100-year county survey at risk

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The Independent Online
Historians and senior politicians have united to try to secure funds to complete a monumental survey of the counties of England. Begun in 1899, the Victoria County History already runs to 200 volumes but public-spending cuts risk leaving the project incomplete and many parishes unrecorded.

In a letter published in today's Independent, the VCH's supporters, including Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the historian Lord Beloff and authoress Lady Antonia Fraser, call on the Government to examine how this "vital and scholarly endeavour" can be completed.

The history is unparalleled in its scale and detail. "General" volumes covering subjects such as prehistory, politics and economic development on a county-wide basis were completed decades ago for most of the 42 traditional counties of England. Since then the research has focused on parish and town histories; their architecture, cultural development, churches, chapels and local industries.

Fourteen county sets are complete and work is in progress on another 13. Each volume costs pounds 50 or more - the eight-volume Lancashire set, for example, would cost pounds 645.

But the VCH is a saga in itself. So called because it commemorated the Queen's diamond jubilee, rapid progress was made in the early years and 75 volumes appeared by 1914. Financial difficulties dogged the enterprise between the wars and at its low point the staff was reduced to a retired editor who stored the archives in his garden shed in Sussex.

A revival followed the Second World War, with a steady run of volumes produced under the auspices of the University of London's Institute of Historical Research in partnership with local authorities prepared to fund surveys in their area. But its budget of about pounds 950,000 has been eroded in real terms since 1991.

Beneath the "storm clouds" of spending cuts, as general editor Christopher Currie refers to them, councils have had to weigh vital public services against academic luxuries. The hopes of the VCH now rest with the National Lottery. Given adequate funding, Mr Currie believes the bold plan of producing another 300 to 350 volumes over 30 years could be completed.