The validity of old documents


Historians lean heavily for their research on old documents and although they are a valuable source for a great deal of material, they are not always reliable. There are many instances of documents not being exactly what they purport to be and in recent times the Hitler Diaries were exposed as fakes in 1983 despite being bought by The Sunday Times and endorsed by an eminent historian of the day, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, while only this week it was revealed that a large number of historic papers relating to Britain’s perfidy during WW2 which form part of the National Archive, the official custodian of Britain’s glorious past, were the work of a master forger.

Closer to home, the story of Hereward the Wake, as well as many other tales from this part of South Lincolnshire, rely on the narrative of Ingulph, a Benedictine abbot of Crowland Abbey in the 11th century whose chronicle was regarded by scholars as authentic but the manuscript has since been found to have been a forgery written two or three hundred years after his death.

But perhaps these are extreme cases and rarely come the way of local historians who are more likely to encounter the work of enthusiastic amateurs who exaggerated and romanticised rather than fabricated.

The story of Hereward has certainly been embroidered over the years, notably by several Victorian historical writers such as Charles Kingsley and Charles Macfarlane while more recently, Christopher Marlowe (not to be confused with the 16th century dramatist) added his four-pennyworth in 1926 with a colourful account in his book Legends of the Fenland People which was required reading in my early schooldays.

One of the great church celebrations of past times was the Bourne Pageant which was held in the garden of the old vicarage [now the Cedars retirement home] in 1938 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the abbey by Baldwin Fitzgilbert in 1138. There were several days of events and on this occasion, a service was held in the open air with a fully robed choir while special stands were erected around the lawn for the congregation. Among the re-enactments staged by parishioners was that of monks taking the body of Hereward the Wake by river to Crowland Abbey for burial, although it has been established since that this incident has no foundation in fact, thus proving that fictionalised accounts from our history have persisted into recent times.

The history of Bourne has suffered particularly from contributors who may not have been fully conversant with their subject, either by not having lived here or who visited only briefly, and there are many examples of one copying the other with the result that mistakes are repeated from one volume to the next yet still quoted as fact by the lazy and the unwary.

Yet it would take only a moment’s thought to realise that no one could possibly cover an entire county and give accurate accounts of each village and town without consulting an outside source and this is indeed how it happened. Among the oft-quoted authorities is one of Lincolnshire’s earliest historians William Marrat (1772-1852) whose main interest was commercial because his occupation was that of a printer whose firm, Marrat and Company, operated from premises in High Street, Boston.

It was his idea to chronicle the history of every town and large village and publish the results monthly as a series of small gazetteers for sale but after a few months realised that it was too big a task for one man to visit and describe them all. He therefore enrolled the aid of a learned gentleman in each place, usually the schoolmaster or the parson, who sent their manuscripts to his printing works where the booklets were produced and eventually distributed for sale. In the event, the first publications were so successful and help from all quarters so forthcoming, that Marrat changed his objective and eventually mapped and made several topographical surveys of the county between 1814 and 1817, so completing the entire area of Lincolnshire in three years in a series of 31 slim volumes although the evidence is that he visited only one or two places himself.

These publications are now rare but I have been fortunate to find an almost complete set and although in rather a battered condition, still readable and containing details of his methods of obtaining information about each locality. The Bourne entry is important in that it proves that the contents have been repeated elsewhere in earlier and subsequent years, in part or in whole, ad infinitum, mistakes and all. The date of the first publications was 1814-16 and the information requested by and supplied to Marrat set a standard for that used regularly in the various county directories such as Kelly’s and White’s, published throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. All carry long descriptive accounts of the town but close inspection reveals that they are all very much alike and in many instances came from the same pen.

It is also apparent that much of what Marrat published came in fact from a previous historian, John Moore, who wrote an account of Bourne in 1809 under the patronage of Mrs Eleanor Pochin, widow of George Pochin (1732-98), Lord of the Manor of Bourne Abbots, to which it is dedicated. This is a lengthy account and contains many references that have since been disproved, particularly the claim that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched at the Red Hall although we now know that it was not built until 1605 when the perpetrators had already been discovered yet this assertion still appears in some articles and guidebooks today as an indication that old tales live on despite being disproved by later research.

As with Moore, Marrat’s description of Bourne is a long and tortuous, and often inaccurate historical account. Printing was still at an early stage and publications such as this had little regard for conformity or the niceties of language that we know today and so his writing is full of spelling contradictions and errors of punctuation and grammar yet these entries continue to be quoted as an authoritative source. Perhaps Henry Ford was closer to the mark than he realised when he said that history is bunk.

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