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18 September 2014
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City Local History: Top Tips

By Dr Charles Insley
Personal evidence

Image of Coventry town centre
The 1960s shopping precinct in Coventry - a modern source 
It goes without saying that looking at the more recent past makes sense for newcomers to local history, for all sorts of reasons. There is plentiful, accessible and (very importantly) easy to read evidence, such as census returns, newspapers and accurate standard maps, such as the first series of the Ordnance Survey.

Much of the recent past is still accessible in the form of the buildings around us. The vast majority of these buildings, especially in large towns and industrial centres, will date from the past 150 years.

'The further back we go, the scarcer and more problematic the evidence.'

People's recollections are not necessarily the most accurate form of evidence, but they are sometimes the most interesting and lend a personal dimension to the history of the places in which we live.

Once the historian looks back beyond the 19th century, sources become scarcer, less well collected, quite often not printed and sometimes more difficult to use. The further back we go, the scarcer and more problematic the evidence.

Medieval urban records are invariably in Latin, whilst early modern records (those from the 16th and 17th centuries) are often in difficult-to-read handwriting. This is not meant to deter you from looking at the distant past but to advise you that it brings its own problems, none of which are insuperable.

Published: 2005-03-07

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