Watts as a public historian of her time

Watts is not, and does not try to be, a ‘historian’ in the academic sense.  Watts is a guide book with elements of public history in it, set in a historical context – the palimpsest of the urban landscape.

She doesn’t mention primary sources, in the form of archival records; hers is a work of synthesis. Watts was taking newly-published antiquarian volumes (Nichols and Throsby) as her sources, rather than carrying out her own direct research.

Her primary interest is in explaining, to the Stranger, the manifestation of the new urbanism in the streets.  Watts as a public historian is using history to explain what she guides the Stranger to see; she is not writing a history for its own sake (for example, she does not dwell, as did many urban histories of the C18th, on lists of town corporation office-holders, the local great and the good; they are invisible to her and her audience).  Watts is using the stimulus of a significant building to bring out antiquarian “academic” historical facts, weaving them into a story and placing them in the public domain, a key definition of public history, making it accessible and interesting.

The significance of Watt’s text is as a public history – a new form of history writing, and a marked divergence from the antiquarian tradition which dominated historiography in her time.  Watts takes the individual facts excavated from the past by antiquarians, using them as a raw material to illustrate her present, a new technique.  She writes for a new audience, the ‘polite society’ of the urban renaissance.  She uses her public history writing for a didactic purpose; history as a teaching tool, explaining the present as a result of events and choices by historical actors in the past.

Sweet is rather dismissive of Watts, and I absolutely disagree with her assessment of Watts as ‘deferential’ ‘never ventured to pass her own judgement or express her own opinion on any antiquarian topics’.

Watts treats her sources with the scepticism of a historian.  She weighs evidence, considers alternatives, and reaches a reasoned conclusion; where the evidence does not allow a conclusion to be reached, or is inadequate, she is not afraid to say so.  She is, for example, dismissive of the ‘foundation myths’ of the town, in particular any putative relationship with King Lear; “whatever surmises may have been founded on the similarity between his name and the present name of the place, may safely be left to those who are more fond of the flights of conjecture than the solid arguments of truth.”  Equally, she is not afraid to use qualifiers as to the certainty of evidence: “most probably”, “justly inferred”.

Watts is an effective public historian (although she would not have recognised the term, in the sense it has today, because (inter alia):

  • She is taking extant and formal histories and creating a new work, more readily accessible for her audience;
  • She is taking history out of a simple written text and placing in the public urban landscape, creating a new form of work;
  • She is engaging in historical scholarship in the act of creating of a new work from secondary (existing histories) and primary (the urban streetscape) sources; she interrogates, considers evidence, concludes where possible and leaves matters open where necessary.