The main components of history are not things but people. This was the ‘discovery’ of George Ewart Evans, who pioneered the study of the British oral tradition and thereby revealed and archived the sociality of Suffolk’s rural life. In so doing he democratised the study of history, and projected it into an ecological dimension by revealing ordinary people’s living relationships with natural resources. Cultural ecology was actually first presented as a mental picture by C.M. Trevelyan, ‘father’ of British social history. Since then, the term ‘cultural ecology’ has expanded from the realm of the historian to cover the topic-web necessary to link social activities with the origins of the natural resources that make them possible. Culture is used in the sense of a set of ideas, beliefs and knowledge, which unite society in a shared course of action.

Ewart Evans also worked at a time when there was a revalidation of the historical artefacts of agriculture, such as implements and buildings. There came a shift in emphasis within museology from viewing them as the cultural heritage of people who made them. Before, they were seen as inert scientific specimens, now they became enormously charged objects that stand as symbols of power relationships. Key concepts of social history are ‘kinship’, that is to say, how different cultures interpret biological relationships, and ‘reciprocity’, the idea that societies are bound together by the exchange of gifts, meaning favours and services as well as material objects and money. Giving and taking are now central concepts of economic development, as the international community moves uncertainly towards global legislation for a sustainable future. In this context there is an increasing historical emphasis on the ‘policy community’. Public policy is now the crucial way in which society is kept together and connected. Members of the conservation movement can be envisaged as a policy community that emerged after the adoption of the World Conservation Strategy in the 1980s. Historians can now study a whole raft of policy documents on sustainable development and conservation of resources, and then look at how local officials interpret them and local recipients, as stakeholders, respond to their transcriptions.

Ewart Evans was situated deep in Suffolk during the 1950s when mechanisation was taking over every aspect of rural life, and shattering the racial and cultural unit that had defined English people since the time of Chaucer. However, in the face of change, his message was the paradox of sociality, namely that the mass of people keeps a continuity, which is ever changing; yet forever remaining the same. An important aspect of this dynamic social continuity is the recurring hopes and aspirations of individuals, which depend directly or indirectly, on local natural resources. These environmental connections provide the drive for family betterment that maintains statistical inequalities in family fortunes. From generation through generation, mechanisms that convert natural resources to wealth also bring about inequalities in its systems of distribution. The existence of this socio-economic phenomenon during the first half of the 19th century is evident in the above quotations describing the relative wealth of two Halesworth families, the Bardwells and Scraggs. A hundred years later the Bardwells and Scraggs were long gone, but the prosperity gap between Chediston Street and Market Place remained and had actually increased. In fact it is a theme of Michael Fordham’s work that the ups and downs of poverty have always provided an undulating baseline to Halesworth’s rise to modern prosperity, and it was in Chediston Street that its depths seemed always to be plumbed (Fig 1.1).

Fig 1.1 Past times in Chediston Street.
chedstreet2_wiki.jpgThe relative situation of Charles Bardwell and Elizabeth Scraggs actually identifies a point in time and space where the ‘birth of plenty’ sprang alive in Halesworth. This was an era when people of small market towns throughout the land were responding to a rapidly growing national economy. The birth of plenty actually opened up an era where the two main pillars of cultural ecology were revealed as ‘giving’ and ‘taking’. These actions are really two sides of the coin of world development, represented by the need to balance the conservation of natural resources with their rate of exploitation.

‘Giving’ has a long history, which extends deep into the Christian concept of ‘charity’ as an expression of care for all living things, human love, and the giving of knowledge and resources. This revolutionary idea, which was rediscovered by Wordsworth and Tolstoy, had been brought to the centre of Christianity by Francis of Assisi six centuries earlier. It is as a concept that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood of sustainability; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion and, above all, the spiritual dangers of prosperity and property. The Franciscan idea of giving permeated the communities of Blything, for we find that local people throughout the medieval period made bequests to the Franciscan friars who had their local base in Dunwich. It has been taken up by the post-modern conservation movement and expressed as ‘giving space to nature’.

‘Taking’ is also deeply rooted in human nature, where it is expressed through the satisfaction of the needs and wants of people for natural resources to survive and better themselves. These days, the taking of natural resources is represented by the forces of rampant consumerism, which has complex sources of origins in the Dark Ages, when the ultimate prize of life was the possession of worldly goods.

The Bardwells and the Scraggs of early 19th century Halesworth lived barely a hundred yards apart, yet there was a great economic chasm separating the shopkeepers and property owners who resided in the Market Place from the artisans of Chediston Street, where two thirds of the properties were valued at under £2 per annum. Bardwell’s transient existence in Bayfield’s premises is also typical of the short life of many Halesworth businesses that seldom survived across one generation. In this respect, there was a coming and going, and a rising and falling of families, in their roles as shopkeepers, craftsfolk and artisans, most of whom first appeared in the town as colonists, seizing upon new opportunities for the exploitation of Halesworth’s potential as a manufacturing and retail centre. Very few families became natives. For example in the space of a few years the property rented by Charles Bardwell in the Market Place had passed through three families, Durban, Woodcock and Baas. In this sense, Halesworth was, as it remains today, a dynamic microcosm of retail culture, and a model for evaluating factors that have contributed to its shifting sociality and continuity. This dynamism has, for two centuries, been expressed by the turnover and spread of families engaged in the commerce of mass production linked with consumerism, a process that now threatens the survival of family retailers.