BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

18 September 2014
Accessibility help
Local History

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Go further


There are any number of secondary sources you might look at, depending on what aspect of urban history interests you. Not only are there numerous books on the subject of urban history, but dedicated academic periodicals. There are a few secondary sources worth mentioning here, since they provide the newcomer to urban history with a useful way in.

There are a number of guides to various aspects of local and urban history two useful introductions are:

Particular Places: An Introduction to English Local History by Chris Lewis (British Library, 1989 )

Exploring Urban History: Sources for the Local Historian by Stephen Porter (Batsford, 1983)

Record Sources for English Local History by Philip Riden (Batsford, 1983)

Local History: A Handbook for Beginners by Philip Riden (Batsford, 1987)

Victoria County History (VCH) is an indispensable source, for local history in general. This project, begun after the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, aims to provide a comprehensive history of every English county, parish by parish.

In some cases, such as Warwickshire, Hampshire, Lancashire and soon Cambridgeshire, the county has been fully covered. In other cases, work stopped in the early years of the 20th century after only a few volumes, but in many cases, work is still continuing and new histories are regularly produced.

These volumes provide a detailed history of each parish, with full references (very useful if you wish to look at the original source). Many counties also have thematic volumes covering topics such as transport, economic history and ecclesiastical history. A large number of towns and cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry and much of London, have been covered and these volumes are the most important starting point for anyone interested in local history.


Public Records Office: The Public Record Office is the national archive of England, Wales and the UK. It brings together and preserves the records of central government and the courts of law, and makes them available to all who wish to consult them. The records span an unbroken period from the 11th century to the present day.

The British Association for Local History: Publishes the journal The Local Historian. BALH is the leading national society for local history and local historians.

The Ordnance Survey: This site has very helpful material on all current OS maps and older archived material, as well as advice to ramblers and orienteerers.

Family Records Centre: This site aims to provide easy access to information and links to the main UK family history sites on the web, national archives and genealogy services.

The Victoria County History: This site offers access to online county histories with guidance on where to look for local information. It is in the process of expanding its online histories and texts for a number of counties.

The Family and Local History Handbook: A valuable gazetteer and directory of organisations, explanatory articles, useful addresses and helpful introductory notes is the published each year by The Genealogical Services Directory. It includes a county-by-county directory of organisations and societies; lists record offices and archive repositories; and has directories of museums, libraries and heritage centres.

The Workers' Educational Association: One of the organisations that holds courses on local history in different towns and villages across Britain.

Places to visit

One of the most valuable sources is not a written one at all, but the built environment. Most towns and cities contain buildings from a wide range of dates and it is these buildings, as much as the documents in a record office, that tell the story of a place, whether it is grand Victorian civic buildings, Victorian working class terraces, 1930s semi-detached houses, 1950s council houses or luxurious Georgian terraces.

Part of your research should be walking the streets and looking around you. You will also find that photographs are an invaluable source for urban history of the last one hundred and fifty years. Many record offices have photograph archives, but it is also worth contacting local newspapers, since they too, may have old photographs.

You will need to look at a range of primary sources, whatever aspect of urban history you are studying. For most towns, the first port of call will be the County Record Office, although some larger towns have their own borough archives and record office. All cities will have their own Record Office and very large metropolitan centres, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and most of all, London, may have a number of places where records are kept.

In some cases you may need to look at church material: this may be kept in the local record office, or it may be kept with the diocesan records in the diocesan centre. It is quite likely that at some point you will also have to use the records of central government. These are stored at the Public Records Office (PRO) in Kew, London. The catalogue can be accessed online and it makes sense to build up a list of references and then spend a day at the PRO, which opens on Saturdays and some weekday evenings.

[The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.]

Published: 07-03-2005

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy