• EPOCH

The Mystery of the Missing Miners: A Reflection on the Representation of Local Communities

Matthew Pawelski | Lancaster University

‘Chee Tor Derbyshire’ in T. Noble and T. Rose, The Counties of Chester, Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and Rutland, Illustrated. From original Drawings by Thomas Allom, (1837).

Historians are, in many ways, faced with an impossible task. [1] On the one hand, it is incumbent on us to say something useful about past societies, places and periods, whether for the purposes of more accurately understanding historical processes of change that have brought about the world in which we live or to learn from the successes and failures of our forebears. In so doing, we are bound to pose our analyses in general terms – to draw conclusions.


Yet, on the other, the historical method compels us to dress our analyses in a myriad of particulars. Since our knowledge of any period, place or people is imperfect, and the evidence upon which we rely incomplete, we are thus trapped in a seemingly endless dance between the general and particular. No sooner has a theory been constructed then it is dismantled by a multitude of ‘instances’, ‘examples’, or previous unknown ‘cases’ where the theory proposed does not apply.


This series of short reads has explored the perils and opportunities that might arise when studying past populations. It treated as its starting point a work of great merit endeavouring to provide a general interpretation of the occupational structure of England and Wales for a period of 300 years. The basic premise has been that its representation of one particular community, the Derbyshire Lead Miners, was at odds with what we know from local-level analysis – taking into account local context, historical debates and records. In that sense, it represents one of those lacerations upon the body of a general interpretative model by an irritating particular.

It might, therefore, be easily disregarded as an isolated case. However, before dispensing with it entirely, it is worth reflecting a little on the merits, or otherwise, of this process, the lessons we can learn about constructing general and local histories, and what might be said for drawing on detailed histories of particular local communities, like the Derbyshire lead miners, who are ever at risk of being lost in the broad sweep of history.


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It is perhaps no twisted figure of speech to liken local history to the smallest box in one of those old fashioned nests of boxes that years ago delighted so many children at Christmas… [2]


Over the centuries, local history has attracted its fair share of proponents and sceptics. Different versions, or conceptualisations, of this basic approach have been dismissed as mere curiosities (antiquarianism, genealogies, and parochial histories), or heralded as fully developed methodological frameworks (microhistory, history of the everyday, and history from below), and yet despite its own very long and prestigious history, we seem to be locked in many of the same debates that motivated writers of previous generations to produce impassioned defences of local history, as a legitimate, and potentially radical, branch of historical analysis. [3]


Yet, we must question what motivates such defences? As historians, no matter our subject, we are bound at one point or another to delve into the nitty-gritty details of our chosen period, people or place, if we wish to write anything remotely intelligible about it. In that sense, we are all, to varying degrees, ‘local historians.’ It depends, as one commentator put it, on what we wish to achieve:


When we examine something in great detail and at close range, do we understand it better? It depends on what we want to know: if examined too closely, the blotches of blended pigment in a painting obscure its coherence as a work of art. Still, brushstrokes enlighten us about the artist's technique. Viewing a frog's skin cells through a microscope reveals their physiology, but suggests nothing of the frog's place in its ecosystem. Does our understanding of the past work the same way? [4]


In some cases, the defence of local history represents a form of political expression, levelled against the ‘elitism’ of formal academic histories. References are made in contrast to the highly specialised readerships of academic works, the obscurity of the scholarly journals in which they are published, and the dismissiveness shown by their practitioners to local historians and enthusiasts. While there are undoubtedly a minority who hold such prejudices, there is also an arrogance in dismissing work produced within institutions and by academics, simply because they are focussed on a macro scale and endeavouring to view the past through an aggregate lens.

A common way of reconciling the two has been to view local histories as the building blocks out of which general histories might be constructed. Population history is a field where this description might seem applicable. One might reasonably assume, for example, that the population of England is an accumulation of the populations of its regions, counties, and parishes. Yet, even here, as we have seen over the course of these short reads, this is not quite so straight forward. County-level data for the mid-to late-eighteenth century, for example, relies on a comparatively small number of parishes in various counties for which sufficient data is available to form a broadly reliable estimation, while national-level data is an aggregation of those counties for which sufficient parish-level data was available. In this way, using the local as the building blocks for the national, results in a series of ever more complex abstractions, which often results in certain communities, like the Derbyshire lead miners, being averaged out of the record, in pursuit of estimates that speak to the average experience.


Composing history in this way makes for bad general and local histories alike. It detracts from the values each approach possesses, while highlighting their respective weaknesses. If our goal is to dismiss general histories as mere abstraction, and local histories as mere curiosities, then little meaningful progress is likely to be made on either front. It is hardly ground-breaking to observe that analysing processes of continuity and change at the national scale results in the oversight of a plethora of local and individual experiences. Conversely, it is well known that local histories are inherently limited in their explanatory power and that not every subject necessarily benefits from scrutiny at a local level. Even in the case of the Derbyshire lead miners, there are still questions over accuracy when studied in isolation. We have seen, for example, the shortcomings of the will and probate record, which captures a middling to lower slice of the local lead mining community in great detail, but obscures those both above and below it in the social hierarchy (see part 2).


As Wrightson and Levine put it in the opening lines of their pathbreaking study of the village of Terling:


England has many histories. There is the history of court and cabinet, of high policy, politics, and diplomacy. There are histories of the great institutions of national life, of churches, Parliament, and courts of law. In the world outside Westminster there are histories of countries, towns and villages, of local administration, of trades and industries, of classes, of the land itself. Each of these histories has its own dynamics and its own integrity, its own element of distinctiveness. Yet all are in a powerful sense interdependent, however much the degree of independence might vary with place and period. [5]


There is indeed interdependence across these different histories, but there is also, importantly, I would argue, a creative tension. Their respective values ought not to be thought solely in relation to their contribution to an imagined whole. They are different attempts to venture towards a truth that is unlikely to ever be achieved, because no matter how many local histories are assembled a general history of perfect exactitude and comprehensiveness is improbable. We ought not, therefore, to be afraid of this tension. It is a sign of vitality, of persistence, of doubt. It is a means by which communities, like the Derbyshire lead miners, are not overshadowed or obscured by the lofty ambitions of national and global histories. Yet, it is also a challenge for the local historian to position their work in the context of a continuously shifting understanding of the whole and to engage in debates of wider significance.

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[1] The original plan was to examine a sample of probate inventories and wills relating to the town of Wirksworth to explore the possession of lead ore across different occupational groups. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, sadly, this was not possible. The above represents an attempt to explore an important, related debate that has interested me for some time. The mystery of the missing miners will have to be solved another time.

[2] Quoted in: V. Hicken, ‘The Continuing Significance of Local History’ Library Trends, 13(2), (1964), pp.153-164.

[3] I. Willis, ‘Local History: a view from the bottom’ The Practice of History (December 2016), accessible here: Local history: a view from the bottom – History Workshop.

[4] B. Gregory. ‘Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory and the History of Everyday Life,’ History and Theory, 38(1) (1999), pp.100-110.

[5] K. Wrightson and D. Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling, 1525-1700 (Oxford, 2001 ed.), p.1


Dr Matthew Pawelski carried out his doctoral research at Lancaster University, completing his thesis in 2019, under the title: The Local Origins of Industrialisation: The Case of the Derbyshire Lead Industry, c.1700-1830. He now works in Higher Education research administration and management, and continues to write, read and explore a variety of historical subjects in his spare time, from the local industrial history of Derbyshire to the history of finance and the Bank of England.