Archives for Local History

Archives are a fascinating source for local historians, providing the ’raw material’ for all types of local history research.Llandudno in the 1903s. Postcard held by Conwy Archive Service

Are you just starting to research the history of an area?

Do you want to investigate more local history sources?

Starting points for local history research

Before you visit the archives

If you’re just starting to research the history of a local area, it’s often helpful to do some background reading in published sources first, and to find out if anything has already been written and published about the particular area in which you are interested. A library is the best place to find local history books and publications, although archives often hold small reference collections which include some local history material. Very useful information on libraries can be found at

And on to your research in the archives…..

Try starting with these useful sources, held in many archives:

1. Maps

Maps can convey a very clear and immediate picture of the changes that have taken place in an area over time.

These maps show the dramatic changes which took place in Senghenydd, near Caerphilly between 1872 and 1900 – the colliery provides the clue as to why this happened.

Historic maps show farms, mines, quarries and industrial sites which might have now disappeared, and old tracks and roads which might have been superseded. They record farm and local area names that may no longer be used, and show the boundaries of parishes and other areas.

Some of the most useful maps are:

  • Ordnance Survey maps at different scales. The most useful for local historians are the ’County Series’ 1:2500 (25 inches to the mile) and the 1:10560 (6 inches to the mile) scales. Three editions were published: for Wales, the first edition was published between the 1870s and 1880s, the second edition in the 1890s and 1900s, and the third edition around 1920; later revisions were published for some areas up to the 1940s. Ordnance Survey very large scale (1:500) maps were also drawn up for some large towns from the mid nineteenth century. From the 1950s, ’National Grid’ series maps are available for various dates, although not all archives will hold more recent maps.
  • Tithe maps. A tithe map was drawn up for almost every parish in the late 1830s or early 1840s. They usually show rivers, roads, field boundaries and most buildings, and the accompanying ’apportionment’ records who owned and occupied properties, and what type of agriculture the land was used for.
  • Estate maps. Large landowners sometimes had maps of their estates drawn up. Most maps date from the late seventeenth, eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. The maps or accompanying ’terriers’ often record the names of fields and farms, give acreages and rents, and list the tenants who occupied them.

Archives also usually hold other maps of different types for various dates. There are likely to be more, and earlier, maps for urban areas than for rural areas.

2. Directories

Trade and street directories can provide a means of getting a quick overview of an area and its history. Published mainly from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries, there are several different sorts of directories – some, for large towns, give very detailed street by street information, while others give more limited information. They were produced for the use of inhabitants and visitors – rather like a modern ’Yellow Pages’. Most give general information the towns and villages in the area they cover, and list the tradesmen and principal inhabitants. This page, from a directory for Wales 1859, shows the information given for the village of Llanfair, Montgomeryshire.

3. Census

The first census was carried out in 1801, and they have been held every ten years since then, with the exception of 1941. After each census, volumes of statistics were produced, recording the numbers of people living in each local area and giving detailed information on the population such as number and size of households, age distribution, employment, and migration patterns. The figures can provide very useful background information for local historians. The volumes of statistics for all the census years are available in the National Library of Wales; a limited number of volumes for some years may be found in local archives.

In addition to the volumes of statistics, the census returns – the original books filled in by the census enumerators – also provide a very valuable source for local historians. Available for all of Great Britain from 1841 to 1901, the returns give the names of all members of every household in each area, giving details on their ages, occupations and birthplaces. The returns are a vital resource for family historians, of course, but are also of great interest to local historians, who can discover patterns of occupations, migration and family relationships within a small area. They are available on microfiche for all of Wales at the National Library of Wales, and for their own areas at many local authority archives. The returns can also be found on various subscription websites; most archives in Wales offer free access to the census returns online through the library edition of the website Ancestry.  The 1911 census will become available online area by area during 2009, but cannot be accessed through the Ancestry website; find more information here.

Going Further

1. Finding relevant records – some tips

Archives hold a huge amount of fascinating material which is potentially of interest to local historians – so what is the best way to locate the records that are relevant to your particular research?

Start by making full use of all available catalogues and indexes, both online and in the archive repositories themselves. Some catalogues and indexes are very comprehensive and detailed, listing all the individual items in an archive. Some may cover only a proportion of the material held in an archive, while others may provide a catalogue which gives information only at the ’top level’ – it will describe the archive or collection as a whole, but will not give information on the individual series or items within it. The catalogue on this website is such a catalogue – it contains descriptions only at collection or whole archive level.

With detailed electronic catalogues and comprehensive card indexes, you will be able to look for very precise search terms – perhaps the name of a very small area which you are researching. With less detailed electronic catalogues or partial card indexes, searches for very precise terms may not be successful – but this does not mean that no relevant records are held, just that they are not recorded on the catalogue or not indexed. You may have to think ’around’ your subject – use wider search terms, or think what organisation or individual may have created relevant records and then look at the detailed catalogues of the records of these organisations or individuals, usually available in paper format in the archive searchroom.

To help you to do this, it’s useful to find out, for the area which you are researching:

  • the local government area (for example county, district, poor law union, highway board) in which it lay at different dates
  • the parish or parishes in which it lay or of which it formed part
  • if it was part of a landed estate
  • who were the principal landowners and /or industrialists

This will help you to locate material – for example, there may be records relating to roads in the archive of the county council and, earlier, of the highways board; documents concerning a local charity among the parish records; title deeds to the land in the area among the records of a landed estate; or material relating to a local industry in a business archive.

If you don’t know where to start, or encounter difficulties in using the catalogues or indexes, never hesitate to ask for help. Archive staff have a detailed knowledge of the records the archive holds, and will be happy to advise you.

2. Some examples of archives for local history

Almost anything in an archive repository is potentially of some use to a local historian.  Here are a just a very few examples.

Quarter Sessions Records
The courts of quarter sessions, held four times a year in each county, had two functions: they dealt with the administration of the county, and dispensed justice in all but the most serious cases.

Small section of document

This is part of a document known as a ’presentment’, in which cases were laid before the justices of the peace by the jurors.  This particular presentment was dealt with at Caernarfonshire quarter sessions in August 1652; this section draws the attention of the justices to the fact that the draw bridge in the town of Caernarfon is in decay, and that some of them (the jurors) had ’taken a view’ of a pit or hole between Croes Beblig and Pont y Saint ’and doe find it in full repayre and lately well rectified’.  The original document is in the Caernarfon Record Office.

Records of landed estates
The records of landed estates are invaluable to local historians. They may include title deeds, rentals (lists of rents due), records of building and renovations, accounts, diaries and much more.  This is part of a rental for the Margam estate, showing the names of tenants and the amounts to be paid. It is held by the West Glamorgan Archive Service.

Part of rental showing names of tenants

Records of local industries
Records of local industries can help to build up a picture of the development of the area.  This is part of a page from a journal of Ebbw Vale Iron Company, 1796.  The original is held by the Gwent Record Office.

Part of a page from an account book

Diaries and accounts of journeys
Diaries and accounts of journeys can reveal interesting information. A diary of a tour through south Wales undertaken by Thomas Martyn of London in 1801 provides a fascinating view of the Welsh countryside and inhabitants as seen through the eyes of an early tourist. In this entry, Martyn tells of a walk from Aberystwyth to Llanbadarn. (Original held by the National Library of Wales)

Part of a page from a diary

3. Local records elsewhere

Some of the records relating a particular area may not be held in the most obvious local archive, or may be held in an archive outside Wales. Estate records, in particular, may be held elsewhere – landed families often held property, brought into the family by marriage or inheritance, in several parts of England and Wales. Usually, the archive of the family, including records relating to property in a number of different areas, will be held together in one place. Similarly, a local business may be taken over by a larger business, from outside the local area, and the records for both may ultimately be deposited in the archive which is ’local’ to this enterprise. Using all the available online catalogues can help you locate such records (see a list here).

Records useful to local historians can also be found at the National Archives, which holds records relating to the government and central administration of both England and Wales.