The nine years spent in the monotonous reaches of dreary streets that make up Hoxton and Stepney, the close contact with sides of life little known to students, had only deepened the impressions with which the idea of a people's life had in Oxford struck on his imagination. "A State," he would say, "is accidental; it can be made or unmade, and is no real thing to me. But a nation is very real to me. That you can neither make nor destroy." All his writings, the historical articles which he sent to the Saturday Review and letters to his much-honoured friend, Mr. Freeman, alike tended in the same direction, and show how persistently he was working out his philosophy of history. The lessons which years before he had found written in the streets and lanes of his native town were not forgotten. "History," he wrote in 1869, "we are told by publishers, is the most unpopular of all branches of literature at the present day, but it is only unpopular because it seems more and more to sever itself from all that can touch the heart of a people.
In mediaeval history, above all, the narrow ecclesiastical character of the annals which serve as its base, instead of being corrected by a wider research into the memorials which sur, round us, has been actually intensified by the partial method of then study, till the story of a great people seems likely to be lost in the mere squabbles of priests. Now there is hardly a better corrective for all this to be found than to set a man frankly in the streets of a simple English town, and to bid him work out the history of the men who had lived and died there. The mill by the stream, the tolls in the market place, the brasses of its burghers in the church, the names of its streets, the lingering memory of its guilds, the mace of its mayor, tell us more of the past of England than the spire of Sarum or the martyrdom of Canterbury. We say designedly of the past of England, rather than of the past of English towns.... In England the history of the town and of the country are one. The privilege of the burgher has speedily widened into the liberty of the people at large. The municipal charter has merged into the great charter of the realm. All the little struggles over toll and tax, all the little claims of ' custom' and franchise, have told on the general advance of liberty and law.
The townmotes of the Norman reigns tided free discussion and self-government over from the Witanagemot of the old England to the Parliament of the new. The husting court, with its resolute assertion of justice by one's peers, gave us the whole fabric of our judicial legislation. The Continental town lost its individuality by sinking to the servile level of the land from which it had isolated itself. The English town lost its individuality by lifting the country at large to its own level of freedom and law".
The earnestness, however, with which he had thrown himself into his parish work left no time for any thought of working out his cherished plans. His own needs were few, and during nearly three years he spent on the necessities of schools and of the poor more than the whole of the income he drew from the Church, while he provided for his own support by writing at night, after his day's work was done, articles for the Saturday Review. At last, in 1869, the disease which had again and again attacked him fell with renewed violence on a frame exhausted with labours and anxieties. All active work was for ever at an end - the doctors told him there was little hope of prolonging his life six months. It was at this moment, the first moment of leisure he had ever known, that he proposed "to set down a few notions which I have conceived concerning history," which "might serve as an introduction to better things if I lived, and might stand for some work done if I did not." The "Short History" was thus begun.
When the six months had passed he had resisted the first severity of the attack, but he remained with scarcely a hold on life; and incessantly vexed by the suffering and exhaustion of constant illness, perplexed by questions as to the mere means of livelihood, thwarted and hindered by difficulties about books in the long winters abroad, he still toiled on at his task. "I wonder," he said once in answer to some critic, "how in those years of physical pain and despondency I could ever have written the book at all." Nearly five years were given to the work. The sheets were written and re-written, corrected and cancelled and begun again till it seemed as though revision would never have an end. "The book is full of faults," he declared sorrowfully, "which make me almost hopeless of ever learning to write well." As the work went on his friends often remonstrated with much energy. Dean Stanley could not forgive its missing so dramatic an opening as Caesar's landing would have afforded. Others judged severely his style, his method, his view of history, his selection and rejection of facts.
Their judgement left him "lonely," he said; and with the sensitiveness of the artistic nature, its quick apprehension of unseen danger, its craving for sympathy, he saw with perhaps needless clearness of vision the perils to his chance of winning a hearing which were prophesied. He agreed that the "faults" with which he was charged might cause the ruin of his hopes of being accepted either by historians or by the public; and yet these very "faults," he insisted, were bound up with his faith. The book was in fact, if not in name, the same as that which he had planned at Oxford; to correct its "faults" he must change his whole conception of history; he must renounce his belief that it was the great impulses of national feeling, and not the policy of statesmen, that formed the ground-work and basis of the. history of nations, and his certainty that political history could only be made intelligible and just by basing it on social history in its largest sense.
" I may be wrong in my theories," he wrote, "but it is better for me to hold to what I think true, and to work it out as I best can, even if I work it out badly, than to win the good word of some people I respect and others I love" by giving up a real conviction. Amid all his fears as to the failings of his work he still clung to the belief that it went on the old traditional lines of English historians. However Gibbon might err in massing together his social facts in chapters apart, however inadequate Hume's attempts at social history might be, however Macaulay might look at social facts merely as bits of external ornament, they all, he maintained, professed the faith he held. He used to protest that even those English historians who desired to be merely "external and pragmatic" could not altogether reach their aim as though they had been "High Dutchmen." The free current of national life in England was too strong to allow them to become ever wholly lost in State-papers; and because he believed that Englishmen could therefore best combine the love of accuracy and the appreciation of the outer aspects of national or political life with a perception of the spiritual forces from which these mere outer phenomena proceed, he never doubted that "the English ideal of history would in the long run be what Gibbon made it in his day - the first in the world".