Who do you think they were?

Michael Blakstad for Meon Matters August 2016

Back in the 2000s, East Meon’s website received enquiries from all over the world, from descendants of village families who wanted to learn about their forebears. Apart from referring them to the church, which held the parish registers, or to an elderly member of the community, who had a long but erratic memory, we had no very useful response to make.

In 2009, I decided it was time to form some sort of ‘proper’ society, and East Meon History Group was founded, a small and informal bunch of residents, who were interested in coming to talks given by invited historians about local history. A few were keen enough to do their own research into the houses in which they lived (plus some other buildings, such as our magnificent Norman church, the mills listed in the Domesday Book, and the National School, since converted into two houses). From the research, we produced a House History exhibition held first in The Court Hall (for centuries the seat of the Bishops of Winchester, whose manor East Meon was); the Hampshire Record Office subsequently hosted it. In the meantime, we had built our own website, www.eastmeonhistory.net, onto which we loaded a miscellaneous collection of old photographs, articles from newspapers and journals about the village, and some accounts of its history.

In 2013 we wanted to go further, and create an accessible archive of our records. The history website had further kindled interest from all over the world, and we reckoned that a properly indexed online archive would provide some of the answers people sought. Further, we knew there was a cornucopia of photographs, old newspaper articles, letters and other memorabilia sitting in people’s drawers or attics, and we wanted to collect as many records as possible. We combined both ambitions in a proposal to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to hold an Open Day, to which villagers would be invited to bring their memorabilia, which we would scan on the spot, allowing them to take their precious souvenirs home with them. This was to be the tip of an iceberg, of which the other six-sevenths were the systematic indexing of the digital files (and a card index for paper records), the creation of a complex content management system for the digital files and a new website, www.eastmeonhistory.net, onto which the records would be loaded, and through which people could search and access the information they sought.

The grant was made and we in September that year we mounted an ambitious event in the Village Hall, designed to attract as many residents as possible. We re-staged the House Histories exhibition, now updated, hired period costumes in which children could dress up, displayed old village photos and invitated guests to tell us who were the forgotten faces; there was also a collection of old farm machinery, a re-enactment of Saxon life and battles (again, for the children), free teas and cakes and, at the heart of it, a battery of digital scanners manned by our members. It was hugely successful, and more than 200 people came, not just from the village but also from nearby towns and villagers to which East Meon families had dispersed.

We were overwhelmed by the number of memorabilia brought, some of which people were content to donate to the archive. With the grant money, we were able to purchase suitable acid-free storage sleeves, boxes and files, and an A3 scanner which could handle maps and larger documents. Most importantly, we were able to commission a specialist web agency, Communitysites of Brighton, to create the content management system and new website which would make the archive available around the world.

You can judge the results for yourselves by visiting the online archive (which is umbilically joined to the original history site). Last month, and most months, it receives around 1,500 visits, and we are in constant correspondence with researchers who ask us to pursue more detailed information, and who contribute the results of their own work, much of which is waiting for me to upload it! (I am currently doing an online university course on Local History, which I wish I had done earlier … it has taught me how better to structure and reference the articles we have posted. I don’t suppose I shall ever get round to revisting the content which is already there, to apply these lessons.)

As I write this, the History Group is embarking on the biggest research project we have yet attempted, chronicling the history of Agriculture in this valley. Members keep telling me that when they google the sources they need, it is to our own archive that the search directs them. The Group has doubled in size since 2013, and we are very grateful to the HLF for the crucial injection of funds at an important stage of our development.