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The history of our geography can hold answers to present day trends and problems

  • 30 September 2021
  • 16 min listen

How does industrialisation impact mortality? How do pandemics impact populations in different regions? And how can we revive lost footpaths and rights of way?

The history of our geography can hold answers to present-day trends and problems, as one University of Portsmouth team is finding out.

Professor Humphrey Southall and Paula Aucott explain their work in the latest episode of Life Solved, the University of Portsmouth’s research podcast.

What is GB 1900?

GB1900 is the latest project to combine software and digitised maps to create the most detailed historical-geographical index ever compiled for Britain. It includes records of place names from the years around 1900 and could provide invaluable insights into present-day questions when combined with other data.

Professor Southall was inspired to create the resource after a Welsh project developed software specialised for analysing place names. He applied this to all of Britain’s digitised six-inch maps from 1888-1914 to gather an accurate picture of place names and parish boundaries at the turn of the 20th Century.

As a historical researcher, I'm probably rather obsessed with doing work, which is has some demonstrable contemporary impact.

Professor Humphrey Southall, Professor of Historical Geography

And although that left a specific amount of data crunching to be done, the idea still required a vast amount of time and energy in practise.

And that’s the other remarkable thing about GB1900: it was made possible by the passionate input of a community of volunteers.

Family history enthusiasts accelerate research

Paula Aucott managed a group of around 1200 volunteer geographers to gather the data. Local historians and family history enthusiasts willingly gave their time to look at maps, make entries and verify them with colleagues. This led to an incredible 2.6 million entries on the database!

This is an enormous resource for finding out where exactly people came from

Professor Humphrey Southall, Professor of Historical Geography

With this crowdsourced approach, the team were able to process and verify a huge amount of data in just a short time.

What’s unique about GB1900 is that it provides data on actual places, rather than electoral records, birth and death records, which can be misleading due to changing boundaries over time. The work done on this project has connected this data to the existing boundaries and localities of the time to give an unparalleled insight into regional trends.

Connecting present with past through language

So what other uses does GB1900 have today? Another key finding was in the revival of lost or forgotten place names thanks to the map resources. A Welsh building project is now using this as inspiration in naming a modern-day development to ensure that an evolving community can keep this connection to the language and cultures of its past.

This is also about the Welsh language. It's reinforcing the historical locality

Professor Humphrey Southall, Professor of Historical Geography

Humphrey and Paula also hope the data can be connected to mortality rates to give insight into pandemics of the past, perhaps offering insight for their management in the future. They’re also looking at how this can be connected to electoral statistics.

Restoring historic rights of way

Another surprise benefit to this research was in the recovery of lost footpaths! Maps compiled in the 1960s missed plenty of older paths off the lists due to recording inconsistencies. The research has found a huge number of much older rights of way.

We had over 300,000 footpaths on the maps in addition to a number of bridleways

Professor Humphrey Southall, Professor of Historical Geography

Good news for walkers indeed!

To listen to Humphrey and Paula talking about their work, you can listen to the Life Solved podcast on any app or desktop device.

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