London map

Mapping the past to the present

Discover how crowdsourcing has helped recover placename histories lost from maps over the past century

When you look at an old map you see a maze of roads, rail lines, paths, cities, towns, villages, forests, moors, farmland … in essence, an area’s natural and man-made geography.

What you don’t see is the human story, the placename histories and the vast wealth of local knowledge; for example, the meaning of names and how they might depict or describe a landscape, a forgotten industry, traditions, customs or a distinct community.

But if a map was populated with this data, it would not just be a chart that depicts ‘what’ and ‘where’, but also an archive of knowledge about ‘who’ and ‘why’; how our changing landscapes and streetscapes shape our understanding of who we are and where we are from. Such a map also would not just display routes from A to B, but would plot a course from the past to the present and even to the future – and this is what has been achieved by the fascinating gazetteer project GB1900.

GB1900 was the brainchild of historical geographer Professor Humphrey Southall, following his earlier association with a Welsh project, Cymru1900, undertaken by the National Library of Wales, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and People’s Collection Wales. The Government of Wales had commissioned this group to survey Welsh language placenames. To do this a lot faster than the English placenames survey that had started in 1922 and still wasn’t finished, Professor Southall, from the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, proposed crowdsourcing the vast data collection required. 

This approach became the model for GB1900 and the crowdsourcing was managed by Professor Southall’s University of Portsmouth colleague Paula Aucott.

The GB1900 project was based on all the 1:10,560 (six inch:one mile) maps of Great Britain from around 1900. It sought to preserve and enhance this geographic history by creating a comprehensive record of placenames and, as far as possible, the history of those names. Over the 22 months of its construction it became the most detailed historical gazetteer (geographical index) ever compiled for Britain, and possibly anywhere in the world.

Working with the National Library of Scotland, which had already computerised six-inch maps for the whole of Britain, the team was able to make this composite digital map accessible and searchable online.

Community assets 

The project collected 2,618,533 confirmable entries from 1,200 volunteer geographers. Since its completion in 2018, GB1900 has become a valued resource for historians, genealogists and community groups such as the Ramblers, the national association for walkers. The project provided, for example, the location of more than 300,000 footpath markers and 15,000 bridleway markers, to help identify more than 78,000 kilometres of potential rights of way in England and Wales that had gone missing from modern maps. GB1900 was an important starting point for the Ramblers’ ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ project, which aims to have these public assets restored to modern maps.

Miss Aucott also points out the cultural value of preserving placename authenticity, noting the Government of Wales has now taken the Welsh part of the GB1900 list and incorporated it into a names list to be used by property developers: “When creating new developments and new roads, they have to check against this list to see if there is a historical Welsh name they can use rather than making up a name.”

Miss Aucott says this ‘connection with place’ was a primary motivation for the volunteers who immersed themselves in the GB1900 project. 

“For some it was about the places where they live and comparing today to 100 years ago. For others it was also about ancestry – getting a better understanding of what a place was like for their ancestors. 

“It was also a visually engaging exercise, working with a map … people find maps very interesting and there was a satisfying immediacy about working online. By the time we finished we had a list of every town, hamlet and farm, and about half the streets, that existed in Britain in 1900. This is an enormous resource for family and local historians. If you locate a particular farm, street, quarry, mine or whatever in GB1900, this will take you to the parish or county and to its history.”

Historical geography can be a powerful tool for better understanding and better responding to changes and challenges that we face in the present.

Professor Humphrey Southall, University of Portsmouth

Historical geography at work

For Professor Southall, GB1900 was a good example of the use of historical geography to enlarge historical databases in a way that make them useful tools for researchers today.

“GB1900 established a geographic framework for what was otherwise just a list of placenames. Establishing this type of geographic context enables new kinds of analysis that allows us to better understand, and learn from, the past. For example, in another project we are looking at the flu epidemic of 1918 to see how that pandemic impacted on different locations and population groups. There may be lessons for today’s pandemic management. 

“We can also plot census data geographically. For example, we looked at census data from 1931 and linked it to data from the 1971, 1981 and 1991 censuses in the context of the data’s geography. Together with health survey data we were able to show that children who were raised in places of high unemployment in the 1930s had measurably worse health later in life than those who weren’t – even if they had moved to another part of the country. The data’s geography showed that the conditions in which you live during childhood can influence your health for the rest of your life, even if you move. This information has obvious relevance for planning or managing community health.”

Population shifts, the reasons for them and the long-term consequences on economies and communities, have long fascinated Professor Southall and have been a significant aspect of his research more broadly. His studies, for example, offer interesting insights into the potential impacts, or otherwise, of the COVID-19 pandemic on the UK’s business and political capital, London.

Post-COVID London

Professor Southall has used historic population data for London to caution against making long-term assumptions about the impact on the city of people working from home, amid fears in some quarters that workers won’t return to the city.

“Today you have people seeing the internet as the reason why the city’s long-term population may go into decline, forgetting that it was the internet that facilitated London’s modern growth,” he points out.

“Looking at the present, in isolation, also supports the incorrect assumption that until this pandemic hit, London’s population had always been rising. The reality is London’s population was climbing until the Second World War, plateaued, and then dropped. It didn’t start rising again until about 1990 when the internet allowed the city to service global markets and enlarge even further its role as global finance centre. The advent of personal computers and the internet also supported the growth of cultural industries like fashion.

“These workplace changes also heralded longer working hours, which discouraged long commutes from outside the city. And all these changes coincided with the 1980s dock closures and manufacturing decline that freed up large areas for new housing and apartment complexes clustered around transport links.

“So when we look at the current shift that has taken place, understanding the historical geography shows there are dangers in extrapolating long-term adjustments from what could turn out to be very short-term trends from the pandemic. The pull of a city like London is very strong, especially for younger people.”

For Professor Southall, analysing data from the past, be it distant or recent, helps inform the present and gauge the future: “Historical geography can be a powerful tool for better understanding and better responding to changes and challenges that we face in the present.”

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