MIKE INGRAM: An appreciation


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Lead Image: Mike Ingram, receiving the award for “Best Published Work” 2021, from the Northamptonshire Heritage Forum.
[via Facebook: Fair Use for the purpose of reporting]

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The phone calls usually began with a cheery,

“Hello young man”

…in Mike’s unmistakable East Midlands burr.

The conversation which followed would usually involve discussion of the latest battlefields research, the latest research atrocity committed by a historical TV documentary on a budget [Norman Helmets in the 15th century were a regular spot] and inevitably some delicious gossip about the latest heritage unfriendly antics of Northamptonshire’s politicians, coupled with plans for how the two organisations whose existence Mike drove and whose activities he championed, the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society and the latest, the Northampton Civic Society, would set about trying to thwart them.

In fact, it was as a campaigner rather than the historian that I first came across Mike Ingram writes thePipeLine’s Andy Brockman. Although, truth to tell, the two strands of Mike’s character were to become inseparably intertwined.

In 2011 I was just starting to cover archaeology and heritage issues as news and current affairs when I became aware of community led opposition to the attempts of the then new Conservative administration of Northampton Borough Council to sell the statue of the Egyptian scribe Sekhemka, which had been gifted to the town’s museum by the then Marquis of Northampton in the nineteenth century and of the administration’s attempt to promote the development of sports pitches on farmland belonging to a much enjoyed local riding school, which just happened to be also in a crucial section of the registered battlefield of Northampton.

Mike was involved in the campaigns and, as I was trying to develop sources to enable me to cover the story, we began to e-mail each other, and then to talk on the phone and finally, and not often enough, I would visit Northampton to meet Mike and his colleagues in person and walk the ground he was so passionate about.

I soon found that, from an earlier incarnation as a defence journalist and photographer [if you look at his website you will see see a collection of Mike’s photographs of classic Cold War British military hardware, and troops looking ally in DPM], Mike had developed into one of those rare, but essential, subject experts who sit outside of the academic merry-go-round of conferences, papers, and developer funded consultancies, contributing expertise, undiluted by corporate newspeak or sector factional politics.

This commitment to Northampton, Northamptonshire and what he felt was good for its heritage, meant Mike wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers, even among the friendly Blue Forces of organisations like Historic England and the Battlefields Trust.

Facing the enemy Red Forces, mostly personified by the former Northampton Borough Council, especially under the leadership of its disgraced former Leader, briefly MP for Northampton South and Private Eye Rotten Borough’s “Philistine of the Year“, David Mackintosh, he was good humouredly relentless.

It was the perception that Northampton’s ruling politicians, like Mackintosh, seemed to be unable to lift their eyes up from the boot and shoe industry to see the rest of the county’s rich heritage, and role often at the centre of the national story as at best irrelevant to modern Northampton, and at worst, as in certain planning rows, as a nuisance, which was a constant frustration to Mike and can be said to be the driver behind much of his later career as a researcher, communicator and campaigner for Northamptonshire’s past.

It was a serious business carried out tirelessly, effectively and with commitment, but, while Mike could be a thorn in the side of those he disagreed with, he was also a gentleman. However, that did not stop him revelling in the then Cllr Mackintosh’s discomfiture when, having insisted that he was to be the face of Northampton in the media, the hapless politician was unable to explain Jumbo the elephant’s boot in Northampton museum to comedian Ross Noble during the recording of “Ross Noble Freewheeling“.

Indeed, faced with debacles like that, it was no accident that when Mike, and his friend and collaborator in the Northampton Battlefields Society, Graham Evans, wrote their study “The Battles and Battlefields of Northamptonshire“, the introduction carried this wry note,

In which it turns out that the history of Northampton and its County isn’t all about shoes.

As Mike and his growing and increasingly effective band of colleagues put together tenacious, closely argued campaigns, which were not at all just about shoes, he used brilliantly the new public forum of the Social Media. However, Mike was also adept at the more traditional and endlessly patient networking with politicians, journalists, and significant local figures.

He was also adept at the judicious use of the Freedom of Information Act to turn up the telling e-mail trail that Northampton Borough Council were once again trying to wriggle out of their legal and moral responsibilities for the towns; heritage. These methods came together most tellingly during the campaign to have Northampton’s nationally important Eleanor Cross restored.

FOI releases showed how the senior politicians and officers of Northampton Borough Council were using every trick in the book from having its own officers mark its heritage homework, ten out of ten of course with expert reports to the contrary dismissed as plain wrong; to paying for lawyers to try to prove they did not actually own the Cross. Needless to say they failed. While the longsuffering council tax payers picked up the tab.

Eventually the community effort prevailed and the Grade One listed monument was repaired with the assistance of funding from Historic England, but only after a further Winter of visible deterioration, duly photographed and reported by Mike and the campaigners, to the ongoing embarrassment of the council.

Even with successes like the campaign to restore the Eleanor Cross, too often it seemed that Northampton’s twenty first century politicians were doing their level best to trump the example of their nineteenth century counterparts who levelled the towns impressive medieval castle, to extend the railway station.

Now Mike’s devastatingly early death from a heart attack, aged only 59, comes just as he was arming again for battle over the renovation [or insensitive ruination?] of Northampton’s historic market square, to a plan developed, Mike argued, by an opaque body linked to the council and overseen by a commercial consultancy with a dubious track record on other market projects.

This time, in going into battle for the market square, he had the added armour of respect for being honoured as a Freeman of Northampton, something of which he was, justifiably, hugely proud.

As a campaigner Mike also understood the need for an air war to prepare the ground to go along with the ground war of an actual campaign.

Mike’s air war was the use of education, communication and publication to establish that the story of Northampton and Northamptonshire and that the demonstrate that significance and resonance of those stories, was poorly understood by many professionals, let alone by local people who clearly cared, but were usually sold that story that did not venture far beyond those shoes.

He achieved this through work with mainstream publishers such as Helion, and by publishing through the Battlefield Society, and in the last few years he was prolific producing a stream of books, articles and regular appearances on local media. He was a regular on BBC Radio Northampton and a columnist on the Nene Quirer, the editor of which, Steve Scoles, pays tribute to Mike’s work here.

In print, often working with leading illustrator Mathew Ryan, Mike produced a number of lucidly written books founded on original research, always going back to the basics of primary sources to skewer later assumptions and the cut and paste efforts of too many later historians, for example by pointing out that the idea of an event called the Wars of the Roses was actually coined more than a century after the dynastic civil wars of the late fifteenth century had ended. He would then question even those primary sources afresh.

Mike also understood the importance of the understanding the developing battlefield archaeology of the sites he studied and was able to synthesise these strands of evidence too into a satisfying whole.

In that regard he was closely involved in the work to research, preserve and present four battlefields in particular, two of which, Naseby 1645 and Bosworth 1485, can be said to be nationally, if not internationally, important.

For example, in his 2019 book “Richard III and the Battle of Bosworth“, Mike was able to update an earlier work on the battle, utilising Dr Glen Foard’s work identifying the actual, rather than the traditional, site of the battle which saw the brutal death of Richard III and the coming to power of the Tudor dynasty. In doing so he raised fresh and intriguing questions about a French connection in the events of 1485, changing the popular view of the battle from an internal English dynastic matter, to an event which took place in the context of European power politics and developments in military science.

In a manner which was now characteristic Mike’s knowledge and care for the integrity of the battlefield of Bosworth as now understood also led him to oppose the building of the Horiba-Mira test track for autonomous vehicles on part of the registered battlefield, even when Historic England did not.

Mike used an article here on thePipeLine to explain why.

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For Mike the proper place to study battles was always on the ground, and for those lucky enough the books, articles and courses, for example for the Workers Education Association, would be augmented by the many battlefield tours which Mike led, dating back to staff rides for British Army officers retracing the campaigns of 1940 and 1944 undertaken earlier in his career. The World War Two Italian campaign was another interest of his.

He knew you had to walk the ground to properly understand the mechanics of a battle, but he was also sensitive to the importance of local information. Knowing I had worked in Southwark and lived in South East London he invited me to join the Tabard Inn end of his Chaucer, Canterbury Tales tour and share some of the archaeology and lie of the land of the start of the Pilgrims Way with his guests. Something I was proud and happy to do, with the National Trust’s George Inn on Borough High Street, London’s last galleried inn, standing in for Chaucer’s Tabard.

It was a disappointment then to see the party off on the next stage of their tour to Rochester and thence to Canterbury, knowing I would not have the pleasure of being able to listen to Mike’s latter day Chaucer reel away the miles along the A2 Watling Street, with a spell binding narrative, full of telling details about not just Chaucer’s England at the height of the Hundred Years War, but of other sieges, invasions, murdered archbishops and revolting peasants.

It is also a matter for academic regret, and personal sadness, that the guided walk to explore the events of the little known Battle of Blackheath [aka Battle of Deptford Bridge] during the Cornish rebellion of 1497, which we talked about often, and which was another casualty of the Covid-19 Pandemic, will now never take place in the form it deserves, with Mike leading.

Participants would have enjoyed the work of someone whose ability, scholarship and campaigning skill had been recognised by the award in 2016 of the Battlefields Trust Presidents Award for outstanding battlefield protection and interpretation.

Along with many in the freelance heritage sector Mike’s work, and therefore his income, was badly hit by lock down in 2020 and it is characteristic of Mike’s instinctiveness as a campaigner that at the beginning of lock down, when there was no obvious representation, or point of information for people in his position, that he was involved with me in setting up a FaceBook group Freelance Heritage Workers to share the latest information about lockdown rules and grants as they impacted on freelance writers and tour guides and educators. It was not Mike’s fault that we as a group, and the heritage sector as a whole, was able to do so little to influence the Government, and especially Rishi Sunak’s Treasury, to support properly the many freelance heritage workers who were suffering hardship, but who fell between the cracks of Covid support measures.

But while it made research more difficult, and leading tours impossible, Mike did use the enforced break from guiding to write, producing the Guide to Northamptonshire’s Battles and Battlefields at the beginning of lock down and then just a year ago, his award winning “Northampton: 5,000 Years of History“.

It wasn’t intended to be, but this labour of love and scholarship, dedicated to his home town, is his fitting printed memorial.

I will end this appreciation of Mike Ingram’s work by returning to where he first made his mark as both a battlefield historian and researcher, author and campaigner.

Given what I thought was only a peripheral role in his work, I was extremely proud when Mike asked me to comment on a draft of his book about the Battle of Northampton in1460 and as I read it I realised in encompassed everything about its author.

Foremost it was about communicating the past in a way which was erudite, but approachable. But it was also this book, and the research which is its foundation, which literally changed the heritage landscape of Northampton and understanding of the battle fixing the events of 10 July 1460 in the modern landscape below Delapre Abbey in a way which could be enjoyed by the people in whose community it sat, while having to be recognised by the heritage and planning authorities as a national, as well as a local, heritage asset.

It is almost as an ultimate reward for their efforts by the gods of war that the Battlefield Society was instrumental in identifying what may be the earliest cannon shot yet found on a British battlefield.

I will miss those phone calls, but not nearly so much as Mike’s family friend and colleagues will miss someone who gave so much to the community of medieval and battlefield historians and perhaps even more to the people of the home town which he loved, and which he felt deserved the best.

When Sir Christopher Wren died it was said of London, “If you seek his monument look around you” and it is a special person whose monument can be seen in people’s everyday lives.

In that regard Mike Ingram’s monument is not just the books and articles fine as they are, nor the campaigning style of the NBS and Civic Society, which is a “how to” guide to effective, community based, heritage campaigning, but the fact that the people of Northampton can look around from the hills at Delepre Abbey down to the River Nene and walk down from the vantage point of a renovated Eleanor Cross, to wander across a properly interpreted medieval battlefield which has not been scarred by inappropriate developments, given the green light by those who the public might expect would conserve them for posterity, but all too often don’t.

Mike’s son Finley has set up a gofundme page to help support the family to pay Mike’s funeral expenses.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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