8 April 2014

Q&A: Launching the BCW Project (David Plant, bcw-project.org)

The BCW Project website - bcw-project.org

David Plant recently relaunched his encyclopedic British Civil Wars website (british-civil-wars.co.uk) as the enhanced and redesigned BCW Project (bcw-project.org). For over a decade David's site has been an invaluable resource for researchers of the period, and from 2005 has been included in the British Library's UK Web Archive.

I asked David about the original inspiration for the site, how his own interests have developed whilst publishing it, and what's next for the new-look BCW Project ...

Struan: What prompted you to start your British Civil Wars site back in 2001?

David: I wanted to do something creative. I liked building websites, which still seemed slightly esoteric and experimental back then. Not many people were online compared to today. There weren't so many websites. No Facebook, no Youtube. Wikipedia was just starting up. I also had this vague idea of writing a novel set in Cromwellian times and had a folder full of research notes on the era. So I decided to build a site around that.

S: At that stage was your interest in the 17th century a recent one? Or something more long-standing?

D: I'm not an academic but I always liked reading history. As a kid, I loved visiting historic sites around London where I grew up, especially the Tower of London, with its gory atmosphere. Roundheads and Cavaliers were part of the "pageant of history" as I understood it then. Later on, I became interested in the 16th and 17th centuries as a transitional stage between the medieval and modern worlds.

S: Which parts of the site did you work on/populate first?

D: It started with a timeline to get the sequence of events mapped out. I didn't know much about the Commonwealth and Protectorate so I was focusing on the three civil wars at first. I knew I wanted to develop the site to cover the 1650s but it was harder to find information, so that came a bit later.

S: Your site features lots of useful images of campaign maps - do you produce these yourself?

One of the many campaign maps on the site.

D: Yes I do. I like playing around with graphics. The original site was quite sparse because I wanted to concentrate on the written content, but with the new BCW Project site I'm aiming to be a bit more adventurous with graphics.

S: Have any particular interests in the period developed out of producing the site?

D: Yes, I think that's why I've stuck at it for so long - there's always something new to learn. When I started, I only had a vague idea of what went on during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, or what was happening in Scotland, Ireland and the colonies. At different times, I've been deep in study of those areas.

Also, through contact with wargamers and re-enactors, I've become very interested in army regiments of the era. In fact, I've just started a wiki in collaboration with Tim Williams for research into ECW and Commonwealth regiments.

Another area is naval history. I was always interested in that, but more the Napoleonic era. Now after studying Prince Rupert's career as a privateer, I find I'm fascinated by 17th century warships, so I'm thinking about ways to develop that interest on the site.

S: Though it's rather old now I've found John Rowland Powell's The Navy in the English Civil War  (1962) particularly useful when researching the subject (I plotted the Royalist, Parliamentarian and Privateer ports from it) - are you familiar with it? Or are there more recent studies you'd recommend?

D: No, I haven't read very much about the navy during the ECW, so thanks for the tip. The Powell book is now on my wish list. I've been looking more at the Commonwealth and Protectorate era so far. Cromwell's Navy by Bernard Capp seems to be the standard text. There's also Cromwell's Wars at Sea by John Barratt which is more for the general reader. There are one or two good Osprey books dealing with 17th century warships as well.

I don't mind older books at all! The backbone of the original British Civil Wars site was S.R. Gardiner's History of the Great Civil War and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, which are four-volume tomes written in the 19th century that are full of narrative detail. I ruthlessly data-mined Gardiner for the early BCW timelines.

S: Aside from the books, have you needed to consult any other expert sources during your research, eg academics?

D: I've never really sought anyone out, but the site has always generated discussion from people interested in the era. This is one of my favourite aspects of running it actually.

John Dorney, who runs the Irish Story helped me with the sections on Confederate Ireland. Martin Marix Evans of the Naseby Project brought me up to speed with the latest battlefield research. Tim Williams' work on regimental history is the driving force behind the new BCW regimental wiki.

There are dozens of others. Various e-mail discussions I've had over the years have definitely shaped the site's development.

S: Tell me more about the regimental wiki project ...

D: I'd been corresponding with Tim for a year or two. He happened to mention that he'd like to see a wiki for research into the regiments of the ECW era. This was around the time that I was planning to rebuild the original British Civil Wars site. I was thinking about ways to expand the site, maybe with a forum or a blog. A wiki seemed like a great idea since regimental history is an area of ongoing research. It's also collaborative, so anyone interested can join in. So we set up the basic structure and Tim started adding data to get it going.

Entry for the Kent Trained Bands on the BCW Project Regimental Wiki.

The idea was to launch the wiki at the same time as the new BCW Project site, but I had major setbacks in rebuilding the site and it all took a lot longer than expected. Two years longer actually! The wiki finally went live in January this year.

S: Are there any new or under-represented topics/areas that you're keen to develop on the BCW 
project site?

D: Yes, plenty. Switching over to the new site format was a big step from a technical point of view and I'm only just getting to the stage where I can get back to working on the content rather than grappling with the layout and coding.

Currently I'm concentrating on the radical sects and factions. I finally got around to writing a biography of Gerrard Winstanley, who is a particular hero of mine, and updating the page on the Diggers, which I hadn't touched since 2002. I'm planning to overhaul all that section of the site, the Levellers, Fifth Monarchists and so on.

Some of the military campaigns also need further development, the ECW in Yorkshire and East Anglia for instance. Then there's the naval stuff we were talking about earlier, and any number of biographies that could be added. It's never-ending really.

S: Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's Winstanley (1975) is, in my opinion, the best film made about the period. Have you seen it?

D: Yes, I agree it's a wonderful film. It's the only ECW-era film I've seen that hits the spot. The rest are pretty dire, and there are so few anyway, which seems strange given the potential of the themes that could be explored.

A lot of the dialogue comes straight from Winstanley's writings and the attention to period detail is amazing. I knew Sid Rawle, who plays the disruptive Ranter. He was just like that in real life! Actually the entire film is currently on YouTube. I posted a link to it on the BCW Project's new Facebook page if anyone wants to drop by and say hello ;)

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Many thanks to David for taking time out to explain more about the BCW Project. All the links to David's sites - and the others mentioned above - are listed here again:

bcw-project.org
- the BCW Project
wiki.bcw-project.org – the BCW Project regimental wiki
www.facebook.com/bcw.project - the BCW Facebook page
www.theirishstory.com – The Irish Story
www.naseby.com  - The Naseby Project
Winstanley (1975) – the full film on YouTube

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