Photo of Professor Henry French

Professor Henry French

Public engagement

In Feb. 2009, the Poltimore House Trust approached University of Exeter for academic support and guidance about the preservation of the house and grounds, and to help prepare a Heritage Lottery Fund bid. It quickly became clear that instead of academics supplying ready-made expertise, the site (and PHT’s 300-strong volunteer base) offered an opportunity to engage more fully by creating a group of volunteer researchers who could recover and take ownership of the house’s past.

The overarching aims of the AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship were for the project team (Henry French, Oliver Creighton, Penny Cunningham, Project KT Research Fellow) to work in partnership with the PHT to generate public understanding of the multi-layered history and archaeology of the building and its surrounding landscape, and to sustain this by involving local communities in the research and presentation of this heritage. Between Sept. 2010 and July 2012 the project focused on two elements:

  1. Working with volunteers to trace the history and evolution of the Poltimore House gardens and estate landscape primarily through detailed documentary research on the 18th and 19th centuries, through census and local newspaper archives, gravestone surveys, and detailed map analysis, and by contextualising these findings within a longer archaeological/landscape history timescale.
  2. Leading teams of volunteer, non-professional researchers in methods of archaeological research (field-walking, geo-physical surveying, landscape archaeology).

The first element drew upon my research experience as leader of an AHRC standard research grant on the landed elite between the seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, and Prof. Creighton’s experience in community archaeology projects, specifically his role as a co-director of a major AHRC-funded research project investigating Wallingford in Oxfordshire. The second had input from the PI & CI, and was led by the Knowledge Transfer Fellow, Dr. Penny Cunningham, drawing on her experience in XArch, community archaeology project.

Working alongside PHT, the project developed on-site educational activities with primary and secondary schools in East Devon, plus A-level students from Exeter College. During the course of the project 721 school pupils from 7 partner schools in Devon participated in 18 training and outreach events mapped to the National Curriculum (including on-site training workshops on masonry recording, archaeological survey, landscape analysis and visits to schools), including a film made by Broadclyst Community Primary School ( This portfolio of sources, objects and resources has enabled PHT’s Volunteer Manager, Simon Tootell, to provide on-site School visits, and continued curriculum engagement with Broadclyst Community Primary School in 2012-13.

This volunteer network is continuing historical and archaeological landscape research in the area beyond the lifetime of the AHRC-funded project, through the creation (in October 2012) of the Poltimore History & Archaeology Group, (PEHAG) enabling the public to take forward research on this site and transfer that understanding to other historic landscapes. I am currently the chair of this group, and volunteers are working on a series of projects, including further work on the landscape history of the estate in Poltimore village post-1800, research into the gardens and gardeners at Poltimore House, research on the building history of the house in the eighteenth century, and a project to uncover the history of the vollage during World War One.

Academic research on Poltimore House has led to a jointly-authored peer-reviewed journal article to be published by Landscape History in 2013.

Contribution to discipline

Fellow of Royal Historical Society, elected Sept. 2004.

British Agricultural History Society, Executive Committee member, 2000-4, re-elected 2004.

Book reviews editor for Agricultural History Review, 2007-date.

Reviewer of Periodical Literature, England 1500-1700, Economic History Review, 2005-8.

AHRC Peer Review College member, Academic, 2010-13.

I have undertaken peer reviews of journal submissions for Economic History Review, Social History, Journal of British Studies, Cultural & Social History, Agricultural History Review, and Gender and History.

I have reviewed project grant proposals for Social Science & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Council for the Humanities.

In addition to being a periodical literature reviewer for Economic History Review and book reviews editor for Agricultural History Review, since 2001 I have written reviews for the following journals:

American Historical Review, English Historical Review, Economic History Review, Social History, Cultural & Social History, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Sixteenth-Century Journal, Agricultural History Review, Local Population Studies, Business History, European History Quarterly, Family & Community History, & Archives.