When I first started recording the history of the parish of Headley in
Hampshire, England, I assumed it would hold little interest outside a radius
of five miles or so. Literally parochial stuff, I said.
The more so as the first topic I covered was a local riot which had happened more than 160 years ago.
But I was wrong. I hadn't realised how wide-spread a hobby genealogy had become, and I was very soon handling requests for information from the four corners of the globe.
And it is the weirdest feeling when the telephone rings in the middle of the afternoon and somebody at the other end says, "Hello, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Robert Holdaway speaking." He was the leader of the riot who was transported to Australia for life, and died there in 1853. History dead and buried, I thought. But then this telephone call . . .
I had originally started taking an interest in the riot as part of a project to write and produce a local community play Riot! or This Bloody Crew in 1993. This generated enough interest for me to publish a book on the subject at my own expense One Monday in November and it sold well enough to break-even on the cost within six months.
That was the start. Friends asked me what was coming next. I had no idea, but it was suggested to me that I should record the stories of the Canadian tank regiments in the village during the Second World War, while there were still people alive to tell them!
Since it was coming up to the 50th anniversary of D-Day at the time, it seemed like a good idea. So one more book was self-published All Tanked Up . . . and it also broke-even within six months.
By then I appeared to be the de facto local historian, despite the fact that I was a newcomer to the area (i.e. I wasn't born here!) and more projects started to come my way.
The local region of The National Trust wanted to celebrate the Trust's centenary in 1995, and thought that another local community play would be appropriate. This became A Balance of Trust first the play and then the book.
In conjunction with Haslemere Museum, I tell the story of 50 significant years in this part of England where the counties of Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex all meet an area which has no convenient name, but which was at the time the haunt of more 'eminent' Victorian men and women of science, politics and literature than perhaps any other part of the country outside London.
And its relevance to The National Trust? Their main founder, Sir Robert Hunter, also lived here a modest man who is now largely forgotten in favour of his partners in the Trust's creation, the more flamboyant Octavia Hill and Canon Rawnsley.
Towards the end of that period, a 21 year-old girl named Flora Timms became assistant postmistress in the nearby village of Grayshott. Here she served the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw, and was delighted to listen to their sparkling conversation, but far too shy to join in.
She later married and became Flora Thompson, famous eventually in her own right as author of 'Lark Rise to Candleford.' Although born in Oxfordshire, she spent nearly 30 of her seventy years in Hampshire, and nearly half of that time in the parishes adjoining my adopted Headley. The year 1997 was the 50th anniversary of her death, so what better way to mark it than by staging yet another local community play and publishing another book?
The play Flora's Peverel was staged between 20th and 31st May 1997 at four locations in East Hampshire, and featured on both Meridian and Central TV.
The book On the Trail of Flora Thompson investigates the way in which she used pseudonyms to describe the people and places she wrote about (including herself!), and uncovers some of the real names and the stories behind them. It was published in October 1997, reprinted in February 1998, and is still selling well.
Then followed another play, Flora's Heatherley, which was staged between 11th and 26th September 1998 at three locations, including the Grayshott & Hindhead Literary Festival, to celebrate the centenary of Flora's arrival in Grayshott.
And since Flora's own book Heatherley (her sequel to Lark Rise to Candleford)was now out of print, I arranged to republish it for the occasion, also in 1998.
In 1999, I decided to go ahead with a book which I had been thinking about for some years, to illustrate the history of Headley by means of old postcards and other pictures, and the result was Headley's Past in Pictures, published just in time for Christmas. It sold 700 copies in the first month.
And in the same year, I helped The Headley Society to publish the first of their Headley Miscellany booklets, designed to bring snippets of local historical information to the public.
In 2000, I dramatised The Broomsquire, the well-known novel written in the 1890s by Sabine Baring-Gould and set in the Devil's Punch Bowl and I organised a troupe of players to tour this locally in 2000 and 2001.
The facility to 'print on demand' (POD) which became available around this time allowed me to contemplate re-publishing some old local history books which had gone out of print, and also some new subjects which would not previously been cost effective. The first of these was A Parcel of Gold for Edith by Joyce Stevens, about her gt-gt-aunt who had emigrated to Australia in 1841 and had written letters back to Headley from the goldfields there.
In 2002, I re-published Grayshott by Jack Smith, originally published in 1978 but which had since gone out of print, and I also re-published my own first book One Monday in November (as I had just sold the last copy of the original publication) including in it some new material. We also toured the related play Riot! again.
By May 2003, I had a total of 38 titles in my list, of which seven used POD, including a republication with illustrations of The Hilltop Writers by Bob Trotter.
Along with all this, I maintain the historical section of a village website, and the beginnings of a village archive to preserve historical information which might otherwise be lost.
I also write and publish traditional pantomimes, most of which are sold in electronic format.