History of London: a research guide

Connected Histories contains an extensive range of sources for the history of London from the early 16th to the late 19th centuries. The period saw London grow from a city of around 80,000 people, mostly contained within its medieval walls, to a world city of some 8 million people, covering an area of more than 1,000 square kilometres. The sources available through Connected Histories range from personal records such as diaries and wills, to chronicles and descriptions of the city's history and appearance, and the extensive and rich records of government, the judiciary and institutions such as parishes, guilds and associations.

Contents of this article

Social and economic life

The extensive sources available in London Lives, 1690-1800 include many that concern the economic and social lives of the city's inhabitants, such as records of the Carpenters' Company and an array of taxation returns, ratebooks and pollbooks for 18th century London and Westminster. Published directories of trades and professions from 1830 can be found in Historical Trade Directories (forthcoming).

Covering a longer period are the diverse sources available on British History Online, which include the records of several trades and occupations such as the Carpenters, Merchant Taylors, and Scriveners, and a database of early modern medical practitioners. Taxation records covering the whole city are available too, including Two Tudor Subsidy Rolls, published by the London Record Society, and the returns from the 'Four shillings in the pound' Aid of 1693/4. Legal and testamentary records that deal with personal wealth include the Calendar of Wills proved in the Court of Husting (to 1688), and 16th century Inquisitions Post Mortem. The diaries of individual merchants can be searched too, such as Joshua Johnson's Letter Book. Also accessible are indexes to more than 165,000 records of apprenticeship for London, from more than 40 livery companies, made available through Origins.net. For the 19th century, the social geography of the city is brought out dramatically in remarkable maps and notebooks of the Charles Booth Online Archive, which were the raw materials for Booth's Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London, completed between 1886 and 1903.

Poverty and crime

The collection most obviously associated with this topic is London Lives, 1690-1800. Focusing on sources for crime, poverty and social policy in the capital for the period 1690-1800, the collection includes transcribed records for three parish churches, sessions and coroners' records for Middlesex, the City of London and Westminster sessions, as well as the minute books of Bridewell Hospital, admissions and court records from St Thomas's hospital and court minutes from the Carpenters' Company. Together these provide a means for reconstructing individual lives and careers, especially in their interactions with social and parochial institutions. The collection includes the 18th-century proceedings and sessions papers from the central criminal court, also contained in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913. Further detail can be found in the relevant background pages. The The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera contains some London documents which can be connected directly to Old Bailey trials, such as single sheets and pamphlets. Other sources concerned with crime include many of the texts on British History Online, particularly the published records of the Middlesex sessions, the Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book.

Politics and government

The resources searchable here are also very rich in material concerning the personnel and activities of London's government. British History Online includes the printed index to the 16th- and 17th-century series of documents known as the Remembrancia, and published biographical dictionaries such as A. B. Beaven, Aldermen of the City of London to 1912, and J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London 1660-89. The role of London and its inhabitants in national and international affairs can be explored through other sources such as the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII and the various series (Domestic, Foreign, Venetian etc.) of the Calendars of State Papers. These contain a huge number of references to Londoners and their dealings with the crown. Overlapping with these, and continuing through the period, are the Journals of the House of Commons and Journals of the House of Lords, where the city's economic and political importance can be documented through bills and debates. More such material can be found in Parliamentary Papers. These can be supplemented within British History Online by political diaries and collections such as the State Papers of John Thurloe, and London Radicalism 1830-43: a Selection of the Papers of Francis Place. Below the level of the city government, there are numerous records of institutions such as parishes, companies and hospitals, to be found in London Lives, 1690-1800. The city's significance in national affairs, as well as more everyday matters, can also be found in British Newspapers 1600-1900.


While not focused exclusively on London, a huge amount of information relating to the careers of clergy in the capital can be found in the Clergy of the Church of England Database. For the parishes and other religious institutions British History Online includes records of some of the city parishes in London, including the London and Middlesex Chantry Certificate, 1548, and several volumes of churchwardens' accounts. Records for three parishes in the 18th century can be found in London Lives, 1690-1800, while Origins.net includes indexes to the depositions in the London Consistory Court.

Biographical sources

While most of the resources available through Connected Histories were not designed for geneaological research, there is nevertheless a huge amount of information about individuals. As well as resources for the careers of city government personnel (see above). British History Online contains extensive published records for individual Londoners: personal and business diaries include Joshua Johnson’s Letter Book, Richard Hutton’s Complaints Book, and the famous diary of the mid 16th-century funeral arranger, Henry Machyn. Meanwhile, the diverse sources for 18th-century London available on London Lives, 1690-1800 enable the reconstruction of individual lives and careers, especially through their visibility in the records of crime, charity and social policy.

History and topography

One of the key sources for both the history and physical appearance of early modern London is Strype's Survey of London. Published in 1720 it was itself an expanded and updated version of John Stow's original Survey of London, the 1603 edited text of which is on British History Online. Available there too are several chronicles of London in different periods. The streets and buildings of the city are documented in several publications, including Lysons's Environs of London, and Henry Harben, A Dictionary of London, as well as the Catalogue of Ancient Deeds. The British Museum Image Collection contains many maps and views of London, which provide a means to chart the physical development of the city from the late sixteenth to the mid nineteenth century.

Strengths and weaknesses

The resources accessible through Connected Histories are especially strong for the history of London, whether in London-specific collections such as London Lives, 1690-1800 and Charles Booth Online Archive, or in the more diverse and eclectic resources such as Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets (forthcoming). In the latter cases, London material is more scattered and search results will be more mixed. Some periods are currently better represented than others: the period from c.1650 to 1800 is very well covered, while the sources for 16th-century London are less extensive and mainly comprise the digitised printed sources on British History Online. Nevertheless, some useful connections may be made with material in, for example, Origins.net. Thematic coverage is more limited in some cases: there are few sources for nonconformity in London for example. It is also important to note that in many of the resources, personal names and places, including locations in London, have been marked up or tagged using natural language processing, which is only around 75 per cent accurate, as explained in About this project.

Search strategies

Connected Histories allows for a combination of keyword searching and searches based on names and places, where these have been identified and tagged within the source materials. A search for a particular London alderman, or a parish church (St Martin Ludgate) or street (Bishopsgate), can use either method in conjunction with Boolean and wildcard operators. Keyword searching is needed to locate information about (for instance) particular trades or goods, crimes, events, or institutions (e.g., livery companies, banks). The number of results returned can be limited by date or by source.

Suggested keywords and phrases include:

  • bound apprentice
  • citizen and carpenter (or mercer, goldsmith etc.)
  • court of common council
  • court of aldermen
  • mayor/sheriff/alderman
  • churchwarden
  • East India Company
  • relief of the poor

Further reading

  • The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, 2, ed. P. Clark (Cambridge, 2000). Essays on London by Jeremy Boulton and Leonard Schwarz.
  • I. W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991; 2003)
  • R. Dennis, Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930 (Cambridge, 2009)
  • P. Griffiths and M. S. R. Jenner, Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London (Manchester, 2000)
  • T. Hitchcock, Down and Out in 18th-Century London (London, 2004)

Related websites

Cite this page:

"History of London: a research guide" © University of Hertfordshire, University of London, University of Sheffield, 2011-2018; University of Sheffield 2019 (www.connectedhistories.org, version 1.0, 19 July 2024), https://www.connectedhistories.org/guide/3/