How to become a local historian

With a growing number of physical and online resources, there have never been more ways to discover your area’s past. Jane Williamson offers some tips to get you started

Vintage family photo album and documents. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Visit the archives

Whether you’re tracking down a notable local dynasty or your village’s medieval past, national, county and city archives are an excellent way to access local history resources. A starting point for births, deaths and marriages, your local records office is also where you can discuss your search with archivists and see historical documents first-hand.

Archive records range from parish registers, and documents on businesses, estates and families, to maps, illustrations and photographs. For those digging deeper, the user-friendly website of the National Archives at nationalarchives.gov.uk is invaluable. Records range from Domesday Book to war diaries, country court death duty registers and Victorian prisoner photographs. Some items are available to download or you can request copies of others (costs may apply). The National Archives also runs events and online seminars and has several online guides to help your quest. The archive is also searchable by area to help connect you with resources such as museums and  libraries in your region.

Get hands-on with history

Local history groups often arrange visits to significant local buildings and sites, but if you want to get really hands-on, the annual Festival of Archaeology has dozens of historical walks and digs. If you want to enthuse others about your community’s past, consider becoming a volunteer guide at a National Trust or English Heritage site or volunteering at your nearest small museum.

Get to know your home

Your own home can provide an intriguing insight into the people who lived and worked there in the past. Start from clues such as date stones and architectural styles, and the deeds and Land Registry details. Local record offices hold plans, maps, newspapers and electoral records dating back centuries. Census records are a treasure trove of information. Historic England has a useful potted guide at historicengland.org.uk/advice/your-home

Discover your family history

Unearthing your past has never been more achievable, with a plethora of genealogy websites, including ancestry.co.uk, thegenealogist.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk, offering births, marriages, deaths, census records and more. There are costs to fully access their records but free trials are often available. However, do remember to look closer to home. “It may seem obvious, but the first thing you should do is talk to your family,” says Sarah Williams, editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, published by Immediate Media Co, who also produce BBC History Magazine.

“This will save you time and money, and you may even find a research buddy. Be methodical and check each piece of information before you move further back. The internet has transformed family history research, but it’s also made it easy to proliferate mistakes that will lead you to researching the wrong family. Be a detective and look at all the supporting evidence.” If you do run into a dead end, WDYTYA Magazine, together with its website and forum, is a great place to find help. Visit whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com

Do your studies If you want to pursue your passion to an academic level, several institutions offer residential and non-residential history courses for adult learners. More informally, the University of the Third Age, now with more than 1,000 branches, holds regular meetings to explore local and family history. The Historical Association too has nearly 50 branches, each running a programme of history lecture events (see history.org.uk/historian/categories/locate-your-branch). The British Association for Local History offers conferences where you can meet other local history experts.

Connect with like-minded people

“Joining a local history group is a great way of meeting people with similar interests to you,” says Paula Kitching of the Historical Association. There are hundreds of local history groups and societies in the UK, including the association’s own, and a quick check online should turn up your nearest one. If not, local-history.co.uk is a good source of information.

Informal and relaxed, local history groups tend to focus on subjects from archaeology to family history and notable events, usually with a local historical bias. Some groups have even built up their own document archives that could boost your search. “Most branches have regular talks and activities, often offering practical skills for exploring local subjects,” says Kitching. “Members – if they can’t help you directly – will usually know of other people doing similar research or will help you develop your research skills. Talks and activities at local branches can be on any number of historical themes, all of which will help someone to understand wider interpretations of history and different ways of approaching their subject.”

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Jane Williamson is a freelance writer.