Finding historical sources for the first time

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Teaching Portal: For Students, Teaching Portal: Online Resources | 0 comments

In this guest post, Dr Mary Morrissey, Associate Professor in Early Modern English Literature at the University of Reading, offers some starting points and advice to those who are using historical sources for the first time. She points the reader to some online resources that will help them find information about people, about places or about different kinds of documents.

Whether you are a student embarking on a new course of studies, or a professional working in a different field, many people find themselves needing to do some historical archive work in the course of preparing teaching or undertaking research. Knowing where to start with historical documents can be a bit daunting for those who haven’t undertaken this kind of work before, but most archives nowadays welcome all sorts of visitors and there is a great deal of help at hand. There’s also a wealth of historical material available online which we’ve collated via the Teaching Portal.


Where do I start?

There are some extraordinary detailed and complete guides to different kinds of historical documents and sources. But each is arranged for different kinds of searches and it can be difficult to know where to start looking. Here’s a rough guide to the ‘top level’ of UK sources, but each of these sites will direct you to more detailed or specific resources that might help.


Looking for people

Some people are easier to find than others, and in general those with professional occupations leave a larger paper-trail.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has detailed and meticulously researched biographies of more than 60,000 people. A subscription is required: most academic institutions will have one, but individual subscriptions are available for £20 per month. Who’s Who and Who Was Who are good sources starting from the year 1848. The website is searchable but requires a subscription.

The Clergy of the Church of England Database is a database that allows you to search for ordained ministers in the Church of England between 1540 and 1835. You can search by surname, diocese or location (a parish, for example) and within particular date ranges. So you can trace the career of a particular person, or you can track the different incumbents of a particular parish over time. More senior clergy active between 1066 and 1854 can be found by searching the volumes of Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae or Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae (the volumes are arranged by date and the material within is organised alphabetically). The printed volumes are available from or you can search British History Online.

Graduates were relatively easy to find in England before 1800, because there were only two universities: Oxford students before 1892 are listed in Alumni Oxoniensis, 1500-1892; Cambridge students from ‘earliest times’ to 1954 are listed in Alumni Cantabrigiensis. These entries give a very brief account of social status and education history. The printed volumes are available online on Internet Archive; Wikipedia lists the volumes.) For other universities and for twentieth-century records, you will need to search the alumni records for each institution.

Short but very detailed biographies of Members of Parliament can be found on the website of the History of Parliament Trust; Go to the ‘Research’ pages.

There are also historical sources that help us trace ordinary people.

The National Archives website is a great place to start. The NRA is home to many millions of documents that can help you trace people. Their information pages will help you to search for wills from the Middle Ages and later, explaining why some records (for e.g. diocesan court) may be in a County Record Office while others are with the National Archive in their headquarters at Kew. (Wills are particularly important for the Middle Ages, because there are no parish register records or census data.) The NRA also has searchable census data online (1801 onwards) and Poor Law records (from workhouses, often vital for finding people who otherwise leave few documentary traces behind them).

County Record Offices are the places where the birth, marriage and death records from parish registers are usually kept. These registers began in the Tudor period but not all records from the earlier period survive. County Record Offices are often the place where the papers of wealthy and /or landowning families are deposited when made public. Business papers might also be deposited here.

London Metropolitan Archive serves as the County Record Office for the City and the Greater London area. It has parish records, records from the London livery companies and records of Hospitals and Poor Law unions.

Old Bailey Online  has a searchable database of almost 200,000 records of criminal trials held at London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913. The website also has some very useful articles explaining the context (legal, social and political) in which the trials took place and advice on how to interpret the entries from the Proceedings.

For more information on the many kinds of records available (for those in the armed forces, apprentices, evacuees, migrants, enslaved people, and school children) visit the National Archive’s Discovery pages.


Looking for places:

The Victoria County History is an extraordinary resource that gives information about every parish and hamlet in England. Updating it is a huge and ongoing task, and not every county has been covered completely, but even the older volumes are useful (depending on the period that you are researching). You can access the information through the VCH website and you can access the volumes through the British History Online portal.

London is incredibly well served in topographical history through the Survey of London. The original description by John Stow from 1598 was revised and edited several times and is still in print and available online. The updated version from 1720 by John Strype is available in a full electronic edition (by the University of Sheffield). The modern Survey began work in the 1980s and is still going. All versions are accessible through British History Online.

For Irish topographical history sources, including Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary (1837) and placename research, go to the Placename Database of Ireland ( The National Library has an extensive collection of maps.

For Scotland Samuel Lewis’ A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (1846) is available online. The National Library of Scotland has made extensive collection of maps digitally available.

Similarly, for Wales, Samuel Lewis’ A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1849) is available online, and the National Library of Wales has digitised some of its map collection. The six Legal Deposit libraries hold the archive from the Ordinance Survey.


Looking for laws and legal documents

If this is a new area for you, there is a very useful guide to sources on the law and legal history produced by the Bodleian Library.

The Statutes of the Realm (1101-1713) is usually only available in huge volumes in ‘research’ sections of the various institutional libraries. However, the Statutes Project has links to online versions of those old volumes.

For debates in Parliament, Hansard Online allows you to search for speeches by MPs dated from 1800 to the present day. The nineteenth-century volumes are still being processed, and you may need to consult the printed Journals of the House of Commons (available from the Parliament website 1837-2014) or House of Lords Journal (available from the Parliament website 1997-2017) as well. Earlier volumes, as far back as 1547, can be found at British History Online.  


Looking for news and newspapers

The National Archives have advice on finding newspapers, as well as links to newspaper archives available online and in hard copy. The British Library is home to the largest newspaper archive and you can access the digitised versions through The British Newspaper Archive (subscription is required to view items although not to search through the online list). The original documents are now in the BL’s Boston Spa site. Also behind a paywall is the earliest newsbooks (through Early English Books Online (EEBO), see below) and Gale’s Historical Newspapers database, which covers the eighteenth-century onward and includes many American newspapers.


Looking for books

For information (publication details etc) on anything published in Britain since 1950, go to The British National Bibliography. For anything published between 1800 and 1950, the main catalogues of the copyright libraries are probably the best option (although you might need to search more than one for earlier material): the copyright libraries are The British Library, The Bodleian Library, OxfordCambridge University Library, National Library of Wales, National Library of Scotland, and Trinity College, Dublin. To read the book, you could search for it on the Internet Archive, but you might need to travel to a library to find a hard copy. For material before 1800, you will find the publication details by looking at the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue. To access the texts themselves, you will need to visit a library or an institute with access to the Early English Books Online database or the JISC Historical Texts database.

If you are looking for works of history and historical research (articles and books) on any topic, the Royal Historical Society’s Bibliography of British and Irish History is an invaluable resource. It requires a subscription, but most educational institutions have access available.


Working with archivists

All of these record offices and archives are staffed by people who are very familiar with historians and genealogists, professional and amateur, so they can provide tremendous help in your search. But they receive lots of queries, and it is only polite that you do as much research as you can before visiting or contacting them: you can read the guides they provide on their website about how to use their resources and checking their online catalogues to see how much information is already there about the archival material they have and how searchable it is.



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