HISTORIES always reach the point where the manner of their telling is at least as interesting as the tales they tell.
Such is certainly the case with the remarkable two-volume The History, Antiquities and Topography of the County of Sussex, a monumental pair of door-stoppers compiled and edited by the clearly-indefatigable Thomas Walker Horsfield in the years just before Britain turned Victorian.
Speaking of himself in the third person in his 1834 preface, Horsfield relates how the work grew out of a much more modest and specific volume on Lewes, so well received that it was followed by a similar volume on Brighton.
“Such is the origin of the following unpretending pages,” he intones as he introduces a work which, recently reissued, comprises around a thousand pages.
“As far as the Editor is concerned,” he continues in his rather regal third person, “he would rather have confined his investigations to the locality above mentioned; but finding that the demand for a County History was general and pressing, he was induced, though not without many misgiving, to attempt to supply the demand.”
Horsfield doffs his cap to his publisher.
“He has sent intelligent agents into different parts of the county, for the purpose of obtaining that peculiar information which is indispensable in a topographical work.
“The places not visited by the Editor have thus furnished their respective share of interest; and what could not have been effected by individual exertion, has been accomplished by a division of labour.”
The collective nature of the undertaking somehow makes it all the more impressive. Between, them with their purple prose, archaic phrasing and attention to detail, they captured the county at a fascinating moment in its history.
Arundel is described with typical mix of flourish and specifics: “Its extent is computed at about 1875 acres, of which 71 are in pasture and meadow, 347 in tillage, and the rest within the park or forest.
“The Town is eligibly situated in the lower division of the parish, on the southern declivity of the Sown Downs, at the base of which the river Arun winds its course to the sea. The upper part of the town commands an interesting view for miles of rich meadows watered by the Arun and terminated by the ocean.
“The river, well known to the gourmand for the rich and delicate mullet which it produces, but more esteemed by the trader for the ready communication which it affords with the metropolis on the one hand, and with a chain of villages and towns westward to Portsmouth on the other, is of immense advantage to the inhabitants, and insures commerce and prosperity to the town.”
It’s a rich evocation, elegantly worded - and a typical introduction to the world of Thomas Walker Horsfield and his army of “intelligent agents”.
Next week, we’ll travel back to Worthing through their eyes…
n The History, Antiquities and Topography of the County of Sussex has been reproduced in two volumes at £90 by Country Books, Courtyard Cottage, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1NN.