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Researching local history online

A guide to useful resources and how to use
the internet to discover more about local history
Adapted from an article by Giles Turnbull for the BBC Online 05/01

Researching local history

It's easy, when watching Hollywood blockbusters like Gladiator, to think that history is all about Kings and Queens, Emperors and armies, all the razzle-dazzle excitement of big battles and bloody wars. But there's more to history than that. Every place has its own history, - it may not have been as glitzy as Rome or Cairo - but most places will be able to reveal a few fascinating secrets from the past. So if you want to dig them out, it's a matter of turning detective. The internet offers plenty of starting points, but you'll probably have to leave your house to really get the most from local history research. It may mean a trip to the local library. This guide gives you the starting points for studying your own local history.

So where do you begin? Not everyone thinks of spotting history in the landscape, but often the clues are there staring you in the face. Geology - the study of rocks and similar substances can be a help. The rocks that make up the landscape, and the shapes that they form, tell you something about how your locality looked many hundreds of millions of years ago. Of course, this is one of those lines of research that could grow. Geology can get pretty complicated fairly quickly. So if you want to study it in depth, you could end up with a very detailed picture of local ancient history. But the chances are that you will just be after an overview. Try searching West Geology Directory for a local geological society near you, which might well hold regular lectures and field trips for beginners. has a useful site at with plenty of pointers to useful geological tips for beginners.

Intertwined with the local history of a place will be the stories of the people who have lived in it. These can be a crucial source of information for any researcher. Since people are so important, it might be worth talking to elderly people who might know something you don't. Ask grandparents, uncles, and neighbours to see what they can tell you. Local councils are also useful and are one of the best places to go for local history information. Of course this may mean a trip to the library to sit down for a few hours and browse through books, or newspaper archives. You may also be luck and find that your town has taken the time to post historical exhibitions online. Cambridgeshire County Council has built Cambridgeshire's History on the Net, an impressive archive of photos of county villages from years gone by at Bromley Borough Council, in south east London, has a plenty of historical background information on its web site at: - look under H in the site A-Z guide. Cheshire County Council is another that has published an online history at: If this has sparked your interest and you want to find out what your local authority is doing, there's a very comprehensive list of them here: Family history is another avenue you may wish to pursue. If you find yourself getting hooked on family history, you'll end up unlocking all kinds of additional avenues to explore. also has a helpful guide to reaserching family history.

If you browse the web site of the BALH at: British Association for Local History you'll find an online archive for The Local Historian magazine. At the time of writing, there's not a great deal of content there, although the editors are planning to compile and publish a CD-Rom of back issues, which would be extremely useful to serious history fans. Much more useful is the list of web links at, which contains some really valuable pointers for further help. Eventually, any serious historical research will lead you to the National Archives, which is headquartered at Kew in London. Getting to it to look at the archives in person is not easy for the vast majority of people in the UK, but the official Public Records Office web site at is a good alternative. The PRO's document store is vast. You can search the catalogue using any keywords - such as your town or village name - or browse through the massive online database called PROCAT. Once you have found documents that interest you, there are two choices. Either make your way to the Kew Gardens headquarters to see them in person, or ask the PRO to send you a copy (a service you will be charged for). Either way, it's well worth taking full advantage of the PRO web site first, to be sure they have the information you want and prevent any wasted journeys to London. Among the information you might be able to find there is old census data about your house or street - perhaps the names (and occupations) of previous owners and residents. Elsewhere on the PRO web site, The Virtual Museum at: is a fascinating guide to Britain's history through archived documents, and provides a glimpse into what treasures are stored in the PRO's vaults.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to find more detail is to see what you can find out on your own on the internet. Simply entering the name of your town and the word "history" into a good search engine (like Google-at could reveal some gems. Local History magazine has a web site at In particular, the "Getting started" page at: contains a simple checklist of ideas for kicking off your investigations. It also has some useful addresses to write to, and some book recommendations. It also has a superb links section at: where you will find all kinds of web sites to visit, organised into helpful categories. Offline, there are two old publications which might be of great value. The Victoria County Histories are a series of studies of land ownership in the UK, a project started in the reign of Queen Victoria (hence the name). There's a list of available books, and details of how to order them, on this page: A similar series of books, Kelly's County Directories, are not available online, but your local library should be able to order a copy of one for you, if it does not have it in stock.

The only way future generations can be sure of having their own understanding of history is if our generation records some of it. You can make your own contribution to this in a number of ways, using some of the services available online. Obvoiusly we would very much value your input here at where we hope to continue to build an online repository of knowledge of real people and places over the last century. The idea is that people who are old enough send in their stories from the past, which are then edited and posted on the site for anyone - young or old - to enjoy. If there you know someone who could add some, encourage them to do so. A similar and useful site is ; entries are categorised by location within Britain, so you can easily find out about your local area - assuming someone has submitted something for it. You will get some useful pointers for your research, and make a helpful contribution to an innovative web project at the same time.


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