Working with our descriptive gazetteers

A couple of my recent posts have been about defining additional places. This work has partly been about finding geographical locations for administrative units which were previously defined by hierarchic position, meaning the county or district they were part of. However, it has increasingly been about finding locations to go with entries from our collection of descriptive gazetteers, mainly from the late nineteenth century.

So how are we doing with this task?

Name of Gazetteer Total Entries Placed Entries
John Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles (1887) 55,516 23,137
John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales (1872) 29,411 18,902
Frances Groome’s The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1885) 7,268 1,952
Samuel Lewis’s A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) 3,939 36
W.H. Beable’s Russian Gazetteer and Guide (1919; just some Estonian demo entries) 5 4
TOTAL 96,139 44,031

You will see that even after all this work more than half the descriptive entries are not linked to places, so don’t assume you can’t find somewhere in our system until you have directly searched our descriptive gazetteers via the relevant expert search form:

A lot of the “un-placed” entries are for physical or linear features, like mountains, rivers and railway lines. However, many are simply for small settlements. For example, there are 9,177 un-placed Imperial Gazetteer entries of two hundred characters or less, which have so far not been visually inspected. Of these, 492 are for “a village”, 1,174 for “a township” and 3,396 for “a hamlet”.

A few more tips:

  • The relative locations given in these entries, such as “six miles north-west of Newtown”, often seem to describe the main settlement of the parish containing a township or hamlet, not the place being described. This is one of the reasons why locating some of the Welsh townships is proving so hard.
  • Where descriptive entries give locations that are just plain wrong, Bartholomew and the Imperial Gazetteer often seem to make the same mistake. For example, they both locate Ynysawdre 3 miles south of Bridgend in Glamorgan when it was 3 miles north. There is a strong suspicion that the various gazetteers copied much material from one another, including their errors. NB our aim is always to provide an accurate transcription of what the historical writer said, not to correct any errors they made.
  • Most settlements end up with two linked gazetteer entries, one from Bartholomew and the other from the Imperial Gazetteer or, in Scotland, Groome. Our system then selects the entry with the most appropriate length to appear on the main page for each place, below the map. Our rules for selecting the entry are a little complex, but what this means in practice is that if the entry on the main page is from Groome or the Imperial you will not find much additional information on the “place writing” page, unless it is a really big place with lots of entries, or if there are linked references from travel writers. However, if the entry on the main page is from Bartholomew it is very likely there will be a more detailed entry linked from “place writing”.
  • Some of those linked entries can be very long. For example, the Groome gazetteer entry for Edinburgh contains well over 100,000 words — the length of a substantial book.

About Humphrey Southall

Director, Great Britain Historical GIS; Reader in Geography, University of Portsmouth
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