Help us record place names from old maps

Today we are launching a new website,, which needs your help!

We are looking for on-line volunteers to transcribe and confirm all the place names from early twentieth century six inch to one mile scale maps of Great Britain. The final list aims to be the most detailed historical place-name gazetteer ever created, including approximately three million names for everything from towns and villages down to individual farms and physical features such as hills and woods. The final confirmed names will be made available under a creative commons licence, meaning everyone will be able to access it.

This project leads on from an earlier Welsh project,, and has been created by a collaboration involving the Great Britain Historical GIS Project at the University of Portsmouth, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales and the People’s Collection Wales.GB1900 homepage

You can read more about the project here:

You can also keep up to date with our progress on this project by following us on twitter: @gbhgis #gb1900

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Updating Vision of Britain to include 2011 census information

We are currently working to revise A Vision of Britain through Time to include the 2011 Census of Population. Our aim is to launch a revised site in the spring of 2016.

This means not just adding 2011 statistical data, but re-working all the re-districted historical data so that it uses the same geographies and classifications as the results from 2011 — so no small task.

This rebuilding has been made possible by funding from the European Union’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy and from the Greater London Authority, to re-district historical data to 2011 geographies, for their own use. Those projects are now complete, but as the EU project was limited to simple head counts while the GLA project was limited to London and came up only to 1961 we now need to broaden out the work.

London long run trendsThe graph above is an early result of this work. From 1921 onwards the British census has gathered data on “industry”, meaning a classification of the business of workers’ employers, as well as “occupations”, meaning what workers individually did. Currently, Vision of Britain contains none of this data,  but we have now computerised the 1931 and 1951 Industry Tables for the south east of England, and are adding data for the rest of England and Wales, and hopefully Scotland, with support from the Centre of Cities. We  then re-classified these data to the Standard Industrial Classification (2007), and re-districted them to the Local Authority Districts of 2011.

The graph simplifies the SIC Divisions down to just five broad sectors, and presents overall totals for Greater London. It also, of course, includes 1841 and 1881 occupational data and industry data for 1971, 1991 and 2011. Trends between 1931 and 1951 are misleading as the former data are based on where people lived, while data for 1951 and all later years are by workplace.

We are also hoping to revise the site’s design, and it will definitely be running on a new server, our fifth since we launched in 2003, as that has already been delivered.

Humphrey Southall

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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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