Alan’s legacy lies in groups he has inspired

Alan Petford
Alan Petford

The untimely death of local historian Alan Petford, on February 11, is a devastating loss for the many local history groups and organisations he has worked alongside.

He has been a long-time friend of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, which indeed made him a life member in recognition of his contribution.

Alan will be remembered as an extraordinarily gifted and inspirational teacher, whose breadth and depth of knowledge was stunning.

He communicated with a lightness of touch and grasp of quirky detail that made an audience feel included in the uncovering of the history he was retelling.

A vast archive of photographic slides helped to illustrate the topic he was speaking on; for example details from medieval paintings or stained glass to show how a particular agricultural tool might have been used.

Even better was to go on a history walk with Alan, to hear him conjure history from the construction of significant buildings, or explore how the details of the interior shed light on a wider story.

In a seemingly featureless field he would point out the landscape evidence of ridge and furrow cultivation or of ancient water courses, visible, as he would say, to ‘the eye of faith’.

Getting people to actually ‘do history’ was as important to Alan as communicating his own knowledge.

He has sown the seeds and nurtured the growth of many groups of amateur historians who are doing significant work to the highest academic standards he insisted on.

Some of the work of these groups has been published, expanding considerably the sum of what is known about the life of South Pennine communities.

Much more is ongoing, with transcriptions of old wills and inventories from the parish of Halifax soon to be made available for historians to explore. Around Halifax, and indeed throughout the area, are people who have been fired by Alan’s own endless curiosity and given the skills, strategies and confidence to become local historians.

His legacy lies in these groups, and in the hundreds of other minds touched by his enthusiasm and expertise.

Many will find it impossible to change the habit of thinking, when encountering an unusual building or a curious bit of evidence emerging from an ancient document, “Oh, I must tell Alan about that!”