The history of England is enshrined in its ancient documents. Some of it may be read in its stone walls and earthworks. The builders of our churches stamped its story on their stones, and by the shape of arch and design of window, by porch and doorway, tower and buttress you can read the history of the building and tell its age and the dates of its additions and alterations. Inscriptions, monuments, and brasses help to fill in the details; but all would be in vain if we had no documentary evidence, no deeds and charters, registers and wills, to help us to build up the history of each town and monastery, castle and manor. Even after the most careful searches in the Record Office and the British Museum it is very difficult oftentimes to trace a manorial descent. You spend time and labour, eyesight and midnight oil in trying to discover missing links, and very often it is all in vain; the chain remains broken, and you cannot piece it together. Some of us whose fate it is to have to try and solve some of these genealogical problems, and spend hours over a manorial descent, are inclined to envy other writers who fill their pages currente calamo and are ignorant of the joys and disappointments of research work.
In the making of the history of England patient research and the examination of documents are, of course, all-important. In the parish chest, in the municipal charters and records, in court rolls, in the muniment-rooms of guilds and city companies, of squire and noble, in the Record Office, Pipe Rolls, Close Rolls, royal letters and papers, etc., the real history of the country is contained. Masses of Rolls and documents of all kinds have in these late years been arranged, printed, and indexed, enabling the historical student to avail himself of vast stores of information which were denied to the historian of an earlier age, or could only be acquired by the expenditure of immense toil.
Nevertheless, we have to deplore the disappearance of large numbers of priceless manuscripts, the value of which was not recognized by their custodians. Owing to the ignorance and carelessness of these keepers of historic documents vast stores have been hopelessly lost or destroyed, and have vanished with much else of the England that is vanishing. We know of a Corporation—that of Abingdon, in Berkshire, the oldest town in the royal county and anciently its most important—which possessed an immense store of municipal archives. These manuscript books would throw light upon the history of the borough; but in their wisdom the members of the Corporation decided that they should be sold for waste paper! A few gentlemen were deputed to examine the papers in order to see if anything was worth preserving. They spent a few hours on the task, which would have required months for even a cursory inspection, and much expert knowledge, which these gentlemen did not possess, and reported that there was nothing in the documents of interest or importance, and the books and papers were sold to a dealer. Happily a private gentleman purchased the “waste paper,” which remains in his hands, and was not destroyed: but this example only shows the insecurity of much of the material upon which local and municipal history depends.