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William George Hoskins

(1908—1992) historian of the English landscape


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(1908–92)

William Hoskins was the great popularizer of local history and, at the same time, the leading academic figure in the subject. He was descended from a long line of Devon yeomen and Exeter bakers. His MA thesis at Exeter University was turned into his first book, Industry, Trade and People in Exeter, 1688–1800 (1935). After teaching for a short time at Bradford Technical College, he lectured at the University College of Leicester from 1931 and taught extramural courses at Vaughan College, Leicester, where he tried out many of his influential ideas. He wrote most of his earliest articles—on farming, on yeomen families such as the Humberstones, on deserted medieval villages—for the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society. The contrasts between Leicestershire and his native Devon set him thinking about the historical landscape and the value of visual evidence. Hoskins combined the traditional eclectic approaches of the old antiquaries with the concerns of the new social and economic historians, in, for example, his editorship of the Victoria County History's Leicestershire volumes. He was a man who read widely, not only the classics and many of the minor works of English literature, but also the writings of contemporary sociologists, especially Lewis Mumford.

Hoskins's renowned study of Wigston Magna, The Midland Peasant (1957), was conceived and written before and during the Second World War, long before its publication after he had become famous through other works. The influence of Mumford's concept of a ‘cultural humus’ of layers of the past, and of the condemnations of the effects of parliamentary enclosure in the poems of John Clare and George Bourne's Change in the Village (1912), is evident in his vision of a stable, sane peasant society that was destroyed by the parliamentary enclosure Act of 1766 for Wigston. ‘The reconstruction of this former society is the principal theme’, he wrote. The story had two distinctive threads: a village with a large and persistent class of free peasant landowners without any resident lord of the manor; and a village which maintained unimpaired its traditional open‐field husbandry when so many other villages in Leicestershire, and in the midlands generally, were being enclosed and depopulated for sheep and cattle pastures in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Hoskins did not intend his study to be local history per se; he saw it rather as ‘a study of the Midland peasant‐farmer and of the open‐field system in which he worked all his life … a study of a peasant culture, of the way it was built up (as far as we can discover it), of the way it worked, and of the way in which it was finally dissolved’ (pp. xviii–xvix). Nevertheless, The Midland Peasant showed local historians a way of studying the local community of a single parish by taking into account topography, population, family history, vernacular building, the farming and craft economy, and the wider concerns of the inhabitants.

In 1948 he was made Reader and Head of the newly formed Department of English Local History at the University College of Leicester. In 1951 he moved to Oxford as Reader in Economic History, returning to his old department at Leicester as Professor in 1965 until his retirement three years later. Among the books which came from his lectures at these two institutions were Local History in England (1959), Fieldwork in Local History (1967), and The Age of Plunder: The England of Henry VIII, 1500–1547 (1976). His most important essays were collected together in Provincial England (1964).

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Subjects: History.


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