This post was written by Kate Wilcox, Reader Experience and Technical Services Manager at the IHR Library. It is part of a series of posts on Environmental History for History Day 2021. It is cross-posted from the Institute of Historical Research’s blog On History.

The IHR library holds many sources for environmental history, as outlined recently by Michael Townsend in his blog post introducing the new Environmental History collection guide. 

This blog post is about people’s experiences of nature and the environment, recorded through a variety of sources. Our annual History Day event has an environmental history theme this year, and will include a workshop on ‘Nature Memories’ exploring how people make and collect memories from nature and how their memories are reflected in the historical collections of institutions and individuals. Catherine Clarke (Centre for the History of People, Place and Community, IHR) will open the session by talking about Natural History in the Victoria County History. Participants in the session will be invited to share their own nature memories, during the event and through social media and a crowdsourced Padlet board


Parliamentary Records

Day-to-day experiences of nature appear in some unexpected places. The UK Parliamentary Papers include many reports recording evidence at inquiries, covering subjects as diverse as factory conditions, the experiences of crofters during the Highland Clearances and the Countryside Commission’s activities after the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949.  

A Report from the Select Committee on the Daylight Saving Bill in 1908 includes the evidence of Mr Alexander Farquharson of Highgate, London, timber importer and President of the Timber Trades Federation of the United Kingdom, describing the benefits to businessmen of spending more daylight time in the open air, in his case to play golf:  

to the average man, physical exercise, preferably in the open air, is essential, if he is to keep his body fit and his nerves under control …. I sometimes try getting out before breakfast, but the household arrangements do not adapt themselves to this practice, besides which it has the further disadvantage of tiring one’s self at the commencement of the day, when a business man needs to be freshest and strongest. 

The same report also includes a statement from Mr Joseph Crosfield, managing director of Joseph Crosfield & Sons, soap and chemical manufacturers in Warrington, Lancashire, who had experimented with adjusting the hours of his workforce to give them more leisure time in daylight hours:  

I cannot too strongly emphasise the benefit to the health of the staff and the improvement in the work  done for the company which has been the result. 

(Report, and Special Report, from the Select Committee on the Daylight Saving Bill, together with Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix, House of Commons Papers, 1908) 


Historic Directories, Handbooks and Guidebooks 

The library includes many historic directories, handbooks and guidebooks which offer insights into the environment, nature and daily life in different places. For the West Indies, The Grenada handbook (1927) gives an account of the agriculture, flora and fauna of the island, as well as places of interest and a guide to Sea Bathing The Royal Blue Book (1873) includes adverts for ice, heating and ventilation equipment, while the Handbook to the Gold Coast (1923) has adverts for underwear ‘ideal for the tropics’. 

 Adverts from the Royal Blue Book (1873)

School Records

The library’s collection of school records includes History of Crewkerne School (1899) with an account written by an unnamed ‘old boy’ of life in the school around the 1860s. He describes how the boys were permitted to bathe in the river Parret, with a wonderfully vivid account of the experience (pp. 115–17):  

You know Easthams Lane, of course? It is the first lane on the left as you descend the hill from the School. Go straight down this lane, under the bridge till you come to a style leading across a field, follow on over the next gate across a field to the small plantation, through the style up the hill to the next gate, jump over and there you are. Below are two small rivers, the Parrett and the Mill Stream. Now cross the first wooden bridge, turn sharp to the right, follow the path until you are past the copse on the left. Here used to be a small bridge. If it is there now cross over and follow the stream till you come to a weir or waterfall. Go on the bend in the river; notice it takes a sharp turn to the right. Here was our bathing place from this point to the bend of the river a little higher up, where it turns abruptly to the left. What do you think of it? Not much? Still it was better than no bathing place at all, although when there were twenty or thirty boys in the brook it was rather more than water we were bathing in – it almost amounted to mud. One mouthful of that discoloured liquid was quite sufficient to satisfy any craving for more. 

The deepest point is at the higher bend. A tree used to stand on the edge of the bank and the diving place was from one of its branches into the hole.  A fellow had to make a sharp dive with a rapid rise or his hands stuck in the mud past his wrists as mine once happened to do. 

He goes on to describe how they learned to swim with the help of bundles of rushes or two blown bladders on a piece of string.  


Diaries, Letters and Autobiographies 

The collection also includes many more obvious sources of personal narratives including letters, diaries and autobiographies. Some diaries are explicitly relevant to environmental history, for example farming and weather diaries. Examples in the collection include: 

The ubiquitous importance of nature and the environment means that the subject crops up everywhere, and many diaries of everyday life cover some aspects of environment and nature. 

The Reverend Benjamin John Armstrong, vicar of East Dereham, describes in his diary the effects of flooding on the landscape near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire: “The country below Aylesbury is under water and the crops spoiled. Hundreds of labourers are standing idle, not because there is no work to do, but because there is no weather in which to do it.” (27 June 1860) 

Louise Creighton’s letters, from the vicarage at Embleton in Northumberland, describe plans for supplying water: “There is a scheme which may some day come to pass for supplying all this district with good & plentiful water, which would be an immense advantage. It seems that in a dry summer all the wells almost have got dried up and one is left without water, which is not cheerful.” She also writes about the garden and heating equipment in the greenhouse: 

We have just been wandering about the garden with our gardener talking about alterations &c. …. Of course we discover that the heating apparatus of the greenhouse like everything else is quite useless & very wasteful of fuel so that we shall have to have it changed. Things are coming on nicely in the garden. We shall have a great bed of lilies of the valley in flower soon.” (25 April 1875) 

Travel writing is another source for nature memories. William Gerard Walmesley describes walking on the Isle of Wight — “We observed in two places landslips of very recent occurrence” (10 July 1821) — and Guernsey — “much picturesque scenery to admire …. numerous and extensive orchards… gorse seed is then sown which in the course of two or three years, grows up into an impervious fence. It is a most valuable article of fuel, and is one of the sources of profit to the farmer.” (23 July 1821) 

Elizabeth Lee, who grew up on Merseyside in the late nineteenth century, lived a much more urban lifestyle, but frequently refers to the weather when recording walks and boat trips. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, and a hundred years earlier, Elizabeth Drinker also frequently recorded the weather in her diary. On 26 December 1793 she wrote of “a great transition in the weather, day before yesterday warm for the Season, yesterday temperate, this day very cold, in so much that it is thought if the wind should abait that the river will be fast before tomorrow morning”. 

The open-access collections of the IHR library allow for browsing in search of some of the more unexpected material. We hope you will visit us to explore the collections and join us for History Day.