Echoes… lets think for a minute

I want to be serious for a moment. Please, if you’re interested or involved in local history at all, please read this article and offer your point of view. There’s something troubling me that we need to be aware of as amateur historians, and the nagging feeling I’ve got won’t go away. I’m not going to be specific here, because there’s no need. Many will be familiar with what I’m talking about, anyway.

I coming to the conclusion that we need to be a bit more careful about our treatment of local history. This blog – and I’m sure others like it – is seeing increasing traffic, now over 20,000 readers per month. People are interested in what formed their communities, what came before them, and often, they search for specific things, looking for confirmation of stories, tales or legends. From the search logs for this blog I can see that one single incident on a grey 2010  Monday morning in Walsall Wood still generates five or six search hits a day. I can see that people are interested – massively – in the local mining heritage, and in specific places like the Superalloys factory, Hall Lane and the local pubs. People are now increasingly looking to the internet to tell their story, inform or perhaps to debunk and confirm myths. In this context, sites like The Brownhills Blog are quite significant, because there are articles and comment referencing these queries.

Traffic to this blog is growing at an alarming rate, which I find quite frightening, inexplicable and onerous by turns.

What I’m trying to do with this blog when I cover local history, is to provide a place to publish what either I, or the community know, and provide a comfortable, friendly forum for discussion of it. Often, I am wrong in my initial impressions, statements or assumptions, and readers correct me as we go along, and gradually, we build up a picture with varying degrees of corroboration. I’m thinking here particularly of my early explorations of Coombe House, The Black Cock Bridge, Shire Oak Quarry and ‘The Tank Traps’. In the latter case I was highly sceptical at first – but gradual corroboration from a few strong voices like Jenny Langford and David Oakley have changed my personal position, although I still have some questions. This is wonderful – I actually love to be proven wrong, and occasionally I’ll take a strong position I know to be questionable in order to provoke discussion.

I very strongly hold the view that the end result of any enquiry – whilst wonderfully satisfying – isn’t what this is about. This thing, local and oral history, is about the conversation. Nobody owns it, we hold it together, as a commonwealth. Further, it is therefore not ours to possess, corrupt or aggrandise.

I noticed this yesterday on Twatter. User kfrilly seems to vocalise what must be a nascent urban myth - that Morris's lamp was supposed to light but the 'Electronics were forgotten'. What happened was that he was actually lit some time after he was erected, and although locals requested his lamp be illuminated from within, councillors ignored the request. He was also assembled over a few days in May, not overnight at Christmas. Click to visit the page on instagram - people searching will find this image and the myth will perpetuate and grow.

I’m beginning to notice some historians operating at a local level – not necessarily in these parts – that hate conversation, hate to be challenged, and will actively work to suppress debate. They are understandably proud of their community history and their place within it, and often very intelligent people. Their inability to converse and be challenged, however, is a serious problem and is damaging to the history and tradition. We all need to be open to challenge, debate and counter-argument. The lack of this is causing me a degree of concern. Coupled alongside seems another damaging process, the action of what I would term ‘historical inflation’.

Any community or group has it’s legend, it’s mythology. Brownhills is no different. There are things locally that are strong beliefs that are utterly specious – Dick Turpin jumping the toll gate at the Anchor Bridge, bombers dumping excess ordnance in Chasewater during the war, the amazing sinking houses by he canal. These legends are folklore, and deserve to be cherished, as they are part of our culture. But it needs to be made clear that they may be full or partial falsehoods, but to be enjoyed anyway. They are fun, great tales, and whilst they should be challenged, need to be preserved as part of the tapestry of our community. Of course, some have a basis in fact, and that needs to be explored and preserved, too.

Where it gets grey is when people take a strong voice or thread and run with it, with little basis, purely because the want it to be true. We all want to find historical gold nuggets in the plain earth we till of the local historical record, much as the Staffordshire Hoard was found in a plain, anonymous field. Sometimes, that desire, of something to be greater than there’s really evidence for, causes bias in the best of people. It’s termed ‘confirmation bias’, and affects anyone who does research on any level, even professionals. We look for stories, cues and pointers that confirm what we want to be true. We have to be careful, and recently I dropped a bit of a clanger. This may well irritate a few folk, but please take it in the spirit it’s meant.

On March 7th, I published a post entitled ‘Light in the Darkness’ featuring a newspaper advertisement for land described as being in Brownhills. It described a wonderful house and outbuildings, plus 30 acres of land with mines already active and a ‘newly erected’ steam engine. I took this to be a Engine Lane in Brownhills. The lost engine we’d all been searching for! However, the advert only mentions Brownhills, and also speaks of common rights at Cannock Chase and Ogley Hay. This house could have been anywhere in the locality, really. Wyrley Common was active then, and remember, the Grove Pit on Lime Lane – also sat on the canal – was classed as Brownhills at the time. This could actually be anywhere in that general location, and although it looks likely to be Engine Lane, it’s not evidence. It’s coincidental. Where I screwed up was that I allowed my bias to understate the vagueness.

XKCD is my favourite geek cartoon. Here, Randal makes a hugely valid point about how information gets stored and reinforced, independently of actual truth - the same applies to this blog and what we do, I feel.

Subsequent enquiries by dedicated reader and history enthusiast David Evans have been illuminating to me. We can, I think, accept that for Engine Lane to be so called, there had to be an engine. Time and time again, comments and anecdotes are told about where the engine was – although much of the remaining built material highlighted at one time or another could have been from the railway or other pit infrastructure that proliferated there at the time. What becomes evident in the melee is that the commonly mentioned thread here – of a ‘Newcomen type engine’ all stems back to one man, one book and one series of talks.

Gerald Reece wrote the wonderful book ‘A walk Into History With…’ about Brownhills, and it’s the work of a fascinating, engaging and knowledgable man. But no research I’ve seen goes back farther than his statement about the Newcomen Engine, and he doesn’t qualify or reference that to another source. Did Gerald make an educated guess? Did he have other information, yet to be found? I don’t know, but when David Evans emailed lots of different folk for information, my own own blog – and ones I reference – came back in a circle. I now know there’s an issue with veracity with this topic.

I’m fairly sure there was an engine there. We seem to be getting closer. But to be certain about type and location we need more solid references. The plural of anecdote isn’t evidence. Sorry to be harsh, but we’re recording history here – I want to record all the anecdotes, but we must distinguish between real information, and that with is largely conjecture. It’s important, because people will look to this record in future as a source.

We need to be careful with bias, and strong voices. Our communities carry their stories forward, and now so more then ever. We must be very wary of people stating things as fact when they are no such thing. Great storytellers like teachers and clerics have handed down an oral history to their younger charges for centuries, and they have occupied that position because, on the whole, they’re excellent storytellers. Stories get twisted, polished, embellished with each telling. We all want to find Anglo Saxon gold in the vegetable patch, but sometimes, there’s really only carrots, sadly. The fact that a recorder of history occupied a respected position doesn’t make them any more authoritative than anyone else – an oral record is just that. A tale.

So, keep everything you do coming. I love it, and love curating this ramshackle pile of writing and images. Please think about what I say though, and try to analyse what we hear, think and recount. In my daily job I deal with a lot of research and huge quantities of data. I understand the research process, and the way it blinds all of us. I recognise the importance of informed debate and peer review. I’ve learned over time that there are very few certainties in this kind of thing and to be wary of those with absolute conviction, and to be sceptical of claimed facts. It is beholden to us to record everything, but we need to be aware of the distinction between folklore, history and opinion.

You see, we are the first generations to be able to write and push stuff out there on general availability onto the internet. There’s no filter, and much stuff out there is just plain wrong. With our new found ability to reach a huge audience, I think there comes a responsibility to try to get stuff as accurate, and pitch-correct as possible. I still want the fables and folklore, but perhaps we need to qualify stuff a bit more. I’m not attacking anyone here, or attempting to cause offence. I am at fault here as much as anyone else. I want to se what readers think. This is me, musing aloud.

When others come looking – possibly future generations – this record will very probably persist. We owe it to the seekers of it to be as truthful as possible.

Sorry for the ramble, I just needed to get that off my chest.

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  • Pedro

    Hi Bob,

    I am glad you are not shooting the messenger!

    As an outsider as far as Browhills is concerned I still enjoy reading local history. I had read the post on the local mining on the Blog and Engine Lane must have stuck in my mind. On seeing the sale of the Engine on the Newspaper Archives something reminded me that somewhere there was a question about an Engine Lane, and the rest is History!

    Now I think the Blog is great and you say…”I actually love to be proven wrong.”

    As someone from a scientific background I once studied, many years back, the History of Science. One thing has stayed in my mind for years, and that was something said by the Philosopher Karl Popper talking about the advancement of Science. It could equally apply to Local History!

    It is no good putting forward a theory that cannot be falsified. By the repeated falsifications we get nearer to the truth.

    All the best Pedro

  • JeepBoy

    Some excellent observations – thank you Bob

  • History, as Henry Ford observed, is more or less bunk. He went on to say: “It`s tradition. We don`t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker`s damn is the history we make today.” Henry Ford was wrong.

    Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was right when he said that history was written by the victors and went on to claim that history would be kind to him because he intended to write the history.

    Conjecture and anecdotal myth, folklore and legend are as much a part of society and community as the dates of births, deaths and battles and cannot be dismissed as trivia.

    We should remember that the likes of David Starkey and holocaust denialist David Irving describe themselves as “respected” historians. The really respected historian, AJP Taylor summed it up when he said: “Dear boy, you should never ask an historian to predict the future – frankly we have had a hard enough time predicting the past.”

  • David Evans sent me the following mail, which he suggested was up to me to decide whether to publish it or not. I think David makes some good points, and it’s well worth sharing. I’d note the Iron Dish story was one where Kate of Lichfield Lore just wandered in from left field and blew us all out of the water. Brilliant.

    Cheers, David.

    Hi Bob

    a very thought-provoking article.. What I hope to be doing in the longer articles I write, which are all based on personal experience, or known experienece of members of my family, supported by documentary evidence, is precisely what you hope help information and discussion..not a brow-beating exercise; this is not a court of law, we are not counsel for defence or prosecution, and any unfortunate slide into this is not only unwelcome, but counter-productive. The end result is silence, and any protagonist is left to have the whole stage, in an empty theatre!

    There is a difference between oral history and oral legend. The sand-tracks ( sorry I called it traps )example is good example of how , through conversation and especially through willing contributions, a whole picture is gained. The Hermann bomb, and subsequent revelation of another bomb locally is another….This is oral history. Factually accurate, ultimately.

    The Black Cock bridge, and the canal houses there are , in my view ,oral legend. What has been lost since the closing of the coalmine is the “leg-pulling” of people new to the job in the mine..and especially of those ” more important” employees, not face workers, who , because they may have been new to the area and to the mine, may not have realised the joke played on them. A sort of “fetch a can of striped paint” syndrome.

    The Engine Lane ongoing story seems to be a mixture of oral history and oral legend, so far as I can work out so far. But, I worked in Coombe House in the summer of 1966 and it fits exactly the description in the auction. Perhaps there are other others locally…I don’t know.

    The Iron Dish story is another interesting piece of local history where, it seems, that such a place did exist at one time. I do think that if we find more wells we could easily find other pieces of history

    and the key thing of my note, and hopefully of all the articles I offer, is..

    by not letting our local history go, we may not lose it!

    Bob, your patient, whole-hearted commitment to your blog has helped to make it an exceptional and precious jewel, not just in this area, but elsewhere.

    with kind regards

    David Evans

  • I think the important thing is discussion. As this blog evidences time and time again, not only does bringing everyone’s ideas and memories and information together make for a more comprehensive record but it also makes local history so much more enjoyable in my opinion!
    I love stories and legends but I do think that being able to respectfully disagree or question what has been said is important.

  • All good points, Bob.

    History without documentation is legend. Archaeology without context is playing in a sandpit. We can all speculate based on slim evidence, but it has to be qualified as such.

    Oral history is no different, you ask ten people about something and they’ll probably give you ten different answers!

    So as long as it’s clear that nothing is certain until you have the evidence, that’s all fine – and it’s a great conversation to have!

    Keep up the good work :O)

  • JeepBoy

    Good point bloxichtelegraph – sad bit is though that some moderators have their heads stuck so far up their own ass that they do not allow great conversations to take place !!!

  • Andy Dennis

    We are also engaged in peer review, which has long been a crucial part of verifying or disputing theory and research. One of the innumerable interesting facets of this blog is the range of perspectives people bring to the various topics, which is a consequence of the breadth of material posted. Clearly, this is down to the hard work, enthusiasm and broad horizons of our host. I say again: keep up the good work!

    One of my professional duties was to give evidence at public inquiries where I would be cross-examined by clever and devious people with QC after their name, who in turn were advised by hired experts. I can’t always apply that degree of rigour because I don’t have all the resources available, but I can follow the best advice I was given before facing one of England’s finest: “maintain credibility”. This is made much easier by the certainty that errors and inaccuracies will be found out by your followers!

  • Graeme Fisher

    Supposition and heresay are the cornerstones of our local history. Without them we have very little. We enrich our history by proving such heresay and suppposition; Pedro proves this with newspaper articles which fascinate, others use maps or other data.
    We should be acutely aware of attempts to write our history in urban myths. There are people out there who are putting forward supposition as fact, and we must ask them to substantiate their ‘facts’ with evidence.
    At best, we have documented fact interspersed with guesswork; we need to prove stuff with fact, and accept that we might be wrong when we guess the gaps.

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