The Genealogist’s Internet

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16. History

General resources

Local history

Social history


Understanding old documents

While family history is concerned mainly with individual ancestors, their lives and the documents that record them cannot be understood without a broader historical appreciation of the times in which they lived. The aim of this chapter is to look at some of the general historical material on the internet that is likely to be of use to family historians.

General resources

There are, of course, many resources online relating to particular aspects of British and Irish history, but it is those covering local and social history which are most likely to be of use to the family historian. Even so, the material online is as nothing to the immense body of print publications on the subject.

The BBC History site provides a general introduction to British History at <> and there is a separate area devoted to ‘historic figures’ at <>.

Wikipedia has many articles on British and Irish historical topics, some of which are very comprehensive, and the best of them have good bibliographies and useful links to relevant online resources.

British History Online (BHOL) at <>, run by the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust, is a ‘digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles’. Some of the parliamentary content requires a subscription but everything of interest to the genealogist is free. The material can be browsed by region, subject or period and includes many primary records mentioning named individuals (such as the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanaesee p. 143). The site has many older topographical works and modern Victoria County History volumes (see below).


Figure 16-1: British History Online

Connected Histories at <> is a historical gateway which describes and links to a small number of major historical data projects. In fact all eleven projects currently on the site are significant enough to be discussed individually in this book, for example British History Online, mentioned above, and The Proceedings of the Old Bailey (see p. 124). However, the advantage of Connected Histories is that it provides a global search over all these projects, and the advanced search has fields for searching on given name and family name, which can therefore be used to search for references to individuals. In addition, the site has research guides to these resources under nine general headings such as ‘Crime and justice’ and ‘Poverty and poor relief’.

Local history

For introductory material on local history the BBC’s Local History page at <> is a good starting point. As well as describing what is involved in local history, it looks at how to approach the history of a factory, a landscape, and a village, by way of example. The National Archives site does not have a local history section as such, but its ‘Looking for a place?’ page at <> has local history material, with links to pages on the records for towns and cities, villages and the countryside, maps, manors, and landed estates. There are also links for various types of institution. An earlier incarnation of TNA’s website had a dedicated local history section, and this had useful material no longer on the current site. The UK Government Web Archive has a copy of the section at <> (2 October 2009).

If you want guidance on where to find information and sources, then the ‘Getting Started’ page on the Local History Magazine website at <> will prove useful. Sites with information on repositories which hold sources for local history are covered in Chapter 9.

It would be unrealistic to expect much of the printed material on local history to be available online, but many volumes of the Victoria County History (VCH) are at BHOL. From the home page at <> follow the ‘Local History’ link. Of the 225 or so published volumes, around 160 have been digitized, at least one for each county, with Middlesex, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire particularly well covered. In addition, the Internet Archive at <> has a number of VCH volumes which are not yet on the BHOL site. The VCH itself has a site at <> with general information about the project and details of the progress with individual counties at <>. A useful feature is the parish index at <>, which can be used to identify the printed volume which covers the parish and links to BHOL if it has been digitized. Chris Phillips, who runs the very useful Medieval English Genealogy site at <>, has compiled an index to place-names mentioned in the titles of topographical articles in the published volumes of the VCH. This can be found at <>. His pages for the individual VCH counties link to online editions if available.

BHOL also has an increasing number of other local history sources. London is particularly well served with 45 volumes of the late-Victorian Survey of London, but there is also material for Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and several English counties.

For Scotland, the Statistical Accounts of Scotland at <> are a major source. These accounts are descriptive rather than financial and were published in two sets of volumes, one dating from the 1790s and the other from the 1830s. There is a chapter devoted to each parish, compiled by the local minister, and they offer ‘a rich record of a wide variety of topics: wealth, class and poverty; climate, agriculture, fishing and wildlife; population, schools, and the moral health of the people’. Unfortunately, the full search facilities are accessible only to academic institutions and paid subscribers; other users can only browse the scanned pages. On the search page, there are drop-down lists to help you locate the pages for a particular parish, but any place that is not a parish can be very difficult to find. You may need to use a gazetteer (see p. 257) to identify which parish your place is located in.

There is an increasing amount of material online for individual cities, towns and villages. County record offices are among those exploiting the web to publish resources for local history, and there are a number of lottery-funded projects to put local history material online. Most larger cities have substantial historical resources on their websites, and there are plenty of smaller districts and individual parishes whose community sites have local historical material. Indeed, because of the smaller scale, parish sites can often aim at being very comprehensive.

Among the larger-scale projects for counties or regions are:

Projects for individual places include:

Some of these have online data as well as general historical material. The photographic collections mentioned on on p. 302 are also useful for local history.

Local authority websites will have details of any local studies or local history libraries in their area, though few of these seem to have historical material on the web.

It is also well worth checking the website of the Local Heritage Initiative at <>. This programme was launched in 2000 to ‘help communities bring their local heritage to life’, and the clickable map on the home page leads to a list of projects for the selected region.

There are many sites with small data extracts for local areas, often a single parish, examples of which will be found in Chapter 8. But a more comprehensive approach is represented by the Online Parish Clerk (OPC) schemes. Each county scheme has volunteers transcribing historical records for individual parishes. So far, there are schemes for Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Somerset, Sussex, Warwickshire and Wiltshire. Links to the websites of these projects, which will link in turn to the pages for individual parishes, can be found on Genuki’s OPC page at <>. Many Genuki county and parish pages themselves include descriptive extracts from historical directories and have links to other local transcriptions.

One-place studies aim to collect all historical, geographical and genealogical information about a single place as a background to the history of individual local families. A central index of these projects, arranged by county, is provided by the One Place Studies site at <>.

One often overlooked aspect of history which influenced our ancestors’ lives is the climate. Climate History in the British Isles at <> allows you to see whether a particular year was affected by any severe meteorological events, national or local.


There are at least as many groups devoted to local history as there are family history societies, though of course not all of them have websites. A comprehensive listing for all parts of the UK and Ireland is provided by Local History magazine in the Local History Directory at <>. This gives contact details including email addresses and websites where available. It also includes the many county-based record societies, whose print publications are such an important source for family historians. The British Association for Local History has a select list of links to local history society websites at <>.

Discussion forums

LOCAL-HISTORY is a general mailing list for the British Isles, which is hosted by JISCmail, the national academic mailing list service. You can see the archive of past messages for the list at <>, and there are also instructions on how to subscribe.

There are two other places to look for genealogical discussion forums relating to local history. ONE-PLACE-STUDY is a mailing list for those involved in studying a single parish or group of parishes, details of which can be found at <>. British-Genealogy also hosts a discussion forum for one-place studies at <>.

Curious Fox at <> is a site which provides message boards for local history and genealogy. While most discussion forums are county-based, this site is different in that it is based on a gazetteer of over 50,000 towns and villages in the British Isles (including 3,000 in Ireland), each with its own page. You can search for the settlement name, generate lists of nearby villages and hamlets, and get links to the exact location on Streetmap and Old-maps. You can also search by family name. The site calls itself ‘semi commercial’: you can join and use the site free of charge, but a subscription of £5 provides additional facilities, including an automatic email when someone adds a message relating to a town or village you have stored as a place of interest. Without a subscription you can only contact subscribers.

Most of the genealogical mailing lists for counties, areas, and individual places are useful for local history queries, and there are some lists which specifically include local history in their remit. For example, the sussexpast group on Yahoo Groups at <> describes its interests as ‘Discussions and questions/answers on archaeology, local history, museums and architecture in Sussex’. Lists which are more explicitly focused on the history of individual localities include:

Details of all three will be found in RootsWeb listings for Scotland, England and Wales, respectively, at <>.

Social history

Although the web provides material on any aspect of social history you care to name, from slavery to education, it is difficult to know what you can expect to find on a given topic in terms of quality and coverage. In view of the large number of possible subjects which come under ‘social history’, and the very general application of these headings (crime, poverty, etc.), using a search engine to locate them can be quite time-consuming. Also, of course, searching on these terms will bring up many sites that have nothing to do with the history of the UK. However, if you can think of any terms or phrases that refer only to British and Irish historical material (‘1840 Education Act’, ‘Poor Law’, etc.) this will make searching easier. Local history sites such as those discussed above are likely to include some material on social history and local museums, and may provide useful links to non-local material.

For more recent local and social history, local newspapers are an important source, and these are discussed on p. 193ff.

Where aspects of social history are bound up with the state, you can expect to find some guidance on official sites. The National Archives, for example, has research guides on Education, Enclosures, Lunacy and Lunatic Asylums, Outlawry, and the Poor Law, among other subjects — see <>. Records relating to crime and punishment are discussed on p. 124ff.

A comprehensive guide to social history sites is beyond the scope of this book, but the following examples may give a taste of some of the resources on the web.

Professor George P. Landow’s Victorian Web includes an overview of Victorian Social History at <> with a considerable amount of contemporary documentation. This site, incidentally, was one of the first to use the web to make linked historical materials available.

There are a number of sites with material on institutions. The Workhouses site at <> provides a comprehensive introduction to the workhouse and the laws relating to it, along with lists of workhouses in England, Wales and Scotland and a guide to workhouse records. The Rossbret Institutions site has information not only on workhouses but on a wide range of institutions, including Asylums, Almshouses, Prisons, Dispensaries, Hospitals, Reformatories, and Orphanages. Unfortunately, the site went offline in 2011 but is available at the Wayback Machine at <> (15 November 2010).

If you have an ancestor who was committed to a mental institution, the County Asylums site at <>, though mainly about the buildings themselves, will also be of interest. GenDocs has a list of ‘Workhouses, Hospitals, Lunatic Asylums, Prisons, Barracks, Orphan Asylums, Convents, and other Principal Charitable Institutions’ in London in 1861 at <>.

Hidden Lives at <> is a site devoted to children in care between 1881 and 1918. It has details of around 170 care homes and many histories of individual children (not named). There are useful links to other online sources relating to children and poverty.

The Historic Hospital Admissions Records (HHARP) site at <> is a collection of resources relating to four children’s hospitals in London and Glasgow with admission records for various periods from the middle of the nineteenth century to 1914. The site provides historical background on each hospital, including articles on individual doctors and some patients, and a list of medical terms found in the records. Access to full search results and detailed case notes on individuals requires (free) registration.

Among the materials relating to Scotland are Origins’ articles on aspects of Scottish social history at <>, which include the fishing and weaving industries, the Poor Law, and religion. Electric Scotland has a substantial account of the ‘Social History of the Highlands’ at <>, taken from a nineteenth-century work. The site has much other material on Scottish history. Radical Glasgow at <> covers the city’s radical movements and their leading individuals from the Act of Union to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in of the 1970s.

The Powys Heritage Online project mentioned above has sections devoted to crime and punishment, education and schools, religion in Wales, and care of the poor, at <>, which make use of original documents and photographs.

Finally, the Spartacus Educational site at <> is a model of what can be done with historical material on the web. It has information on many topics in social history since the mid-eighteenth century, such as child labour, the railways, the textile industry and female emancipation. The site contains both general information and historical documents. The pages devoted to the textile industry, for example, at <>, contain general information on the machinery, the various occupations within the industry and the nature of daily life in the textile factory, but also include biographical material on individual inventors, entrepreneurs and factory workers, the latter taken from interviews before a House of Commons Committee in 1832.



A regular topic in discussion forums is the origin of surnames. When talking about surnames, though, the term ‘origin’ has two distinct meanings: how the name came about linguistically (its etymology); and where it originated geographically (its home). Unfortunately there is little reliable information on the web relating to the first of these. The authoritative sources for British surname etymologies are the modern printed surname dictionaries, which are not available online. If you are lucky you may find a surname site that quotes and gives references for the relevant dictionary entries for your particular surname, but in the absence of source references you should treat etymological information given on genealogy websites as unreliable. Even where sources are given, you should be cautious — some of the older surname dictionaries cited are the work of amateurs rather than scholars. Indeed, even the works of the latter may have been invalidated by subsequent research, particularly because we now have much more extensive information on surname distribution and variant forms than was available even 20 years ago.

Cyndi’s List has a page devoted to surnames in general at <>, though many of the links are for surname interests (covered in Chapter 14) rather than surname origins.

Wikipedia has a number of articles on surnames, which seem to be quite sound. The most general one is ‘Family name’, and this has links to related articles. However, the Wikipedia pages for individual surname etymologies, which are generally unsourced and frequently unsound, are of little value.

In fact, there seems to be no very satisfactory site for surname etymologies. Nonetheless, you can find brief etymologies for the commoner surnames at Behind the Name’s page on ‘English Names’ at <> and on’s ‘Glossary of Last Name Meanings and Origins’ page at <>.

However, many older printed works on British surnames are available online, usually at the digital book archives discussed on p. 184. For example, the following can all be found at Google Books and the Internet Archive:

None of these is a substitute for a modern surname dictionary, though William Arthur’s ‘Essay On The Origin And Import Of Family Names’ at <> is still a useful brief introduction to the general sources of surnames. However, these older works may include sources for older usages of a name, which can be helpful.

SURNAME-ORIGINS-L is a US-based mailing list devoted to the etymology and distribution of surnames, and details can be found at <>.

Family Names of the United Kingdom (FaNUK) is a project based at the University of the West of England to create ‘the largest ever database of the UK’s family surnames’ with information on the meaning, linguistic origin, geographical origin and distribution of each name. The project runs until 31 March 2014. There is no website for the project at the time of writing, but information about FaNUK will be found on the university’s website at <> and there is a podcast interview with principal investigator Professor Richard Coates at <>, accompanied by a transcript.

Surname variants and systems for catching variants in online record searches are discussed on p. 39 .

Distribution and frequency

Looking at the geographical distribution of a surname in a major database such as FamilySearch at <> can sometimes be helpful. However, you should be cautious about drawing etymological inferences from distributional information in this sort of database, not least because the various parts of the country are equally well represented.

The most important site for surname distribution is Great Britain Family Names (previously National Trust Names) at <>, which draws on a project based at University College London. You can get distribution maps for the 1881 census or the 1998 electoral register, and the maps, even those for 1881, show the relative frequency for each postcode area, effectively the catchment area of each present-day post town (Figure 16-2). From the initial distribution map, you can get statistical information about frequency, though it does not give a breakdown for each area. The data covers England, Wales and Scotland.


Figure 16-2: 1881 distribution of the surname March at Great Britain Family Names

National Records of Scotland has various pages devoted to Scottish surnames and forenames, derived from birth registrations, linked from <>, including ‘Surnames in Scotland over the last 140 years’. Two linked PDF documents show the most common surnames in the Scottish counties in 1901 and 2001.

The classic Victorian work on the geographical origins of surnames is Henry Guppy’s 1890 work Homes of Family Names of Great Britain, which is available at the Internet Archive (see p. 185).

For a list of the commonest surnames in various parts of the world, see Wikipedia’s article ‘List of most common surnames’. British Surnames and Surname Profiles at <> has present-day and 1881 census frequencies, with separate information for surnames from various immigrant groups. Sofeminine, rather surprisingly, has present-day frequency lists for the UK as a whole at <> and for individual local authority areas (follow the ‘By county’ link in the left-hand column). Only surnames with more than 1,300 occurrences are included.

Surname Studies at <> preserves and develops the late Philip Dance’s Modern British Surnames site, a guide to the resources for the study of surname frequency and distribution. The site includes discussion of the various approaches to surname origins, and has interesting statistical material. A site covering local names is Graham Thomas’s Gloucestershire Names and their Occurrence at <>.


If you have access to Oxford Reference Online at <>, either via an educational institution or your local public library (see p. 180), you can consult Oxford University Press’s A Dictionary of First Names. This has a searchable database of 6,000 forenames ‘in common use in English’, and this is the best place to start for the origins of any forename. Behind the Name at <> is a very comprehensive site devoted to the etymology and history of first names. In addition to English and Irish names it has details for a number of other countries and regions, as well as a listing of biblical names. What’s In a Name at <> has well-sourced information about forenames and forename variants. has a page of links for ‘Naming Patterns for Countries & Cultures’ at <>, which includes links for British and Irish names, as well as many others. A search for [“naming patterns”] in a search engine will reveal many other sites devoted to this topic. Anne Johnston has a useful list of diminutives for common Christian names at <>. The website for the OLD-ENGLISH mailing list (see p. 290) has a listing of Latin equivalents of common forenames at <>, which will often be found in legal documents and early parish registers written in Latin.

For present-day forename frequencies, the authoritative sources are government sites. The National Statistics site at <> has a number of reports on the current and historical frequency of first names. The material is not very helpfully organized, but a search for “baby names” from the home page will bring up a list of relevant publications and datasets.

National Records of Scotland has a paper on ‘Popular Forenames in Scotland, 1900–2000’ at <>.

Image Partners has a forename thesaurus which attempts to match variant forename spellings at <>, and Edgar’s Name Page has ‘A Brief Discussion of Nicknames and Diminutives’ at <>.

Understanding old documents

One of the main things genealogists need help with is making sense of old documents, whether it is a census entry or a sixteenth-century will. In some cases it’s just a matter of deciphering the handwriting, in others it is understanding the meaning of obsolete words. In older documents the two problems are often inseparable. While the internet hardly provides a substitute for the specialist books on these subjects, there are quite a few resources online to help with such problems.


As the mistakes in census transcriptions show, even fairly modern handwriting can often be problematic to read, and once you get back beyond the nineteenth century the difficulties become ever greater. Few genealogists bother to go on palaeography courses, but there are some outstanding online resources to help you.

The English Faculty at Cambridge University provides an online course on English Handwriting 1500–1700 at <> with high quality scans of original documents. There are extensive examples of every individual letter in a variety of hands, as well as examples of the many abbreviations found in documents of this period. A series of graded exercises gives you an opportunity to try your own skills at transcribing original manuscripts.

The National Archives also has an online palaeography tutorial at <> (Figure 16-3). The interactive part of the site offers 10 graded documents to try your hand at transcribing, with a pop-up alphabet for the hand, and there are another 30 example documents on the site. The ‘Where to start’ page offers tips for transcribing and covers some common abbreviations.


Figure 16-3: The National Archives’ palaeography tutorial

The Scottish Archive Network’s dedicated palaeography website Scottish Handwriting at <> concentrates on the period 1500–1750. It includes a ‘1 Hour Basic Tutorial’ and has detailed pages devoted to the forms of some of the more challenging individual letters. A problem solver suggests techniques for making sense of problem words and letters. There is also a dedicated tutorial for eighteenth-century testaments.

Dave Postles of the University of Leicester has materials relating to an MA in Palaeography online at <>. The site has two areas, one devoted to medieval and the other to early modern palaeography.

Dianne Tillotson has a site devoted to all aspects of Medieval Writing at <> with examples of all the main scripts up to the sixteenth century. There is useful material on abbreviations at <>.

The website for the OLD-ENGLISH mailing list at <> includes pages on Old Law Hands and Court Hand with scans of plates from Andrew Wright’s 1776 Court Hand Restored showing examples of all the common letter shapes of the period. Both are linked from <>.

While most palaeography sites deal with the early modern and medieval periods, there is also help for those struggling with Victorian hands. For example, the FreeBMD page on ‘Reading the Writing’ at <> shows how the shape of nineteenth-century pen nibs affects the thickness of the stroke, and also looks at how to deal with difficult scans.

If you have to deal with languages other than English, Brigham Young University’s ‘Script Tutorials’ at <> may be worth consulting, as it offers help with both manuscript and printed documents in English, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. It does not have additional original documents, but points to those on some of the other sites mentioned above.

Dates and calendars

There are a number of useful resources on the web to help you make sense of the dates and calendars used in older genealogical sources.

There are two particular types of dating which are generally unfamiliar to modern readers. The first is the dating of documents, particularly legal ones, by regnal years, i.e. the number of years since the accession of the reigning monarch (so 1 January 2012 is 1 January 59 Eliz. II). The Regnal Year Calculator at <> will convert regnal years for the period from the Norman Conquest to George I. There is a useful table of regnal years up to Queen Victoria at <>.

Second, particularly in early documents, Saints’ days are a common method of identifying a date. Wikipedia has a useful article on the ‘Calendar of Saints (Church of England)’, and the ‘On-line Calendar of Saints’ Days at <> gives the saints for every date in the year.

In September 1752 Britain switched from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian. Wikipedia’s ‘Gregorian calendar’ page has comprehensive information about the new calendar, but for more detailed information on the change of calendars in the UK see Mike Spathaky’s article ‘Old Style And New Style Dates And The Change To The Gregorian Calendar’ on Genuki at <>. Calendars through the Ages has the text of the Calendar Act of 1751, which instituted this change, at <>, with a calendar for 1752 showing the missing days. Steven Gibbs has a conversion routine for the Julian and Gregorian calendars at <>, which may be useful if you are consulting records from countries which switched either earlier (most of Europe) or later (Russia) than the UK. Calendopaedia, the Encyclopaedia of Calendars, at <> has extensive information on calendars including the dates lost in the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar for all the individual countries in Europe at <>.

To find out what day a particular date fell on, consult Genuki’s Perpetual Calendar at <>, which also gives the dates of Easter. The years 1550 to 2049 are covered.

Chris Phillips provides a comprehensive guide to chronology and dating at <>, as part of a site devoted to medieval genealogy, while Cyndi’s List has many links to online resources for all contemporary and historical calendars.



For medieval genealogy and for legal records up to 1733, you will often encounter texts written in Latin. Even in English texts, Latin phrases, or, worse, abbreviations for them, are not uncommon. Latin has also, of course, been much used for inscriptions.

However, while there are very substantial online resources for help with Latin, most are intended for those reading classical Latin texts and may not include terms found in British legal documents. For that reason, it is best to start with materials specifically designed for genealogists. The National Archives’ ‘Beginner’s Latin’ tutorial at <> is specifically aimed at those using British sources and offers a series of graded exercises, a grammar table covering the basics, and a wordlist.

If you just need to identify individual words rather than translate whole documents, then, in addition to TNA’s wordlist, there is FamilySearch’s ‘Latin Genealogical Word List’ at <>, which includes material on dates in Latin. Other genealogical glossaries for Latin include GenProxy’s ‘Simple Latin terms, words and phrases for genealogists reading old documents, wills, contracts, deeds, church and parish records’ at <>, and Ancestry Solutions’ ‘Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases’ at <>. There is a list of ‘Hard Little Words: Prepositions, Adverbs, Conjunctions (With Some Definitions of Medieval Usage)’ at <>.

C. Russell Jensen’s Parish Register Latin is an introduction based around exercises using authentic parish register entries and is available in the Internet Archive at <>. The Archive also has Charles Martin’s 1892 book Latin for genealogical research: a primer for record Latin, which not only has an immense list of Latin abbreviations (including the much wider range of forms actually found in manuscripts rather than just those used in print) but also lists Latin equivalents of British forenames and place-names.

Latin abbreviations are often used, particularly in set phrases, and the FAQ for the soc.genealogy.medieval newsgroup has a list of some of those commonly found in genealogical documents at <>.

Among the more general resources for help with Latin are the Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid at <>, which provides a grammar and links to material on Latin. The Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University has the 1890 edition of Lewis’s An Elementary Latin Dictionary at <> and the digital book archives discussed in Chapter 12 have scans of other older Latin dictionaries.

There is a LATIN-WORDS mailing list which is for ‘anyone with a genealogical or historical interest in deciphering and interpreting written documents in Latin from earliest to most recent twentieth century times, and discussing old Latin words, phrases, names, abbreviations and antique jargon’. Subscription details will be found at <> and the list archive is at <>.

Other languages

The Dictionary of the Scots Language site at <> provides electronic editions of two key works of Scottish lexicography, the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) and the Scottish National Dictionary (SND). Between them, these two dictionaries cover the use of Scots words from the twelfth century to the present day. A search can be conducted in either or both works. Quite apart from their general interest, an obvious use for genealogists is to help with understanding Scottish wills and other legal documents. A wide-ranging glossary of Scottish terms will be found on The Wedderburn Pages at <>, including both archaic and modern terms. General information about the Scots language will be found in the Wikipedia ‘Scots language’ article.

With the release of the 1911 census, which allowed non-Anglophone families to record their household using Welsh or Irish, you may need recourse to a dictionary to translate the family relationships and the occupations. For Welsh, consult the Welsh—English/English—Welsh On-line Dictionary provided by the Department of Welsh, Lampeter at <>.

There is an online Irish dictionary with basic vocabulary at <>, and a list of the Irish words for family relationships at <>. Detailed help in dealing with the Irish language entries in the 1911 census is given in Chapter 15 of Census: The Expert Guide.

The general census reports for 1911, available at Histpop <>, include general information about the linguistic situation in Wales and Ireland. For the Irish report, search for [general report Ireland 1911] and select the 65-page document. Helpfully, the A Vision of Britain has extracted the section on ‘Language Spoken in Wales and Monmouthshire’ from the England & Wales report at <>.

The FamilySearch Wiki has pages for both Irish and Welsh language at <> and <> respectively. At the time of writing, the Irish page has little of use, but the Welsh page offers some basic help and links.

Technical terms

Genealogists encounter technical terms from many specialist areas, and have the additional difficulty that it may not be apparent whether a term is just specialized or in fact obsolete. The definitive resource for such questions remains the Oxford English Dictionary — see p. 186 for details of online access, and Figure 9-1 for a sample entry. The particular merit of the OED is that the various senses of a word are dated, which makes it easier to identify which meanings are possible for a document from a particular period. Some terms may be important enough to deserve their own entry in an encyclopedia, in which case consult Wikipedia at <> or, if you have access, the online edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (again, see p. 186).

Other places to turn when you encounter this sort of problem include the rather inappropriately named OLD-ENGLISH mailing list, which is for ‘anyone who is deciphering old English documents to discuss interpretations of handwriting and word meanings’, or the OLD-WORDS mailing list ‘for the discussion of old words, phrases, names, abbreviations, and antique jargon useful to genealogy’. OLD-ENGLISH has its own website at <>, which has an excellent collection of material, as well as some useful links. Details of how to subscribe to OLD-WORDS are at <>. You can also browse or search the archives for them at <> and <archiver.> respectively. Bear in mind that the contributors to the lists have widely varying expertise, and you will need to evaluate carefully any advice you receive.

Guy Etchells has a list of ‘Leicestershire Agricultural Terms’ taken from a work of 1809 at <>. Old terms for occupations are discussed on p. 129.

Sources for specifically genealogical terms are discussed on p 15.


Even where they are not written in Latin, many early modern texts, particularly those relating to property, contain technical legal terms that are likely to mean little to the non-specialist, but which may be crucial to the understanding of an ancestor’s property holdings or legal transactions. A useful list of ‘Legal Terms in Land Records’ will be found at <>, while the equivalent but distinct terminology for Scotland is explained in VAT Notice 742/3, ‘Scottish Land Law Terms’ at <> . These are both guides to present-day usage, but in view of the archaic nature of landholding vocabulary this should not be a hindrance. A more specifically historical glossary is provided on the Scottish Archive Network site at <> (again note the ‘r’ after ‘research’), and legal terms are included in The Wedderburn Pages mentioned above. The Manorial Society of Great Britain has a glossary of manorial terms at <>.

Wikipedia has an article on ‘Legal English’ which discusses some general features of legal language.

Among the many more general online resources for legal terms, the Free Dictionary has a dictionary of legal English at <>, though this seems to be based largely on US sources and may not contain some UK terms that have now fallen out of use.


Death certificates of the last century, and earlier references to cause of death, often include medical terms that are unfamiliar. Some can be found in one of the online dictionaries of contemporary medicine, such as MedTerms at <> or the Medical Dictionary Online at <>. But for comprehensive coverage of archaic medical terms, refer to Antiquus Morbus at <>, which has old medical terms in English, Latin, German, French and many other European languages. Each entry comes with a bibliographical reference, and there are links to around 20 further online sources for the medical terms. Within the English section, there are individual lists for occupational diseases, poisons and alcoholism; there is also a separate list of Scots terms. Cyndi’s List has a ‘Medical & Medicine’ page with a section for ‘Diseases and Medical Terms’ at <>.

Incidentally, the Our Ward Family Website has a list of major disease outbreaks in the UK from the Black Death onwards at <>.


Old terms for measurements are encountered in records of trade and in descriptions of landholdings, in tax records and property deeds. Leicester University’s palaeography course materials, mentioned on p. 289, include a number of useful lists covering terms likely to be found in old legal documents: land measurement terms, the Latin equivalents of English coinage, and Roman numerals. See the Medieval palaeography pages at <>.

Steven Gibbs’s site, mentioned on p. 291, has facilities for converting to and from Roman numerals at <>.

Details of old units of measurement (though not areal measurements) can be found at <>, while both linear and areal measures are covered by <>. There is a comprehensive Dictionary of Measures at <> which includes a useful article on ‘English Customary Weights and Measures’ at <>. Cyndi’s List has a page devoted to ‘Weights and Measures’ at <>. Many individual terms have their own articles in Wikipedia at <>.


There are a number of general guides to medieval terms, including NetSERF’s Hypertext Medieval Glossary at <>. The useful Glossary Of Medieval Terms has been defunct for some years now but is still available in the Wayback Machine with the URL <> (8 March 2005). Resources for the terminology of heraldry are discussed on p. 246.

Value of money

An obvious question when reading wills, tax records and the like is the present-day equivalent of the sums of money quoted. While there can be no definitive answer — goods are now cheaper than ever, while labour is much more expensive — there is plenty of material online to give you an idea of what things were worth.

There is a very detailed analysis of the historical value of sterling in a House of Commons Research Paper ‘Inflation: the Value of the Pound 1750–1998’, which is available online in PDF format at <>. For a longer time-span, there are two tables covering the period from the thirteenth century to the present day at <>.

Measuring Worth is a site with a great deal of information on this topic. Its page on the ‘Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1264 to 2007’ at <> enables you to find the modern equivalent of an amount in pounds, shillings and pence in a particular year. There is also a useful page on ‘Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1830 to Present’ at <> (Figure 16-4). This page clearly makes the point that there is no simple way to equate historical sums of money with a modern equivalent. Other pages on this site, all linked from the left-hand navigation panel, have information on things like the UK and US inflation rates since the 1660s and the pound—dollar conversion rate for the last 200 years.


Figure 16-4: Measuring Worth

Alan Stanier’s ‘Relative Value of Sums of Money’ page at <> has statistics for the wages of various types of worker, mainly craftsmen and labourers, but also domestic servants and professionals.

Details of inflation since the eighteenth century will be found in a 2004 paper ‘Consumer Price Inflation Since 1750’ from the Office of National Statistics at <>. The basic figures are more easily consulted on the ‘Historical UK Inflation And Price Conversion’ page at <>, which also has a historical price converter.

The National Archives website offers a ‘Currency converter’ at <> with information both on relative value and on buying power. (Incidentally, TNA has also worked with a commercial developer to produce a smartphone app, Old Money, to convert past sums of money to present-day values — see <>.) The Scottish Archive Network (see p. 206) provides a Scots Currency Converter at <>, though unfortunately this requires Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office Web Components to work.

An excellent collection of links to sites with information on the historical value of the pound and other currencies is Roy Davies’s ‘Current value of Old Money’ page at <>, which includes an extensive list of printed sources.

There is an Excel spreadsheet with data on the ‘Wages and the cost of living in Southern England 1450–1700’ linked from <>, with individual figures for Oxford, Cambridge, Dover, Canterbury and London.

Finally, if you are too young to remember the pre-decimal system of pounds, shillings and pence, then ‘What’s A Guinea?’ at <> will enlighten you.

Next chapter: 17 Photographs