Hoskins was born in Exeter in 1908. He was a scholarship boy, and by the age of twenty-one had gained both a BSc and MSc in Economics at the predecessor of Exeter University. He started his professional career at the University of Leicester, but economics became increasingly uncongenial and he turned instead to history, stimulated by a local archaeological society. His growing familiarity with the minutiae of sources and records led to a Phd thesis on the ownership and occupation of land in Devon 1680-1800. He was established on the path that was to lead to his most well-known work, The Making of the English Landscape, in 1955. It is a book that justly deserves the adjective seminal.
However, the year prior to that he published his history and guide to Devon in Collins' series A New Survey of England. It delights in both the place and in its making.. It is a revel in the author's roots, for in order to produce the gazetteer which comprises the second half of the volume, Hoskins visited every one of Devon's four hundred and fifty parishes. The feat is remarkable because it was performed almost exclusively by public transport and while still living out of the county. Mrs Hoskins was clearly a patient woman.
The first half of the book is a comprehensive survey of the county's history, but it is not a conventional and chronological record of nobility and names (though they rightly appear where they must) but its template is rather the land itself and what man has done to and upon it. It is thus a fitting predecessor to The Making of the English Landscape, which went on to adapt its approach to a wider canvas. So Devon opens with the geology and topography of the county and never forgets that these, with climate and natural history as crew, are the engine that powers history along.
Hoskins' father and grandfather were Exeter bakers, but like most of us his roots were in the country, as he describes in his introduction to the guide. He took great pleasure in finding that his great-great-grandfather was the parish clerk of Chagford who, by whistling, led the psalms from the west gallery of the parish church (which church coincidentally features in my previous blog below). The performance was noted by Baring-Gould in A Book of Dartmoor. The introduction to Devon delights in the discovery of ancestry that had been rooted in the Dartmoor countryside for seven hundred years. This he says, is the immemorial, provincial England, stable, rooted deep in the soil, unmoving, contented and sane. These, he continues, are my forbears, who have made me what I am, whether I like it or not. With the substitution of Wales, I would say the same. It is a sentiment that likely drives many of those who take an interest in these pages.
But it is a conservative and romantic vision, and the giveaway is in the word contented. That Hoskins' ancestors were contented is a happy assumption for which there is likely small evidence, for or against. For many of them life would have been nasty , brutish and short, and for most of them there was no alternative but to make the best of what little they had. They were enjoined thus repeatedly by their church and their social superiors along centuries of internalising length, until, as Hoskins himself notes, the collapse of their community in the early nineteenth century drove them off the land.
In 1966 Hoskins published a series of essays under the title Old Devon. They largely elaborate or turn a microscope upon some of the details in the earlier work, but conclude with an essay on the (Devon) farm labourer through four centuries. It makes the best use it can of the sparse materials available to conjure the life of the census' Ag Lab, before reaching the only just conclusion - that the dice were heavily loaded against them from the start. Escape from what Hoskins calls the bondage of the forbears was all too rare. But this admission comes late in Hoskins' writings. He was a historian, and had to make what he could from the sources. So we should not be surprised that he writes at length about the gentry and the yeoman class, who are survived by their records and remnants; while the history of the labourer and of the poor can be seen only relatively, as through a glass darkly, from annals that are indeed short and simple. It comes as a relief to reach this late essay, for in Devon and in Old Devon, he can be apt to misplace the majority of past Devonians, and allow what has been recorded to overbalance what has not. This allows too often a comfortable nostalgia for a village idyll magicked by thoughts of the traction engine boiling tea on the cricket field at harvest time; for the old hierarchy of the benevolent squire and his happy tenants: for lamenting the decay of community and its replacement by the state. Thus for example Baring-Gould is a characteristic figure from a more humane England; or elsewhere, the corrupt boroughs of the eighteenth century had much to be said for them compared to the modern pocket boroughs ... returning their trade union nonentities so consistently. Or their public-school wide-boys with a sense of entitlement, I could add.
I might like to think that history is not written like this now. But it must be said that what it lacks in objectivity, it makes up for in joy and appropriate pride in place and ancestry. Readers not from Devon will still be given a genuine feel for how the Devonians came to be and how they saw themselves; and readers who are Devonian will more clearly identify with the land that made them. Hoskins takes his epigraph to Devon from Virgil: Hic amor, haec patria est; this is love, this is my native land. Hiraeth indeed.