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Response to Review no. 879

I thank Professor John Beckett for his very detailed review and I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to his comments and criticisms. The subject of my book deals with the thorny issue of regionalism in England and my testing of Phythian-Adams’s controversial hypothesis.

Beckett suggests that the search for regions in England has been the ‘holy grail’ of academic local historians over the past 50 years or so and that this has been conducted partly out of genuine interest, partly as a parallel to regional geography and partly from motives of self-preservation by making the subject of English local history academically respectable. I would place my own contribution firmly in the first category, but with some influence from the second. For my first degree I studied Geography at the University of Nottingham at a time when the definition of regions was an important part of the course. My subsidiary subjects there were Geology and Mathematics and the scientific emphasis of my background is evident from the content of the book. When I started the MA course in English Local History at the University of Leicester it was fascinating to return to the concept of English regions. I was confronted with the hypothesis of Phythian-Adams, that there was, in England, a patchwork of historical regions that largely coincided with major drainage basins, which in turn allied closely with pre-1974 counties. I felt challenged to use my geographical skills to prove or disprove this theory, in relation to specific locations. I was so enthused that in relation to the very first project I cycled, in one day, from my home to the outskirts of Leicester, then to Empingham in Rutland crossing the Leicestershire-Rutland border, a round trip of about 50 miles. I picked up the challenge again for my PhD thesis and targeted the Leicestershire-Lincolnshire border. Again much cycling was involved and I walked, in both directions, the relevant length of the long-distance footpath called the Viking Way (a total of 50 miles) which runs along the county boundary.

I detect an assumption that I set out to support the Phythian-Adams hypothesis, whereas from the start my aim was to test it, in an open-minded way, in relation to the proposed Leicestershire-Lincolnshire frontier. In other words I was quite prepared to find that there was no evidence for it at all. In my conclusion I find that the weight of evidence suggests that there was a frontier, but as with all generalisations there are no absolute certainties where human activity is involved. I am immediately suspicious of general conclusions that contain unconditional inferences. Therefore I prefer to insert qualifying words such as ‘probably’  ‘possibly’ and ‘however’. This is the style in all my historical research and if this comes across as ‘less than gushing’ so be it.

The search for suitable instruments that might reveal or deny a frontier proved challenging, especially as it would be essentially a ‘negative’ area. We are looking for absence rather than presence of links between people; or rather we are aiming to find contact less than might be expected, for no frontier would be a complete barrier.

I agree that through the long period of data-gathering I doubted that this particular frontier existed, but on processing the data I came to the conclusion that there was a strong case for it. There may well be other frontiers in the vicinity, but the point is that the Phythian-Adams hypothesis suggests that there was probably one in this border area and the weight of evidence suggests that indeed there was. The most convincing evidence comes from factors such as low population density in former heathland, reluctance to find marriage partners across the border, and emphasis on in-county links from border parishes shown by other data such as probate records. The differences in traditional dialect and vernacular architecture add weight to the argument. Of course no generalisation in the study of history is clear-cut and there are other instruments that produced no clear evidence of a frontier. One can cite the case of customs and folklore  and Beckett draws attention to my assertion, in the conclusion of chapter five,  that this research (in his words) has not produced  ‘much of value’(p. 95). However he misreads the judgement as applying to the whole chapter, as closer reading will show that this is certainly not the case for I conclude that other topics, such as vernacular architecture and traditional dialect, ‘are much more convincing’. In any case I would argue that a negative result or even ‘a not very persuasive result’ (my words) surely has its value.

Although there is a strong case, through much of the book, for proposing a frontier of some sort here, it does not necessarily separate the two very large economic regions that Phythian-Adams proposes. This point is addressed in chapter eight where the attention zooms out to look at link patterns over the whole East Midlands. The flow map (p. 153) showing the volume of traffic of carriers’ carts between the main market towns shows marked decline in numbers and frequency on crossing the proposed frontiers.

Beckett also takes issue over the question of the influence of the county boundary. It may well be that the county boundary between Leicestershire and Lincolnshire had an influence on some of the measures, but that does not deny that a frontier existed. Of course, the Phythian-Adams hypothesis states that the boundaries of his proposed economic regions are largely coincident with the boundaries of counties or groups of them. It is inevitable that it would be almost impossible to separate any county boundary effect from longer-standing influences. However it would be surprising if the people of a particular area allowed the county boundary to act as a barrier to their economic advancement. In any case the study of place-names, which pre-date the creation of the counties, shows the proposed frontier area had a marked decrease in Scandinavian influence compared with either side. Is this merely coincidence?

Beckett accepts that I have demonstrated that people were reluctant to find marriage partners across the county boundary, but he finds it as unsurprising as the break zone between the market spheres of Melton Mowbray and Grantham is to be found here. Surely that is the thrust of the argument, that we have here a frontier between the urban hinterlands of two major market towns of their respective counties. This can be particularly well observed in Leicestershire, where Melton Mowbray is part of the urban hierarchy of smaller market towns with Leicester at the heart.

The findings of chapter seven, that dynastic families did not migrate much, are dismissed as rather unsurprising. As I point out on p. 149, other researchers such as Mitson have found that dynastic families were resident across three or four neighbouring parishes, because of small-distance migration. I did not find a similar situation in the Focus Area of fourteen parishes which lie astride the county boundary. Out of 678 dynasties, two-fifths were entirely confined to single parishes. I identified only 28 dynasties that were involved in major inter-parochial links, including 12 associated with major cross-border links. (A major link is defined as two or more families of the dynasty in each of the connected parishes). I maintain that this is an important finding not to be dismissed lightly.

Beckett takes me to task for looking at a theoretical construct when we as local historians would do better by simply getting on with the task of describing and interpreting local places. He says that we are in danger of losing touch with communities outside the universities. Surely if a theory is proposed it is the task of the academic community to take this on board and examine it. The failure of past attempts is no reason to stop looking. I gave serious thought to the target readership of my book and decided that this would be mainly academic historians in the universities. I did think seriously about widening its appeal and the local landscape descriptions with illustrations in chapter two were made partly in response. In describing the content of my work I have found great interest outside the group of local historians in the universities. Many people are fascinated by the contrasts in scenery and human behaviour as they travel through Britain and are eager to hear descriptions and explanations.

Although this volume was certainly aimed at the academic community, I am not neglectful of the duty of university historians to connect with the people outside the academic institutions. I am on the Committee of the local historical society in Melton Mowbray and was Chairman for five years until recently. I am now Secretary and plan the programme of speakers and some of the visits for a membership of nearly 100 with attendance averaging around 60, which surely indicates the success of the venture. I am regularly called on to write historical items for my home-village newsletter and I have written two ‘home-produced’ booklets about the history of my home parish, which have been very well received and are still in demand some years after their initial production. A copy of the 22000-item database used in my research on family reconstitution for A Lost Frontier Revealed is now with the Leicestershire and Rutland Family History Society.