new organisation just setting out in the world. In 1928, indeed, Bodley’s Librarian, Falconer Madan urged the merger of the ORS and the Oxford Archaeological Society. Nonetheless, more remarkable than these difficulties was the success of the Society in its first two decades. Not only did it manage to produce a range of publications – but it did so almost every year and to some significant acclaim. Herbert Barnett’s history of Glympton, for example, attracted letters from across the world, with admirers writing from America, Australia, and beyond. Moreover, despite the Council’s worries about membership, it continued to grow throughout the 1920s and 1930s: reaching 229 in 1929 and 250 only five years later. Indeed, by the mid-1930s, the ORS was the largest county record society in England.

After the Second World War, the Society was to grow still larger. By 1959, in fact, there were 339 subscribers. This was despite the rising cost of membership and the increasing expense of publication. Paradoxically, in fact, the doubling of subscriptions from a half to a whole guinea in 1953 was marked by a gain of 89 members. A further doubling of membership fees in 1969 and another in 1974 did not, alas, have quite the same effect. But there were still very nearly 300 members as late as 1980. The cause of this remarkable increase in size is clear. Just as the Society was brought into to being to cater for a new sort of readership, so it grew when new sorts of institutions joined it. Individual membership remained stable, but by the mid-1950s, more than 100 libraries were subscribing. Many of these were public libraries – but most were connected to the new and expanding universities of the period. And this growth was not confined to Britain. The universities of Upsala, Stanford, Tokyo, and elsewhere, all signed up. By 1980, the institutional subscribers outnumbered the individuals for the first time.

Growth did not obviate old problems. It remained the case, of course, that getting money of these members was hard work. In 1976, with subscription at £4 a year, it was reported that some subscribers were paying the old rate of £2 and still others were paying the still older rate of £1.05. Others were (as ever) paying nothing at all. The rising cost of printing and the problem of finding editors with the time and the skills to produce volumes also created difficulties. From the mid-1970s onwards, the ORS tended to publish bi-annually rather than yearly. There was also always the difficulty of dealing with what W. O. Hassall described as a ‘group of learned scholars whose decisions are unpredictable’. As the Honorary Secretary from 1946 until 1976, he was well placed to know.

Nevertheless, the slow but steady accumulation of material continued, and in 1976, the Society was able to celebrate the publication of its fiftieth volume. To mark the occasion, David Vaisey, then Keeper of Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian, was asked to address the AGM. He made a call for more and better lists: for catalogues of visitation returns and indexes of school log books. He argued for the publication of more industrial records: for the publication of material relating to the Oxford canal, for example. He also made a plea for someone to edit the manuscripts of the local Poor Law Guardians. Most strikingly, however, he attempted to revive Firth’s idea of a survey of Oxfordshire parish sources. It would be, he claimed be an ideal volume for the Record Society: informative, interesting, valuable, useful for both members and non-members, for the serious scholar and the antiquarian … what an opportunity we now have to fulfil not only a great need but also one of the original suggestions of the founding fathers of this society. We are, of course, still waiting for someone to take up the challenge.

David Vaisey’s speech (made when I was not quite a year old) seems a good place to stop this brief tour of the last nine decades. Founded in the aftermath of the Great War, the ORS was a response to new ideas about history and was intended to be of use to a new public, a new sort of readership – whether it be in the Grammar Schools or the universities. It grew as the educational system grew, with the advent of mass higher education increasing membership despite the rising cost of annual subscriptions. Its focus – on local history, on economic, social, and institutional history – likewise reflected trends in scholarship: the Society has kept alive by keeping up to date. But the ORS has also held on to certain key ideas since it was founded, too. This is a story of continuity as well as change. The belief that its publications should appeal to those beyond the academy; the notion that the Society should reach out to county as well as university; the impulse to reach the ‘generally intelligent reader’ has never gone away. It is that which has sustained the ORS since the start – and that which still informs it. And, who know, perhaps one day it may even mean that it will publish a survey of Oxfordshire parish sources, just as it has tried to do since it was founded in 1919.