Q & A Dr Barrie Trinder
Shropshire History

 

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We are very pleased to post this interview with Dr Barrie Trinder, an outstanding and influential figure among Shropshire historians although no longer closely connected to the county. Dr Trinder served on the Ironbridge Gorge Museum’s executive board from the 1970s, and from 1980 he worked for part of his time for the University of Birmingham at the Ironbridge Institute, where, as Senior Research Fellow, he played a leading role in the establishment of postgraduate courses, research programmes and consultancy projects. From 1996 until 2001 he was Senior Lecturer in Industrial Archaeology at the University of Northampton. He has published widely in the fields of history and conservation and is an expert on matters relating to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. He regrets that he is not able to help with genealogical enquiries.

YouCaxton:
You have been involved in historical studies in Shropshire for many years. It is frequently said that we live in a period of unprecedented change. Do you think there has been any acceleration in the rate of change both social and industrial in Shropshire over the last fifty years, as compared to previous periods?

Barrie Trinder
I took up the post of Adult Education Tutor in Shropshire on May Day 1965, some 49 years ago. I have not lived in the county for more than six years, ceased working there at the end of 1995, and rarely re-visit these days, making it difficult for me to comment with knowledge on the current situation. The most profound changes, it seems to me, are those which have affected the whole of England. In 1965 it seemed a privilege to join a progressive education authority, in which morale was amazingly high. Educational authorities of that kind sadly no longer exist. In economic terms, Shrewsbury in 1965 still had a thriving manufacturing sector, based on engineering and the production of clothing. This has largely gone, yet the town has continued to thrive –the last two decades of the twentieth century were a time of rapid growth. Similarly the economy of Telford is very different from what might have been envisaged in the 1960s, with much less emphasis on manufacturing.

YouCaxton:
Your History of Shropshire is still one of the best books of its type. If you were returned to the late 1970s and had to start writing it all over again, is there much in the book that you would change and are there many modern facilities/technologies that you would feel the lack of – if forced to abandon your keyboard?

Barrie Trinder:
The particular challenge of writing a general history of a county is to absorb and make sense of those periods and topics on which one has not worked in detail. In my History of Shropshire I was most pleased with the chapter on the fluctuating frontier which, I hope, clarifies what might have been just lists of battles and castles, and with the sections on the twentieth century, which is (or was then) scarcely mentioned in most county histories. There are obviously many points of detail that would change if I were writing the book now, but I don’t think that the basic plan would be different. The area where changes in understanding have been most profound has been in the post-Roman period (once called the Dark Ages). I am aware of the array of new data that has emerged from archaeological investigations, and from re-thinking based on documentary sources, but cannot claim that my reading in these areas is up-to-date.

A History of Shropshire was, unsurprisingly for the time, composed on the battered army-surplus Remington typewriter that I acquired in 1958 when I was an undergraduate and which went to a local tip in the early 1990s, by which time I was working at the Ironbridge Institute and had regular use of a computer.

I should now be lost without a computer. The ability constantly to modify text (by cutting out adjectives and adverbs, for example) saves enormous amounts of time and, in my opinion, creates prose that is leaner and more easily understood. The ability to store data in computer files, and to retrieve it when required, makes the process of writing easier, and it is difficult now to imagine how it was once necessary to delve through typewritten or MS notes and photocopied extracts from sources.

YouCaxton:
Are there any particular areas of local history that you think can benefit from the activities of amateur historians?

Barrie Trinder:
I prefer to distinguish between good and not-so-good rather than between amateur and professional historians. Neither formal academic training nor employment in teaching about the past necessarily enables anyone to write history well. Many competent and some outstandingly good books have been written by people who have used their particular knowledge – of a locality, an organisation or a technology –to illuminate historical questions.

YouCaxton:
As you know, we help writers to publish and we specialise in memoir and biography. Is there any particular advice that you would give to someone about to embark on such a venture? Are there any ways in which the writing of a book can affect how research is conducted – for better or worse?

Barrie Trinder:
Good historical writing should be concerned with answering questions, and with context. In writing a biography it is important to look at general works about the time in which the subject lived – to have some understanding, for example, of the varied nature of service in the Second World War, whether manning ships in the Battle of the Atlantic, driving tanks in the Western Desert or Normandy, or spending long periods of boredom on Salisbury Plain.  In looking at the history of particular communities it’s important to be aware of what was typical and what was exceptional. There were many pubs, tailors and shoemakers in every nineteenth century market town, for example, yet historians of such towns often make much of quite unremarkable figures. In looking at a particular place it is best simply to acknowledge what is typical and to highlight what is exceptional. Talking about a projected book – it does not really matter whether the fellow-conversationalist knows about the subject or not – will always improve the end product.

YouCaxton:
Do you have any useful tips on collating research notes prior to writing. Do you have any useful practical tips on how to write research notes?

Barrie Trinder:
When looking through the writings of others always distinguish between factual data and the opinions or theories of the author. Thinking about the plan of a book or article and accumulating data are tasks that almost always take place in parallel, and writing chapters almost always throws up questions that can only be answered by further research. Nevertheless I think it sensible to accumulate most of the research for an intended book in an accessible form before trying to write it.

Unless I am transcribing sizeable chunks of text, I prefer when working in a record office or library to scribble notes rather than to use a laptop, and to arrange the notes logically on a computer file afterwards, often pasting particular items under several relevant headings. This pattern of working obviously will not suit everyone.

YouCaxton:
Do you regret the splitting off of Telford from Shropshire or do you think this was a necessary administrative change?

Barrie Trinder:
I had ceased to be closely involved in Shropshire affairs when the split took place. When I worked for the county council I found it stimulating to have responsibilities in such diverse areas as Dawley and Clun Forest, and to meet some councillors who were members of families that had farmed in particular places for several centuries, and others who were local leaders of trades unions. Perhaps the split was inevitable, but there will be conflicting interests in the new Shropshire. The interests of residents in suburban Shrewsbury do not necessarily coincide with those of people who live on the southern slopes of the Clee Hills, or in the shadow of Offa’s Dyke. Nevertheless the scope for innovation in local government is now so limited, with close financial supervision from Whitehall and interference in such details as the minutiae of school curricula, that the Telford/Shropshire split perhaps does not matter very much either way.

YouCaxton:
You give a talk on English towns of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. Is there much that can usefully be learned for modern practice? Would you welcome the opportunity (on a purely hypothetical level) to advise our councillors and town planners?

Barrie Trinder:
On planning issues I think it important to be honest. Where there is an historical case for preservation it should be made forcefully. Where objections to proposed developments are primarily aesthetic or environmental the case should be made on those grounds and not with spurious and contestable historical arguments that can actually weaken a strong case.

On a different level my research has led me constantly to admire the achievements of the elected leaders of many English towns in the 19th century, who enjoyed rather greater powers than current councillors. They did so much to make towns healthier, and to create such institutions as libraries and museums. It’s sad that local authorities are no longer able to take such initiatives.

YouCaxton:
Nowadays museums tend to be very aware of their educational responsibilities. Do you see any dangers in this for their wider purposes?

 Barrie Trinder:
Obviously I regret that the Ironbridge Institute has effectively ceased to exist and that there is no longer a higher education presence at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

There is a danger that in educational facilities intended primarily for children  museums can follow fashion too closely – for example in the provision of expensive interactive facilities of the kind that originated with the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, which I saw when it was fairly new in 1986. Such facilities can be effective in engaging the attention of children but engagement with real artefacts and images can be equally effective, and consumes fewer resources. In a more general sense it is important for any museum to retain its roots in scholarship, and not to become simply a visitor attraction.

YouCaxton:
What new books are you planning or in the process of writing?

 Barrie Trinder:
Volume VI of the Victoria County History of Shropshire, dealing with Shrewsbury, should be published early in 2014, and includes two chapters that I wrote some years ago dealing with the period 1780-2000. I hope that people will find them interesting but am aware that there is more original material, written by others, in the earlier sections of the volume. I have also contributed three chapters to a book about Ditherington Flax Mill to be published by English Heritage, which has been seriously delayed (the submission date was 30 November 2007, but some chapters have still not materialised). The original plans have been scaled-down, and I do not at present know in what form my contributions will appear.

I have in hand a short historiographical article on changes in our understanding of the history of the Severn Navigation which should appear later this year in West Midlands History, and a conference paper about the designation of Ironbridge as a UNESCO World Heritage Site will probably be published this year by the Technical University of Freiberg, but after the publication by Carnegie during 2013 of my Britain’s Industrial Revolution: the Making of a Manufacturing People, and of Victorian Banburyshire: Three Memoirs, which I edited for the Banbury Historical Society, I am not anxious to undertake large-scale commitments at the moment. I much regret the effective disappearance, as a result of takeovers, of Phillimore, the publishers with whom I worked amicably for more than 30 years, who produced most of my books on Shropshire.