History used to be only about the political arena and the roles of famous leaders and thinkers. This national emphasis has changed, and since about the middle of the last century, people described as social historians have begun to look more closely at the experiences of "ordinary people" and everyday life. Recently, this view has been embedded in the concept of social history being a continuation of a process of human evolution. Evolution is seen as a phenomenon of continuous change in which, during the last two million years, we humans have imposed our will on the environment as an outcome of our characteristic social nature. In this perspective we can see that for the last two centuries we have been living in societies dominated by applied ecology. According to this idea, the history of every society, such as the increased prosperity of a concentration of people in towns like Halesworth, has been a continuous process of resolving the ecological problems of organising nature and people for production. These problems have been resolved by meeting social needs that require the transformation of natural resources into goods and services. ‘Ecology’ is thus defined as a social concept where economic, ethnic, and gender conflicts, amongst others, lie at the core of planet Earth’s serious environmental problems. This is the reason why we have undertaken to place the local history of Halesworth in this broad context of ecological societies.

The concept of ‘ecological societies’ has great potential value and benefit for anyone interested in people of the past who inhabited the houses and walked the streets of their hometown. This approach to local history was given a boost by the coming of the new millennium, when it was realised there was a link between the now distant past and the immediate future. A common feeling was that a community with a solid history has a stable platform upon which to become involved with future socio-economic developments, particularly in relation to conservation of the built environment. Every building is part of a rich and complicated tapestry of life. However, such is the speed of change, that in a fraction of a lifetime, old buildings, open spaces and curious nooks and crannies can be replaced with cash-generating placeless development. A good grounding in social history contributes to a community’s adversarial strength in putting a case for conservation.

When this "new" social history began to emerge in the 1960s, it was at first very much analytical; scholars began to ask specific questions. How much social mobility was there and why? What were the experiences of racial minorities, immigrants, and women in British society? How did workers respond to the industrial setting? How did migrants respond to the new industrial cities? But social historians also looked at the institutions used by ordinary folk; in the City People study of nineteenth century New York, the roles of the department store, metropolitan daily newspaper, vaudeville house, and baseball park were considered critical to the emergence of a common urban culture by the many diverse people who inhabited the city.

This was history written "from the bottom up" becoming respectable. Instead of the traditional academic approach from "top-down," social history has increasingly broadened to characterise the large mass of those who appear only dimly on the pages of standard histories. At the same time, social history has now fragmented into a number of discrete sub fields including family, women and gender, cities and suburbs, immigration, racial minorities, childhood, ageing, agricultural life, and workers.

Since social history focuses on experiences that touch the lives of everyone or their ancestors, it is of immediate interest to most people. It provides them with a sense of where they came from and how they came to be where they are. There is a knowledge gap to be filled for the creation of a sense of continuity with the past in a rapidly changing world. This is especially true for children, raised in an age of atomic and neutron bombs, ‘global villages’, television, VCRs, videogames, PCs, instant food, and moon travel. There is a gap in understanding the lives of their parents and grandparents, whose childhoods included none of these contributions to modern civilization.

In an age where ‘sustainable development, is a global catchword to the future, and ‘conservation’ is a widespread behaviour to preserve heritage assets, social history provides the context and explanation necessary to move into the future. It encourages the inclusion of all peoples of a community, not just elites or founders. While the latter are important, their roles are often exaggerated. A broader coverage of all groups and organizations permits a more accurate and complete record; it also encourages a wider participation in the process of feedback and updating. This process of inclusivity is greatly aided by the spread of computer literacy and links between families through the Internet. Social history, then, is a key to the greater democratization of local history and local historical organizations; broader participation also means more resources including members, volunteers, contributions, new ideas and viewpoints. Democratic participation in compiling and extending local history into the immediate present offers the participants attractive possibilities of nostalgia, and at the same time the opportunity to explain how and why their lives have changed, and how in many respects they have remained constant. Many social historians are first and foremost people talking about their own patch. Their work is deeply rooted in a local context and their studies depend heavily on, and contribute to, knowledge of place.

Perhaps the most exciting approach used by social and local historians is oral history, an effort that is now largely restricted to the twentieth century. Oral history is valuable in a number of ways. It fills in gaps that other sources cannot; it personalizes history; and it involves people (both interviewee and interviewer) who can broaden the base of a local historical organization.

We began to gather information about Halesworth’s past in the context of social history as a resource for communities planning their future. The town really chose us for this project in that we both have long ancestral links with Blything and Halesworth itself. We have drawn on the work of other local researchers, notably Nesta Evans, Michael Fordham, Michael and Sheila Gooch, and Ivan Sparkes and have incorporated some reminiscences and new materials of local people, such as the Newby family. Our novel contribution is to use our combined experiences as an academic and a local genealogist who have collaborated for many years on international projects in environmental education. This has enabled us to place Halesworth in the context of social ecology, to show how people of the past, and their links through kinship and neighbourliness, have contributed to changing urban society to produce new cultural expressions. This story is in no way definitive, but we hope it offers a picture of a developing community in broad brush strokes in which the accomplishments, trials and tribulations of individuals and families is entwined with a broader national stream of world development. It is offered as a basis for others to add to and refine. The scope is defined in the town’s brochure produced to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951:

Many personalities during the centuries have played their parts in the life of this small community. They have flitted across its life like actors in a stage play, and books could be written concerning their work. Humour, pathos, and honest endeavour have mingled and the story is unending. Their names are legion and the results of their efforts with us to day. We can give to all credit for their work and say with the poet:

" Something attempted, something done,
To earn the night's repose,"