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City Local History: Top Tips

By Dr Charles Insley
Find out how to approach reseaching the history of your town and pick up tips to get off to the best possible start.
Medieval houses on Spon Street, Coventry 


Urban history

On one level, urban history is simply a form of local history and much of the advice given about local history is true for urban history. Nevertheless, there are things worth bearing in mind that are perhaps particularly true for this type of research.

'... be realistic and selective about what you wish to look at.'

As anyone who has tried to write the history of a village will know, it is a massive undertaking. So, attempting to write the history of a small town, let alone a large town or city, is simply an unrealistic aim for most part-time researchers. Not only are towns and cities simply more complex entities than a village, the quantity of sources to be looked at is far, far greater, and the researcher is in danger of drowning in them.

The first step, then, is to be realistic and selective about what you wish to look at. Think about the context in which you want to put your work. Think about the context in which your town or city exists. There are a number of ways in which you can do this, and it is up to you to choose the best one for the job in hand.

For example, rather than looking at an entire town or city in a particular period, you might want to look at a particular place - perhaps the area in which you or your family live. This again narrows down the project to a manageable size. Another alternative is to look at a specific theme or topic.

You might want to look at a particular industry within your chosen place, its schools or its hospitals, the development of its suburbs or its shops. Again, the key here is to try and choose something manageable. But perhaps the most common approach is to choose a particular date as a focus for your research.

Urban clues

Image of the ruins of Coventry's medieval cathedral
The ruins of Coventry's medieval cathedral
The history of every urban centre is unique. Some towns began as medieval ecclesiastical centres (such as Bury St Edmunds or St Albans), others were important market centres (Coventry, Bristol or Northampton, for example) and some began as medieval fortresses (Caernarfon or Conwy).

In North Wales, the medieval defences can still be seen, as they can at York or Chester. Some towns and cities had their heyday in the Middle Ages (places such as Chester or Shrewsbury) while some have only come into their own in the past 200 years (Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, for example). Some towns, such as Milton Keynes and Luton, only have a history as an urban centre that stretches back 50 years.

'Many of our urban centres have also seen massive changes in the past century ...'

Having said that, there are a number of common experiences shared by many urban centres over the last 800 or 900 years (or longer). Some will have medieval origins; others were touched by the mercantile boom of the 17th and 18th centuries - a period that saw the gentrification of many town centres and the beginnings of suburbanisation.

Most were indelibly marked by the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of factories, terraced houses and new forms of transport such as the canal, the railway and, ultimately, the motor vehicle.

Many of our urban centres have also seen massive changes in the past century and, indeed, in our own lifetimes, by the the destruction and damage caused by bombing in World War Two or the tower blocks, shopping centres and ring-roads which followed. In most places, these experiences are written in the stone, brick and wood around you.

Buildings as evidence

Image of an 18th-century town house, Coventry
An elaborate 18th-century town house, Coventry
Buildings are a valuable form of evidence for urban history and can often provide crucial evidence for dating a town or city's development. You can sometimes see the survivors of the medieval or Tudor past - sometimes half-timbered, with their small windows and low ceilings.

Buildings are a valuable form of evidence for urban history and can often provide crucial evidence for dating a town or city's development. You can sometimes see the survivors of the medieval or Tudor past - sometimes half-timbered, with their small windows and low ceilings.

'The insides of buildings are also worth considering ...'

On the other side of the coin are the working class terraces of the 18th or 19th centuries, with their narrow fronts and two-up, two-down layout.

The insides of buildings are also worth considering, since they often tell us about the changes in a building's use: the Georgian town house now turned into flats, or offices, or the Victorian villa turned into a school. In their own way, these changes are part of the ever-changing, evolving urban landscape that we see all around us.

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.

Getting started

Image of a local studies centre
A local studies centre in Darlington, Co Durham
You need to have a sense of the aims and expected outcomes of your project from the outset. It is very easy for local history simply to become the collection and collation of material, which, while important in itself, does not necessarily tell us anything about the history of the places around us. Start your project with some questions and you are much more likely to find answers.

'Your first port of call should be the local studies section of the central library ...'

You might be itching to get into your local record office to look at census returns, or hearth tax returns, but the first step for most local historians would be to find out what had already been written on your town or subject. Your first port of call should be the local studies section of the central library of your chosen town or city, followed by reading books on the sort of subjects that interest you.

There are general books on industrial history and education as well as specific themes in urban history such as the growth of the suburbs, urban identities or the role of transport.

Most towns and cities have something written about them. Some have very good published histories, some less so, but it is important to read everything you can so that you get some idea of the aspects of your town or city's history which have been covered and make an informed choice of topic. Looking at published histories of your town or city should also provide you with the starting place for the primary evidence you need to look at.

You are not alone

Image of sources for local history students
Tools of the urban historian's trade
The writing of history can be a very solitary exercise but it need not be that way. In fact, local history can be a very sociable activity. Most places have an active local history society, or local studies group so its worth trying to find out.

If you are unlucky enough to live in a place that does not have such a group then why not start one? Again, you should be able to find details of what is going on in your area in the local studies section of the library.

'... local history classes can also provide specific skills training, such as palaeography ...'

There are a number of other things you can do. Although, sadly, university extra-mural education seems to be on the wane, it is still possible to find extra-mural or adult education classes in local history. These are most certainly worth joining for a number of reasons, as are WEAs (Workers Education Associations).

Firstly, they allow you to meet other people working on similar topics and provide access to professional expertise and academic local historians. These kinds of local history classes can also provide specific skills training, such as palaeography - the reading of old documents.

However, it has to be said that it's possible there may be no such classes in your area on the sorts of topics which interest you. There are still some other possibilities: it's always worth contacting the history department of your local university. Whilst academic historians are busy people, there may be professional historians locally who can offer advice and suggestions.

First steps

Image of photographs of Upper Street in Islington, London
A photographic trail of urban history
By now you may be well into your research, having established what it is you hope to do and started looking at sources. The message here is to be patient - discovering the history of your town or city can take time - so be careful and methodical.

Keep your notes and materials properly organised and make sure you always write the reference of a source down, whether it is a page from a book or an article, or a document in your local record office. If you do not, you can be sure that at some point you will need to go back to that source.

'The past is out there, if you know where to look.'

Always keep in mind what it is you are looking to achieve: there are so many interesting aspects of urban history that it can be very easy to lose track of what you set out to do and go off at a tangent.

The past is out there, if you know where to look. With just a little bit of thought and a trip or two to the library, it is very easy to start looking at the history around you. The history of our towns and cities is rich and varied and there is something to whet everyone's appetite.

As you delve into the sources, whether at your local record office, the Public Records Office or even by just looking at the buildings around you, the experiences of our towns and cities come alive. Try it and see if you can look at your town with the eyes of an urban historian.





Published on BBC History: 2005-03-07
This article can be found on the Internet at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/local_history/city/city_local_history_tips_01.shtml

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