How to write local and family history

Writing local and family historyA Morrisons supermarket has been built on the spot where the Exmouth Junction engine shed once stood. There are no clues left on the newly tarmaced Prince Charles Road, Exeter to tell of its railway past. Certainly no traces of the dirt and grime of the steam engines once housed there.

Happily, a short walk around the corner and the allotments, where my great-grandfather and his fellow railway workers grew their vegetables, are still in use. You'll often see allotments by the side of railway lines. The railway companies owned long stretches of land not large enough for agricultural development, but ideal for dividing into allotments. Railway workers were often allocated these parcels of land by their employers and encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Further along the road is Polsloe Bridge railway station, situated high on an embankment overlooking Pinhoe Road, Monk’s Road and Hamlin Lane.

These roads make up a district of Exeter that was once home to a large number of railway men and their families. Drivers, porters, engineers, fitters and cleaners made their homes near to the junction where they started their working day. My great-grandfather was a train driver for London and South West Railway and lived on Monk's Road. His house is still there today. He was lucky. On 4th May 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped 30 tonnes of high explosives, 10,000 incendiary bombs and three landmines during a bombardment of Exeter that lasted for 74 minutes. The following morning German radio announced, “Exeter is the jewel of the west, and we have destroyed it”.

Several houses on Monk’s Road were demolished. Many of the victims of this air raid, including my grandfather’s neighbours, were buried in the nearby Higher Cemetery. On the short walk from Monk's Road to the Higher Cemetery, I passed more allotments still in use on Hamlin Lane.

The Exmouth Junction shed opened in 1887, and during its peak, from 1930 to 1960, it was the base for over 120 locomotives. The shed was closed in 1967, and as decades pass, the sooty traces and memories of steam engines have faded from this suburb of Exeter.

Researching my own family history has led me to include personal anecdotes in various general history articles to help illustrate the context of a particular era. Conversely, if you're planning to write a family or local history, it’s worth researching the period in which your story takes place so you can describe the broader social scene of the time.

The fashion, food, art, sport and transport of an era will help give your story a wider appeal and hopefully attract a larger audience than just your Great Aunt Agatha. Include scents and sounds as well as sights: the smell of the burning coal, the noise of the engine, the suffocating billows of smoke from the boiler.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t include personal details too. Share old recipes, household tips, funny anecdotes and unusual phrases used by family members. It all helps to add flavour and character to your work.

For the sake of clarity, it's best not to try and cover too much ground. Focus on an individual event, or an episode in time, and try to capture its atmosphere as closely as possible. If you're covering a long period, try to stick to a chronological order as it can become confusing for the reader if you hop back and forth too much. You can always list your references and research at the end of the piece so interested parties can follow up and read further.

If you don’t know where to begin, a simple opening is to do what I’ve done at the start of this piece and set the scene as it is today before you go back in time. Alternatively, spice up a historical account by turning it into fiction. Recreating a scene or event with fictional characters is an excellent way to communicate history to children.

Haytor QuarryWhilst in Devon we climbed Haytor, the granite rock on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. Below the rock is a disused quarry that was worked intermittently for nearly a 100 years between 1820 and 1919. As we walked down to the quarry, we were joined by a group of children on a school trip. The children had been asked to imagine what working conditions would have been like for the men mining the granite and the hazards they would have faced.

When we reached the depths of the excavation, the children took turns to re-enact scenes from days gone by, when the quarry would have been a hive of industry. I’m not entirely sure as many men were crushed to death by falling boulders as some of the children imagined (and gorily depicted); however, it was great fun to watch and it certainly brought history to life.

Related posts:

Art and the railway
Fleet Pond and the railway