IF THERE WAS A MOMENT when I did not want to be `doing' history I cannot remember it now. It seemed that all my family were interested in history and so was I from a very early age. In my case it was an eclectic interest ranging from archaeology to travel and exploration in the shape of pictures of tea-clippers under sail round Cape Horn and stories of the young David Livingstone reading while he worked in a cotton mill and of Clive of India sitting high up on a gargoyle on a church steeple in his home town of Market Drayton, Shropshire. I never tried this, but it certainly influenced my climbing of lamp posts in our Chelmsford suburban road!
My father and his father and my great-grandfather John Samuel Jeacock had all been headmasters of local secondary schools or of village schools since the middle of the nineteenth century. In the 1901 census, now digitised, John Samuel is described as `schoolmaster and organist' and it was a matter of family pride that he had somehow been examined as a student teacher by the poet, critic and inspector of schools, Matthew Arnold. The tradition continued with my elder sister some twenty years older than me who was also a teacher.
I may have escaped teaching, but I succumbed to history. This was reinforced by trips to town, taken by my mother, a Londoner, who thought that London was the centre of the civilised world (the number 9 bus from Liverpool St station conveyed us past the sights and to the Royal Borough of Kensington where she had been born in 1901.) Although shopping inevitably came into these trips, they also imbued me with a feeling of pride as I passed Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square or Knightsbridge Barracks where mother's uncle Bert had been a corporal of Horse in the Life Guards during the First World War. I also visited the British Museum, where my mother could have a rest, while I wandered past the Easter Island statues on the stairs and through the old ethnographic galleries with native craft and spears of all sorts hanging from the ceiling.
Books were also a very serious matter in our home and were acquired from the local library on Saturday mornings, four at a time. The earliest historical one I remember was about early houses up to Anglo-Saxon times. This brought on a rush of digging and even lighting fires at the bottom of the garden, which brought down a zumack tree to which the dugout's roof was attached. This phase of `archaeological' digging and reconstruction lasted well into my teens but, by then, under the guidance of real archaeologists. Aged twelve we were allowed to go on a dig at Pleshey Castle with the young archaeologist Philip Ratz where the wonders of buried treasure in a midden were revealed -- oyster and mussel shells. From here my brief archaeological career flourished by being saluted at the bottom of a trench at Dorchester in Oxfordshire by the great Ian Richmond and finally by drawing the plans and profiles, according to proper measurements made by theodolite, of a dig at Corstopimm (Hexham), Hadrian's Wall, on an external course run by professor Eric Birley for Durham university.
This all happened because our history teacher Irene Johnson at Chelmsford County High School was an enthusiast and encouraged us to try history out practically. Artefacts and archaeology might have won at this stage had it not been for Irene Johnson's further introduction to written history: the archives and records at the Essex Record Office, at that time still in the County Hall in very cramped quarters. …