The most complete picture of a country ever presented to its people.
The King’s England series was described as modern-day Domesday Book when it was first published. Though it was compiled more than a century after the end of the Regency, many authors of books set in our favorite decade may still find the information in this series of books will provide them with a plethora of historical anecdotes and detailed topographical descriptions of places for every county in England. Such detail may provide richly authentic embellishment for a tale set in the Regency.
How The King’s England came to be . . .
The King’s England was the brain-child of the prolific British writer and journalist, Arthur Henry Mee. He was a patriotic man who was of the opinion that the First World War and the privations of the Depression had ravaged the traditional British country way of life so severely that it was slowly disappearing. By the beginning of the 1930s, the automobile was becoming an increasingly common mode of travel for more and more people in Britain, which he saw as both a threat and an opportunity. Mee wanted to capture the flavor of traditional English country life before it disappeared and record it for people who might want to know about, and/or visit, other places in Britain beyond their immediate home area.
Mee’s goal was to provide these travellers with all of the information on any given locality which could be gathered. He decided that the traditional counties of Great Britain would be the ideal locales on which to focus. It was his plan to produce a series of books on England, with a volume in the series devoted to each of the counties. He knew he would not be able to research and write each book himself, so he recruited a group of dedicated researchers to help him. These men would be assigned certain counties, to which they would travel and record all of the local knowledge they could gather. Mee’s mandate to these researchers was that they were to record any information on each village and town within their assigned counties which was worthy of note. Nothing was off-limits to these researchers, they were to record any curious or unusual narratives which came their way. It was inevitable that they would pick up all manner of interesting anecdotes in the course of their research. And most of those found their way into the books in the series.
While his researchers combed the counties of England, gathering information, Mee devoted his efforts to the first book in this series. The introductory volume was titled Enchanted Land: Half-a-Million Miles in the King’s England, since Mee believed that his researchers would have to travel at least a half-million miles in order to complete this grand project. Published in 1936, this first book was an overview of Britain, the dust jacket reading, "The Very Essence of England and the English Character." The book was illustrated with many black and white photos, quite a few of them of places which Mee himself had personally visited while doing his research. This book was published by Hodder & Stoughton, an old and venerable publishing house based in London. Arthur Mee was a religious as well as a patriotic man, and Hodder & Stoughton was well known as the publisher of many religious and theological works, in addition to a host of family-friendly popular fiction stories and biographies of respected and prominent people. Because Enchanted Land sold so well, Hodder & Stoughton were eager to continue publishing the other volumes in the series.
Over the course of the next five years, Mee’s researchers persevered with their information gathering, while Mee edited each new volume of the series as the research was completed. Arthur Mee was determined that these books be easily understood by the general public. He made it a point to avoid complex or technical terms for any of the historical or topographical information which they presented. The tone of the text was not patronizing, and it was written so that it was clear and intelligible to anyone with an average education. Each volume served as a guidebook to the county on which it focused, and could be used by those who traveled to the area, or by those who preferred to learn about other counties from the comfort of their armchairs at home.
The first of the county-specific volumes in The King’s England series focused on Kent. Other volumes followed, usually about two to four per year, for the next ten years. It is difficult today to determine the exact order in which the subsequent volumes were published, as they are now typically listed in alphabetical order by county name, without original publication dates. In a couple of cases, two of the smaller counties were covered in a single volume, while very large counties, like Yorkshire, were divided so that a separate volume was issued for the North, East and West Ridings. An early volume was also devoted completely to the greater London area, entitled London: Heart of the Empire and Wonder of the World. Eventually, The King’s England series comprised forty-two volumes.
These guidebooks were very well-received by the public, since, in addition to their readily accessible text and many photographs, they were priced quite reasonably for the time. As the Second World War progressed, a paper shortage developed in Britain so that, by 1940, Hodder & Stoughton could not get all the paper they needed. Therefore, the publishing house was not able to meet the high demand for copies of these very popular books. However, they included a notice on the dust jacket of each of the books they were able to publish, advising interested book buyers, particularly those who wanted to collect the entire series, that they could send a postcard to Hodder & Stoughton’s London office, stating which volumes of the series they especially wanted. They would then be notified when those books were published, so that they would not miss out on a particular volume they wished to add to their collection.
None of the books in this series were produced by conducting research in historical documents or published sources. Rather, Mee wanted to create " . . . the first census of the ancient and beautiful and curious historic possessions of England since the motor car came to make it possible." His researchers spent most of their time chatting with locals, who shared with them all manner of reminiscences, many handed down in their families for generations. One elderly woman showed them a paper model of the local fair, which had been made by her brother’s wife, a year or two after the Battle of Waterloo. In another place, they learned that the fairly modern local church had a baptismal font in the medieval style. It was believed the font had been removed from a much older church during the Reformation, and was found many years later, during the excavations related to the construction of a new railway. There are thousands of such oral history anecdotes to be found throughout the volumes of The King’s England series.
Some critics of the early editions did not approve of the free and easy style of the text in the volumes in the series, with their lack of footnotes and bibliographies. A few also complained that not enough attention was paid to the prehistoric sites and antiquities which existed in many of these counties. In fact, Mee’s researchers had focused most of their attention on the anecdotal history of each area, as well as providing basic topographical descriptions. But most critics did approve of the more than six thousand black and white photographs which illustrated the series, photographs which recorded many rural and remote places that had not previously been professionally photographed. These photographs became even more valuable after the Second World War, when quite a few of the places in those photographs were damaged by German bombing.
There is no doubt that the volumes in The King’s England series were not compiled by academic scholars of formal history, and none of them have footnotes or bibliographies by which to verify sources. However, this monumental project gathered vast amounts of oral history, much of which may not have not survived in the social upheavals that churned through Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. Despite the views of some critics, the series was very popular with the general public and went to multiple reprints through the latter twentieth century. In fact, when the series finally went out of print, a new publishing house, The King’s England Press, was founded, in 1989, to revise and reprint the series. Some people prefer the new editions, as they are more readily available. But others prefer locating used copies of the earlier editions, as they are more of a snapshot of Britain before the ravages of the Second World War.
Dear Regency Authors, if you are setting an upcoming romance in a specific country in England, you might want to get a copy of The King’s England volume for that county. Within its pages, you are sure to find information which will help you set the scene with the local color that is recorded about that county. The King’s England series has not been digitized and made available online. However, used copies of these books in good condition can still be found at quite reasonable prices. First editions of volumes in the series can be quite expensive, but the later reprints, from the 1940s and 1950s, include the same content, usually at lower prices. With a little patience and determination, one can eventually acquire all of the volumes in The King’s England series.