Local and Community History Month: Book recommendations

Local and Community History Month: Book recommendations
May is Local and Community History Month – a great time to find out a little more about how your village, town or city grew up into what it is today. The more you dig, the more you’ll find that people, events and buildings all have fascinating pasts.

I grew up in a town called Amersham, a bit north west of the M25. When I was about 7 I took part in my first Martyrs Play. This community play documented the lives of William Tylesworth, James Morden, John Scrivenor, Robert Rave, Thomas Holmes, Thomas Barnard and Joan Norman (all of Amersham), who were burnt at the stake in the 16th century. And their crime? Reading the bible in English. The history of these men and women is marked by a memorial which was erected in 1931. I’d sometimes pass it on countryside walks when I was growing up.

This isn’t the only thing of note that was built in Amersham 1931. In my teens I took piano lessons, and on the short drive to my teacher’s house we would pass a Grade II listed modernist house. There’s a British Pathé news clip that shows the house shortly after it was built with the caption:

“The house of a dream. Filmed at Amersham. For centuries houses have been built to meet the needs of each age. Today, we dream of houses open to sun and air, embodying everything that modern science can offer.”

The building captures a moment in time so beautifully. From portraying someones view of present and future housing, to the scepticism it was met with from locals.

And I’m well aware that this is only a tiny part of the rich history that Amersham, just one town of many, has to offer.

So if you’d like to explore your past, your community’s past, or your city’s past a little more, we’ve got some great books to get you inspired and help you on your way:

1London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd portrays London from the time of the Druids to the beginning of the twenty-first century, noting magnificence in both epochs, but this is not a simple chronological record. There are chapters on the history of silence and the history of light, the history of childhood and the history of suicide, the history of Cockney speech and the history of drink.

2Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey

Wentworth in Yorkshire was surrounded by 70 collieries employing tens of thousands of men. It is the finest and largest Georgian house in Britain and belonged to the Fitzwilliam family. Black Diamonds tells the story of its demise: family feuds, forbidden love, class war, and a tragic and violent death played their part. But coal, one of the most emotive issues in twentieth century British politics, lies at its heart.

3The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

In the years leading up to and after the Second World War thousands of women left school at fourteen to work in the bustling factories of London’s East End. Despite long hours, hard and often hazardous work, factory life afforded exciting opportunities for independence, friendship and romance. Of all the factories that lined the docks, it was at Tate & Lyle’s where you could earn the most generous wages and enjoy the best social life, and it was here where The Sugar Girls worked.

4Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

This colourful, perceptive portrayal of English country life reverberates with the voices of the village inhabitants, from the reminiscences of survivors of the Great War evoking days gone by, to the concerns of a younger generation of farm-workers and the fascinating and personal recollections of, among others, the local schoolteacher, doctor, blacksmith, saddler, district nurse and magistrate.

5Coal and Dole: Voices of the Powerless by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg visits Merthyr Tydfil to look at the plight of the miners in the Depression. The industrial communities of South Wales, built first on iron smelting in the 18th century, and coal in the 19th, had known great prosperity. Merthyr Tydfil was once the largest town in Wales, and in 1914, 250,000 men worked on the South Wales coalfield. But the disastrous effects of the Wall Street Crash, combined with industrial unrest, left towns like Merthyr Tydfil a mere shadow of its former self.

6The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss by Tessa Dunlop

The woman of Bletchley Park have a unique story to tell. Although critical to the success of the project to break the German and Japanese codes in the Second World War, their contribution has been consistently overlooked and undervalued. Through unprecedented access to surviving veterans, this book reveals how life at ‘The Park’ and its outstations was far removed from the glamorous existence usually portrayed.

7The First Line of Defence: The Kent Castles by Stephanie Forward

Down through the centuries, the castles of Dover, Deal and Walmer have been of prime strategic importance to England, protecting the south-east tip of the country from invasion. This is an account of their importance and includes fascinating stories of historical characters associated with them.

8The Great Stink of London by Stephen Halliday

A vivid account of the life and work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer who designed and built the system of intercepting sewers, pumping stations and treatment works that cleaned up Victorian London.

9No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War by Helen Rappaport

It is usually assumed that women did not become involved in international conflict until the First World War. But in “No Place For Ladies”, respected historian Helen Rappaport proves otherwise: numerous women were actively involved in the Crimean war in a variety of ways. Four wives would be chosen to accompany each regiment of 100 men, enduring the vermin ridden troop ships and then left to fend for themselves in the barren Crimean terrain, before combing the battlefields in search of their men.

10The People’s Post by Dominic Sandbrook

This fifteen-part BBC Radio 4 series explores the origins of the Post Office, how it became a cherished national institution, and how it adapted to globalisation and commercialisation. It’s called “Royal Mail” but it should be known as “The People’s Post”. Over the centuries, the Post Office has become a much-loved social institution, linking people together and extending their vision outward into the wider world. How the people made it their own is a fascinating story that needed to be told.

11A History of Private Life by Amanda Vickery

In “A History of Private Life”, Professor Amanda Vickery reveals the intimate secrets of life at home, from the Tudor mansion to the modern bedsit. Through letters, diaries and other first-person accounts, we hear the voices of men and women from very different backgrounds telling their stories.


I hope there’s something here that takes your fancy, and that you might delve into some history of your own town, city or community!


All books listed are available for Listening Books members to borrow on MP3 CD or to stream and download.

This post was written by Holly Newson

Picture credit: Graham Horn; Steve Cadman – Flickr

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