Christopher Robin Elrington
This obituary for Professor Christopher Elrington (born 20 January 1930; died 3 August 2009, aged 79), former General Editor of the Victoria County History, first appeared in The Times on 11 August 11 2009.
Christopher Elrington spent his working life in the service of the Victoria County History (VCH) and was its general editor for 17 years at a time that now seems like a golden age of secure funding, productivity, purposeful scholarship and collegiality.
The VCH, unparalleled anywhere else in the world, is a remarkable project that stands comparison as an enduring work of reference with the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Unlike them it is incomplete and has never been adequately funded as a whole. It was established in the late 1890s (and named after Queen Victoria) to write the history of every place in every county in England, professionally, systematically and from original sources. Since the 1930s it has belonged to the University of London, headquartered at the Institute of Historical Research and with staff scattered across the country wherever funding has been available for work on a particular county.
The idea of the VCH has always been to produce authoritative local history that is both scholarly and public. The series of Big Red Books, familiar on library shelves throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, grew from 115 volumes in the year Elrington joined the staff to 203 in the year of his retirement. His quiet determination, tact, skills in editing text and negotiating with sponsors, and above all his unassuming generous spirit, stood the VCH in good stead well beyond his retirement. His death at a time when more than half the country still remains to be tackled is especially poignant.
Christopher Robin Elrington was born in 1930, the second of three sons of Major (later Brigadier) Maxwell Elrington of The Border Regiment and Beryl Joan (née Ommanney). His father was killed on active service in Germany in April 1945, when Elrington was 15. He was educated at Wellington College and, after national service, at University College, Oxford.
At Oxford he met and married Jean Margaret Buchanan, an architect. With their twin children, Jean was the foundation of a very happy personal life in London, Gloucestershire, and London again. Initially, she supported him while he took an MA in medieval history at Bedford College, London.
In 1954 Elrington was recruited to the VCH as an assistant to Ralph Pugh, the general editor at the time, Pugh had been appointed in 1949 and was expanding the work of the VCH, both in the number of active counties and in the ways in which the history of localities was researched and written. Pugh’s training in how to undertake local history at the highest level was excellent, and his assistants were a lively group, involved in planning how to use more sources and extend the range of topics covered for each place, while maintaining consistency across the series and keeping the flow of volumes moving forward. Alongside the multifarious tasks of editing volumes and preparing them for publication, Elrington worked mainly on the history of Birmingham, but also wrote up an account of the Wiltshire parish of Woodford as a model for new ways of presenting local history in the VCH.
Work on the VCH started in Gloucestershire in 1960, and Elrington was appointed local editor, moving with his family first to Newent and then to a flat in a country house, Tibberton Court. Jean took a job as architect to the rural district council, and Elrington set to work applying the lessons learnt in London. Over the next eight years he and his assistant editors produced two volumes containing the histories of more than 50 places, an exceptional rate of productivity. Among them the account of Tewkesbury stands out as a substantial study of a market town that became the model for others elsewhere in the country. All his Gloucestershire work was based on impeccable research, written in clear, incisive prose and produced quickly. He had the ability to evoke the feeling of a place with just a few well-chosen words, as well as reporting the facts.
In 1968 Pugh brought Elrington back to London as his deputy. The two made a strong team, though they were very different in character. As Pugh moved towards retirement, it was Elrington who drove the progress of the VCH, strengthening its intellectual foundations, and he continued to do so when he succeeded as general editor in 1977, for example by including much more on the history of landscape and settlements. Already as deputy editor he had taken on much of the work of reading and editing the typescripts that came in from what by the 1980s was a team of more than 30 professional historians spread across a dozen counties. As general editor and in retirement, Elrington kept his hand in as far as VCH research was concerned by working on the Sussex parish histories, the final two of which will appear this year.
Elrington worked extremely hard, set high standards in research, editing and production, and was painstaking and generous in training junior staff and looking after their welfare. Among his senior colleagues, many of whom had been with the VCH as long as he had or longer, he was very much a first among equals. As well as overseeing the day-to-day operations of a complex scholarly project, Elrington, with his deputy editor, steered the VCH from typewriters, carbon copies and hot-metal typesetting to laptops and digital files e-mailed to the typesetter. In 1989 he ensured that the first 200 volumes of the VCH were marked by an exhibition at the British Library, insisting that it was all 200 volumes that were being celebrated, not just the one that happened to be the 200th.
He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1964 and of the Royal Historical Society in 1969, and was made Professor of History at the University of London in 1992 and Emeritus Professor in retirement.
In London the Elringtons settled in an early 19th-century house in Finsbury. Jean continued to work as an architect, and many colleagues and friends enjoyed their convivial hospitality and sometimes startling varieties of home-made wine.
The admiration and affection that Elrington inspired among VCH workers was marked at his retirement in 1994 with a book systematically treating the history of county history in England, to which as many as 35 VCH staff and former staff contributed, with others.
Elrington himself marked his retirement by a strenuous and meticulously planned “Hike for History” in 1996, three long sweeps of sponsored walking (1,100 miles in all, and conducted at a cracking pace) that passed through every one of the 39 historic English counties and garnered publicity for the VCH in local and national media. Sponsorship money went into the County History Trust, which he set up as an independent charity to support the work of the VCH and complement the University of London’s Victoria History Trust.
The VCH left little time for other activities until retirement, but Elrington edited part of the register of the early 14th-century Bishop Roger Martival of Salisbury (1972) and the Wiltshire final concords of the reign of Edward III (1974), served as general editor of the Wiltshire Record Society 1962-72, and was a member of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches 1982-96.
After 1994 he edited the Gloucestershire final concords, spent much time editing and indexing other texts for the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire record societies, and was on the council of the Marc Fitch Fund. He played squash into his sixties, giving younger opponents a hard time, and went skiing into his seventies.
Elrington was a kind and patient man, always willing to give his time to others, and wore his scholarship lightly. Skilled and successful as the leader of a great historical enterprise, he had the ability to leave everyone he came into contact with feeling that they were important to him.
He is survived by his wife, and by their son and daughter.
The following obituary was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 12 August 2009.
Professor Christopher Elrington, who died on August 3 aged 79, was an inspirational force at the Victoria County History (VCH), revitalising, expanding and securing the future of an encyclopedia of English local history which has no equivalent abroad; over four decades he was successively assistant to the editor, county editor for Gloucestershire, deputy editor and – for 17 years from 1977 – general editor.
When he joined the VCH in 1954, after National Service, three years as a scholar at University College, Oxford, and a History MA, it was part-way through a period of expansion and modernisation. Founded as a private venture in the late 1890s, the VCH had been planned as a systematic, complete, and comprehensive set of histories of all English counties based on newly-available national sources. Like its predecessors, it treated some topics county-wide, but put the rest in articles on individual parishes in each county.
The VCH gradually became recognised as a scholarly work of reference. But the First World War destroyed the private company's prospects, with most county sets still unfinished, and the Depression prevented its revival.
The Victoria County History, having become part of London University's Institute of Historical Research in 1933, hardly re-emerged until after 1945.
Its new form was a partnership, devised by Ralph Pugh (general editor between 1949 and 1977), between the university, which funded central editing and supervised publication, and local authorities that paid for two or three writers and editors in several unfinished counties. Pugh also modernised and expanded the content of the volumes, without changing the overall structure.
His assistants, including Elrington, were required to think deeply about how parish histories should be written, to help produce memoranda on treatment and sources, and to set an example to county staff. To the disgust of some senior county editors, Elrington's first history of a Wiltshire parish, Woodford, was circulated as a model of what was required.
In 1961 Elrington moved to Gloucestershire to revive its unfinished volume as county editor; by 1968 he had edited, and in great part written, two and a half brisk volumes, including the histories of Tewkesbury, Stow-on-the-Wold, and some 60 rural parishes. He was then summoned back to London as deputy editor.
By the time Pugh retired in 1977, Elrington had taken over all dealings with printers and publishers, and almost all the work of reading and copy-editing the text. He had also helped to revive the Cambridgeshire and Sussex sets, had organised a start in Cheshire, and produced a new edition of the VCH Handbook, a house style and reference guide then widely used by other historians.
His arrival at the top proved crucial. The fiscal chaos of the 1970s had all but destroyed long-term planning, essential for an encyclopedia whose volumes take several years each to write; and thereafter both universities and local authorities were increasingly hit by cuts and restraints that made keeping or replacing experienced staff difficult.
Much of Elrington's time as editor was spent in negotiations with local sponsors, in which he displayed great diplomatic skill, and latterly in seeking an alternative to the local-authority funding model. He took advantage of the publication of 200 volumes by 1989 to engineer a major exhibition in the British Library, opened by the Queen, which led to other events and fund-raising initiatives. He persuaded London University to establish a trust for donors to the VCH.
Despite the financial difficulties, and the constant growth in the available sources, the VCH under Elrington was exceptionally productive. This was largely owing to his own dedication, astonishingly hard work, and ability to inspire colleagues. He made sure that he could himself do – and do better – any task that he required of a colleague, always expecting high standards but never the impossible.
Christopher Robin Elrington was born at Farnborough on January 20 1930, the second of three sons of Brigadier Maxwell Elrington, DSO, OBE, and his wife Beryl. His father was killed on active service when Christopher was a boy at Wellington. While at Oxford, Christopher met and married Jean Buchanan, an architect and watercolourist who supported him later during his MA and later combined part-time professional work with bringing up their twins.
Throughout his long career Elrington was as patient and humane in dealing with editorial colleagues as with local patrons, tempering a razor-sharp intellect with an urbane courtesy. He continued to help the VCH after retirement in 1994, editing some volumes and raising funds.
He established a second, independent, County History Trust, for donors unable to give directly to the university, and raised money for it in 1996 with his Hike for History, a sponsored 1,260-mile walk through all the historic English counties, conducted at a pace which many considerably younger companions found hard to match. He had always been very fit, and was a keen squash and tennis player and skier; he also enjoyed driving, bridge, Handel's operas, winemaking, Trollope, and mending and fixing things.
Outside the VCH, he was general editor, later president, of the Wiltshire Record Society, and was de facto general editor of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society's record series. He also edited volumes for the Wiltshire Record Society, completing one within a month of his death. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1964 and of the Royal Historical Society in 1989.
Christopher Elrington is survived by his wife and by their son and daughter.
The following obituary written by our Fellow Negley Harte first appeared in the Independent newspaper on 1 September 2009.
Christopher Elrington devoted the whole of his professional life as a historian to the Victoria County History, that magnificent encyclopaedic work attempting to provide fully researched and properly referenced historical accounts of all the counties of England and their more than 10,000 individual parishes. Some 250 large red volumes of the VCH have appeared since the endeavour began in 1899. Elrington had an increasingly influential hand in all the volumes that have appeared in the last 50 years.
He was General Editor of the whole enterprise from 1977 until 1994, having been Deputy Editor from 1968, and before that County Editor for Gloucestershire from 1960 to 1968, and originally assistant to the General Editor from 1954 to 1960. His first contributions were published exactly 50 years ago in 1959 – he compiled the index to the excellent economic history volume IV of the VCH Wiltshire, and in the same year he wrote three succinct articles about aspects of the University of Cambridge in the VCH Cambridgeshire, volume III.
The VCH, originally a private enterprise, had been based at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London since 1933, entrenched in the old-fashioned if "modern" Senate House since the Ministry of Information faded away at the end of the War. Elrington brought a breath of fresh air when he arrived in 1954, combining, as he did, a twinkling irreverence with a scholarly commitment and a gift for encapsulating complex matters in a simple elegant phrase.
Christopher Elrington was born in 1930. He was the son of a military family, his father a brigadier, and educated at Wellington before himself undergoing national service, and then going to University College, Oxford, where he graduated brilliantly in history and took his MA. He then went to Bedford College in London and took a real MA, producing a thesis based upon detailed medieval research.
Elrington's predecessor as General Editor of the VCH was the austere R.B. Pugh, whose crab-like movements and old-fashioned buttoned–up bachelor suits had intimidated generations of research students at the Institute of Historical Research since 1949. Pugh and Elrington were – to use appropriate Wiltshire terminology - chalk and cheese. But Elrington always paid generous tribute to his mentor; certainly, they shared a scholarly concern for precision and clarity of provenance. In due course Elrington also succeeded Pugh as the President of the Wiltshire Record Society in 1984, the Society founded in 1937 by Pugh and described by Elrington (before he became its President) as "probably the very best" of the local record societies.
When I moved to Wiltshire in 2004 Elrington said with great enthusiasm, "You have chosen the best county". Soon afterwards I invited him to come as my guest to a dinner of the Essay Club in London, writing to explain that he did not need to write an essay, or – worse – listen to one being read, but that the name of the Club was a pun upon the Society of Antiquaries, the members being chosen from among the Fellows of that Society. "Yes, yes", he rang to say, "I know all about it, I've been before. Delighted to come, so long as you don't expect me to become a member." He hated joining clubs, he added by way of explanation.
He enjoyed the evening, evidently quite at home with the erudite scholarly gossip and banter, but he generally preferred to be at home, or exploring and travelling with his family. He had, after all, a very lively and charming wife (Wiltshire-born), who he had married in 1951 when she was involved in her first job of helping Sir Hugh Casson to construct the Festival of Britain. Jean Elrington was a working architect of great taste and style. They had a very happy marriage and a very happy family life with their twin son and daughter, and later grandchildren.
He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (elected 1964) and of the Royal Historical Society (1969), neither society requiring clubbiness. The only period he spent away from the VCH was a short period as a visiting scholar at the Folger Library in Washington in 1976. He received a wonderful accolade in 1994 with the publication of a Festschrift edited by the two Chrises, Currie and Lewis, with chapters systematically considering the historians of all the counties of England, a volume that should be on the shelves of all local historians.
In view of Elrington's distinction, the University of London in 1992 conferred upon him the title of professor (though he never taught in any formal sense); after his retirement in 1994 he became an Emeritus professor, a style which suited him admirably.
Elrington, for all his sympathetic writing about parishes and medieval thought and practices, was a sensible and intelligent atheistic rationalist. Confronted by the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he chose to die quietly and all too quickly at home, sadly a few months before his 80th birthday. He left his body for medical research. His places – the meetings in Wiltshire, the teas at the Institute of Historical Research, the laughter in Lloyd Baker Street, WC1 – will no longer for many be quite the same.
Christopher Robin Elrington, historian and editor: born Farnborough 20 January 1930; Victoria County History: editorial assistant, 1954-60, editor for Gloucestershire, 1960-68, Deputy Editor, 1968-77, General Editor, 1977-94; Hon. Editor 1962-72 and President 1983-2009, Wiltshire Record Society; President, Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1984-85; married 1951 Jean Buchanan (one son, one daughter): died London 3 August 2009.
The following obituary, by Susan Reynolds, first appeared in the Guardian on 14 September 2009.
Cristopher Elrington, who has died aged 79, spent his whole working life with the Victoria County History (VCH), with 17 very successful years as general editor. The VCH is a national treasure: a scholarly work of reference on English local history that has no parallel in other countries. Its value depends on its systematic, though as yet incomplete, coverage of the country and on its quality, based on original research. It therefore needs scholarly and competent people to write it and money to pay them. The VCH was lucky to get Christopher, who for 40 years not only himself produced clear and scholarly history fast, but was a patient and skilful editor and negotiator for funds.
When it was founded in 1899, the VCH was a private publishing venture, but by 1914 it had run out of money. It staggered on until it was adopted by London University's Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in 1933, but it continued to have a rather tenuous existence until 1949, when Christopher's predecessor, Ralph Pugh, became its general editor. Pugh devised a scheme by which local authorities raised money in five-year instalments to pay editors who would write VCH volumes on individual counties. These would then be edited by the central staff at the IHR and published by London University.
By the time Christopher joined the central staff in 1954, 10 counties were officially complete, though these earlier volumes were distinctly uneven in quality. By then, however, work was going on in five counties, and a beginning had been made on reshaping the VCH to cover more aspects of history, both in the articles about whole counties and in those about individual parishes. During Christopher's time as general editor, from 1977 to 1994, 40 volumes were published on 12 counties, all of them much more substantial in content than the volumes published before 1949.
Christopher was good at all aspects of managing, editing and writing the VCH: negotiating patiently with local authorities, winning and keeping the trust of their VCH committees, encouraging and guiding VCH staff, and editing their work. In the book of essays presented to him on his retirement, one member of staff commented that those whose work he edited could feel that the piece was still entirely in their own words and was what they would have written if they had worked harder at it in the first place. His own histories of parishes in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are not only lucid and thorough, but give a strong impression of the place – not always easy to achieve when writing for a work of reference that has to give information in a regular, systematic, and economical way.
As editor he opened up the VCH to a wider readership by allowing public library authorities to produce reprints of parts of volumes at a low price, and persuaded staff and publishers to adopt new printing technologies to save money, while preserving the traditional appearance of the large red volumes of the main series. In later years his efforts were overshadowed by rate-capping and constraints on local authority spending, so that some counties dropped out of the co-operative system. His patience and determination, however, postponed some withdrawals and kept other counties on board. Taken as a whole, his time as general editor looks like a golden age.
Christopher was the second of three sons of Brigadier Maxwell Elrington and his wife Beryl (nee Ommanney). His full name, Christopher Robin, was chosen by his older brother. His father was killed on active service in Europe shortly before the end of the second world war, when Christopher was 15, leaving his mother with two sons still at school and, given the conditions of army life then, no home of their own.
He was educated at Wellington college and, after national service, at University College, Oxford. While at Oxford he met and married Jean Buchanan, an architect, who supported him as a student, to his mother's disapproval, and contrived to continue her profession even after their twins were born. After an MA in medieval history at London University, he joined the VCH and worked as assistant to the general editor until he and his family moved to Gloucestershire in 1961 when he became county editor there. They returned rather reluctantly to London after Pugh persuaded him to take the new post of deputy editor.
Working hard for the VCH did not exclude tennis, skiing (until the age of 77) and bridge; any more than it prevented Christopher from editing part of a bishop's register and other medieval documents in his spare time. He also displayed a neat line in light verse. He became a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1969 and a professor of London University in 1992. In 1996, after he retired, he undertook what he called a hike for history to win support for the County History Trust that he had set up for the VCH. He walked more than a thousand miles, visiting every county according to a published programme, so that supporters could join him for different parts of his route.
With a characteristic readiness to do inglorious jobs that needed skill and application, he made indexes for various record publications, continuing to index a volume for the Wiltshire Record Society until he it was finished, his illness notwithstanding. It was also characteristic that when he had to go to University College Hospital for chemotherapy and was too weak to walk there, he took a bus, though Jean insisted that he got a taxi back.
He is survived by Jean, their twins Giles and Judy, and by seven grandchildren.