Planned downtime: Saturday 17th January 2015 9am – 4pm (GMT)

The infrastructure that our sites and services run on is being upgraded.  Whilst this is happening the Vision of Britain and related web sites and services will be completely, or partly, unavailable between 9 am and 4 pm on Saturday 17th January 2015.

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2013 SSHA Conference

R.H. McDonald's Map of Chicago (1872) showing extent of the Great Fire in 1871.

R.H. McDonald’s Map of Chicago (1872) showing extent of the Great Fire in 1871. Copyright © 2000, Cartography Associates

This weekend saw project director Humphrey Southall take part in the annual Social Science History Association Conference. This year the meeting was held in Chicago with an “Organising Powers” theme.

Humphrey presented a paper on “Early Life Conditions and Physical Capability in Mid-Life: Analysing the 1946 British Birth Cohort” in the session on “Lasting Impacts of Childhood Circumstances, which was held under the Economics, Children and Childhood, Family/Demography and Health/Medicine/Body networks. He also chaired a session on “Social Networks in Space and Time” for the Historical Geography network.

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Using Vision of Britain — and Wikipedia — in education

This is being written at the Eduwiki conference in Cardiff, where I gave a presentation on the first year course I run, which uses both A Vision of Britain through Time and Wikipedia as teaching resources.

Each student is assigned a different village, and more specifically a Wikipedia article about a village. Even more specifically, the villages are all also Civil Parishes, and the article are what Wikipedia call stub articles, containing just a couple of sentences.

The students’ task is to “substantially extend [their] assigned Wikipedia article to provide a rounded description of the place and, in particular, an account of its historical development”. Substantially extend means they have to turn those two sentences into four sides of A4 paper, when printed out.

We deliberately use parishes far from Portsmouth that the students don’t know, so this is all about researching using online sources, not observing, and of course a major online resource for researching British villages and parishes is Vision of Britain. Obviously, someone with real local knowledge could do a better job, at least on what the village is currently like, but we work only with articles which have had no work done on them for at least a year, so local people don’t seem interested.

The example I use in my EduWiki presentation is Sawley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Here is the article as it was before our student got started:,_North_Yorkshire&oldid=426321715

Here is the article as it is now; this is obviously one of the better articles the students did, but several got higher marks:,_North_Yorkshire

The article includes this population time series for Sawley:

To construct this, the student drew on data for 1881 to 1961 in Vision of Britain:

It also uses recent census statistics on Sawley, from the government’s Neighbourhood Statistics site:

What would have helped the student get a higher mark would have been further drawing on earlier population figures which are currently available only within the scanned images on the Historical Population Reports site; we hope at some stage to add these to Vision of Britain:

Incidentally, the above examples show why we have been putting a lot of work into redesigning the URLs in Vision of Britain: the URLs from Neighbourhood Statistics and Hist-Pop are horrendously complex and it is very hard to be sure either which bits are really necessary, or whether they will carry on working long term.

Both we and Wikipedia use much shorter and clearer URLs. The disadvantage of our purely numerical identifiers for places and units is that nothing in the URLs tell you where they are about, but the advantage is that unlike Wikipedia you don’t need to worry about which broader area is also named to identify the place unambiguously: currently Sawley is in the county of NorthYorkshire, but historically it was in the West Riding of Yorkshire; as was another Sawley which is now in Lancashire.

You can access my EduWiki presentation here:

Humphrey Southall

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Integrating Onomastic Data seminar

Last week we participated in the sixteenth meeting of the Baltic Division of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) who held a seminar on Integration of onomastic data into geo-spatial infrastructure. The paper Humphrey Southall and Paula Aucott; Linking places with spaces: examples from the PastPlace project was presented at the meeting being held in Tallinn, Estonia, which was jointly hosted by The Place Names Board of Estonia at the Ministry of the Interior, the Institute of the Estonian Language and the National Land Board.

GSGS 4072, Tallinn

GSGS 4072, Tallinn

 Today’s feature map shows Tallinn and its surrounding area as it was in 1944 on this map published by the British War Office as part of their GSGS 4072 series, Sheet NE 58 / 22 – Tallinn. The city was considerably smaller then than it is now. Another point of interest is that following the name Tallinn is the name Revel in brackets, this was the Russian name for the city.

A copy of the presentation is here:

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Announcing Pelagios 3

“Pelagios 3” is a new two-year project funded by the Mellon Foundation and led by Leif Isaksen (Southampton University), Elton Barker (Open University) and Rainer Simon (Austrian Institute of Technology). It will annotate, link and index place references in digitized Early Geospatial Documents (EGDs), which means maps and itineraries from before 1492; the aim is to gather placenames from just about everything that can be called a map, but the choice of end date means there will be nothing at all from the Americas. You can read more about Pelagios on their blog and in this not entirely helpful Guardian article:

Pelagios 1 and 2 worked entirely with the Pleiades gazetteer of the classical world, based at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, and Pelagios 3 annotations from Greek and Roman sources will be linked into Pleiades. However, the scope of Pelagios 3 is broader, so annotations from Chinese historical sources will be added to the China Historical GIS at Harvard and annotations from medieval European and Arab sources will be added to our gazetteer at Portsmouth.

Ruth Mostern (UC Merced), Karl Grossner (Stanford) and Lex Berman (Harvard) having lunch in Central Park during Pelagios 3 kick-off meeting.

Ruth Mostern (UC Merced), Karl Grossner (Stanford) and Lex Berman (Harvard) having lunch in Central Park during Pelagios 3 kick-off meeting.

Some users of Vision of Britain will have discovered that we include a substantial amout of information about elsewhere in Europe, but mainly just in Estonia and Sweden, so a lot of work is needed to provide a framework for content from Pelagios:

  • For now, this is not about the wide range of content accessible through Vision of Britain, like old maps and historical statistics, but simply about the gazetteer of “places”, with variant names, which forms our most accessible layer. We will be very rapidly extending this by importing “places” from Wikidata.
  • Vision of Britain is obviously inappropriate here, so this will be publicised as PastPlace, and use the internet domain
  • Our own funding from Pelagios is quite limited, and entirely to further develop the Linked Data API we are already running at
  • We obviously want to also create a web site for people to use, and extend the content to include historical information that is less than 500 years old, but we cannot announce anything immediately.

Behind the scenes there will be just one body of information, held in a single database, and in the very long term PastPlace may completely replace Vision of Britain. However, for the forseeable future our British content will be far richer than what we hold for anywhere else, so two “brands” and web sites seems appropriate.

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New travel writing: Thomas Pennant’s tour of Scotland in 1769

We have just added another tour to our collection of travel writing. This is Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland 1769, joining his later The Journey from Chester to London (1780). The book ends with a simple list of the places visited, and here our automatically generated map very clearly traces out his route:

pennant_route_mapAlthough less well known than Boswell’s and Johnson’s accounts of their similar journey four years later, Pennant provides a far more detailed description of the places visited. At one point Boswell commented “After supper, we talked of Pennant. It was objected that he was superficial. Dr Johnson defended him warmly. He said, ‘Pennant has greater variety of inquiry than almost any man, and has told us more than perhaps one in ten thousand could have done, in the time that he took’.”

In particular, Pennant provides a fascinating account of the Highlands relativel soon after the 1745 uprising, and its brutal suppression following the Jacobites’ defeat at Culloden:

At the end of Loch-Shiel the Pretender first set up his standard in the wildest place that imagination can frame: and in this sequestered spot, amidst ancient prejudices, and prevaling ignorance of the blessings of our happy constitution, the strength of the rebellion lay.

He also notes how industrialisation was affecting even northern Scotalnd:

The north side of Loch-Tay is very populous; for in sixteen square miles are seventeen hundred and eighty-six souls : on the other side, about twelve hundred. The country, within these thirty years, manufactures a great deal of thread. They spin with rocks, which they do while they attend their cattle on the hills; and, at the four fairs in the year, held at Kinmore , above sixteen hundred pounds worth of yarn is sold out of Breadalbane only: which shews the great increase of industry in these parts, for less than forty years ago there was not the lest trade in this article. The yarn is bought by persons who attend the fairs tor that purpose, and sell it again at Perth , Glasgow , and other places, where it is manufactured into cloth.

Adding Pennant’s book to the system also meant defining another 276 “places” — so our coverage of hamlets and castles in northern Scotland is greatly improved.

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Starting a long goodbye to .jsp

We went live with a couple of new features today.

URL rewriting: If you look at your browser’s address bar, for many pages it will now display a shorter address. For example, the “place page” for Evesham is now:

Note that the old address still works:

So what has changed? Behind the scenes, the new address is in fact being rewritten to the old address via a set of “rewrite rules” running at quite a high level within our server. However, from now on we want people to use the new addresses for two reasons:

— They are not tied to particular technology. For example, JSP is short for “Java Server Pages”, and you will see many other sites that instead use ASP (Active Server Pages) or PHP (Personal Hypertext Processor, I think). Any such addresses will change if the site gets hosted on a different kind of server.

— The new addresses have been consciously designed and reflect the underlying structure of our information. As such, they meet the general rules for URIs; Uniform Resource Identifiers. See:


Some more examples of these new addresses:

Evesham Municipal Borough home page:

Population time series for Evesham MB:

It is going to take some time to implement these new addresses across the whole site, and we apologise for any glitches that arise during this process.

New search interface to data documentation: we have been working for some time to make our statistical content easier to access. Another step on the way is a simple keyword search interface for statistics:

Try terms like “unemployment”, “blacksmith” or “Irish Nationalist”. More about that later, once we have made it easier to reach not just the documentation but the actual data.

Humphrey Southall

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