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Local history: a research guide

Connected Histories provides access to a large number of sources for British local history from the 16th to the 19th century. While a particular strength is the History of London, there are significant records for other towns and cities and for the suburban and rural history of the English regions. Currently, the history of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is not represented as strongly, but there are nevertheless some key sources for those parts of the British Isles, especially among the newspaper, image and pamphlet collections.

Contents of this article

Topography and landownership

A number of sources searchable through Connected Histories reflect the growth of the 'antiquarian' tradition of local history writing from the 17th century onwards. Much of this focused on landownership and inheritance, alongside the development of estates and great houses. Examples include Daniel Lysons's Environs of London (1791-6) available through British History Online, which contains rich detail for Surrey, Middlesex, Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent. On the same site, the various classes of Calendars of State Papers provide a rather different means to reconstruct the activities of the gentry and aristocracy at local level. Property deeds, such as those in the Catalogue of Ancient Deeds descend a little further down the social scale in showing the transmission of property within and between families, as do the feet of fines which are calendared for several counties, including Yorkshire and Lancashire.

For the landscape and the built environment, British Museum Image Collection contains a large number of views and maps of English, Scottish and Welsh places in the early modern period, by Hollar, Loggan and many others. Similarly, there are many illustrations of local scenes, as well as people, in Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets (forthcoming).

Local government

As well as the extensive material on the government and institutions of London, several collections of records for other towns and cities are searchable through Connected Histories. In British History Online, for example, there are printed collections relating to the civic governments of Bristol, Cardiff, York, Glasgow and Edinburgh from the 16th and 17th centuries. It is worth noting also that there is a considerable body of material relating to local affairs contained in the records of parliament, such as the Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords, as well as in Parliamentary Papers. If local history is considered in a broader context, the records associated with colonial expansion are also of interest, such as the Calendars of State Papers Colonial in British History Online.

Social, economic and cultural life

There is a good deal of material reflecting everyday life and culture in the localities, especially in British History Online, and in more specialised collections. Of particular note is the The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, which has source material relating to themes such as entertainment, crime, the book trade and popular prints, as well as more than 22,000 items dealing with advertising. The witchcraft accusations documented in the Witches in Early Modern England database are from 398 locations in England, 11 in Scotland, and 2 in Wales. Numerous locations in the Diocese of York appear in the Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, which include disputes over matrimony, defamation, tithes, probate, and church-related issues.

Associational life is also well documented in Connected Histories. Records of thousands of Masonic Lodges located throughout England and Wales can be searched through Lane's Masonic Records, while evidence of the activities of other institutions and societies can be found in the Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodicals database.

Newspapers are an especially important source for the period from the mid 17th century onwards, and British Newspapers 1600-1900 has many London titles but also English provincial titles from 1712, such as the Stamford Mercury of 1728, Irish newspapers (the earliest being the Dublin Intelligence of 1691), Scottish ones from 1708 onwards, and many 18th-century American ones too, including the New England Courant (1721-3).

Economic history can be studied using the lists of trades and professions found in the Historical Trade Directories resource (forthcoming), which includes localities throughout England and Wales. The extent of migration from the localities to London in the early modern and modern period is brought out in the records of London apprenticeship in Origins.net.

Religion

The main resource dealing with religious life is the Clergy of the Church of England Database, which documents the careers of clergy across the country. Elsewhere, there are records for ecclesiastical landownership in British History Online, such as the Catalogue of Ancient Deeds, and a mass of material concerning religious institutions in sources such as the Calendars of State Papers. Collections such as The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera are much more miscellaneous, but nevertheless do have some material for this topic. Disputes over breaches of faith by the clergy and church rights heard between 1300 and 1858 can be found in the Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York.

Crime and justice

While the bulk of trial records in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online concern London, there is still a considerable body of material relating to people and events outside the capital. Connected with these records are some 1,500 items from the 'Crimes, Murders and Executions' records within the The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. Important sources for reporting trials are newspapers, including the local titles in British Newspapers 1600-1900. Cases of vice and defamation in York are recorded in the Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York.

Strengths and weaknesses

The prominence of material and resources specifically for the City of London can be contrasted with the more patchy coverage of other localities, and especially those in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Apart from British History Online, the bulk of the material for local history is contained within collections dealing with particular kinds of sources (images, pamphlets, trade directories) or particular topics (witches, freemasonry records). This material tends of be of a more eclectic nature, and so search results will vary considerably. Though not directly searchable here, users are advised to supplement their searches with other online resources such as the catalogue of the The National Archives, local archive catalogues, and the detailed histories contained in the Victoria County History (see below). It should also be noted that the locational information in some of the resources has been tagged using Natural Language Processing (NLP), which in some instances has an accuracy level of about 75%: see About this project.

Search strategies

Searches for placenames can be carried out either using the keyword search, or the place radio button on the Home Page or related fields on the Search Page. As indicated above, the tagging of placenames using NLP has a variable success rate depending on the nature of the digitised source. Searches can be limited by period or by collection. Spellings of placenames vary, and so boolean operators may be used. The wide-ranging nature of local history means that there are many possible keyword searches, including searches for local courts ('manor court' etc.), buildings, occupations, property transactions, and topographical features such as rivers and canals.

Further reading

  • J. Beckett, Writing Local History (Manchester, 2007)
  • C. R. J. Currie and C. P. Lewis, A Guide to English County Histories (Stroud, 1994)
  • The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History, ed. D. Hey (2nd edn., Oxford, 2008).
  • W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Leicester, 1955 & numerous edns.)
  • R. Sweet, Antiquaries: the Discovery of the Past in 18th-Century Britain (London, 2004)

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