May is Local and Community History Month so this seemed an appropriate time for a new research guide for anyone embarking on a local or community history project.
Giving a definition of local and community history might seem a bit odd as it feels rather self-explanatory, but whether you are looking at the history of a local area or a community of people with a shared interest and identity, the extent of the “study” could be very narrow or extremely wide. You might want to find and read just one book about the history of your town or village, or you might be interested in a detailed study of a wide range of historical records about your community – either way, this guide will help you get started.
Regardless of how detailed a study you ultimately intend to pursue, the best place to start will almost always be your local Derbyshire library, for any existing publications and accounts of your town or village. All Derbyshire libraries have a basic range of local interest books you can borrow, and many also have reference collections covering all aspects of the local area, as well as fiction and poetry by local authors. See Local Studies at your Library for more information about what is available.
Local studies libraries collect books, magazines and other periodicals, photographs, newspapers, trade and telephone directories, printed maps, reports and statistics, sale catalogues and printed ephemera. The largest local studies collection is here at Derbyshire Record Office, with a large collection also available at Chesterfield Library and for the city of Derby at the Derby Local Studies and Family History Library.
Particularly if you are researching the 20th century, the local studies collections will be invaluable and contain lots of information about different communities within a local area and memories and stories from recent residents.
County Local Studies Library at Derbyshire Record Office
Almost all the books we have about a particular village, town or district can be found in book room 1. Some books are too big to fit the shelves in this room, and there are lots more things written about a particular place in more general books (for example about the county as a whole or about different subjects such as education, railways or lead mining) as well as in other publications such as local magazines, community newsletters, journals of local and academic societies, so we would always suggest checking the card catalogue as well.
Some of the Local Studies catalogue is available to search online (use the Any Text search and enter LS* as the Reference Number). We are working on adding everything else to the catalogue too, but there are approximately 140,000 entries to be added so it is a long project.
A more detailed study of the history of a local area is really a matter of personal preference, there are so many questions you could explore. Before you get stuck in, think about what you want to achieve:
What you actually want to find out?
- Are you looking at a particular time period (prehistory, ancient, medieval, Georgian, Victorian, 20th century)
- Do you want to know about the geography and topography, the place-names, how the area developed, its buildings and architecture, land use, ownership and occupation?
- Are you interested in the people that used to live there? If so, do you want population statistics, or names and addresses and inspiring (or otherwise) stories of notable residents?
- Do you want to know what it was like to live in the town or village? What public services and amenities were provided? How were the poor cared for? Who went to school? Where did people travel? When did electricity arrive? How did people spend their leisure time?
- Are there particular businesses and industries you want to find out about? What about agriculture, shops, pubs, and small traders?
- Do you want to explore the other organisations that played a key role in the history of the area – the manor, parish, district council, charities, societies and community groups?
What kind of research do you want to do and how much time do you want to spend?
Do you want to stick with your local library, visit the local archives, visit other archives that might hold relevant material. County record offices like ours can be found across the country, and the bulk of the collections we care for relate to the county where we are based. However, even if boundaries had never changed – which of course they have – the creators of the records we hold were rarely confined to living and operating in one particular area. For example, some of the largest collections at Derbyshire Record Office have been donated or deposited by families with large estates, who owned property not just in Derbyshire, but across the country and indeed in other countries too. Vice versa families and organisations parts of the country also owned property and had interests in Derbyshire, and archives for our county can be found in lots of other archives, particularly Nottinghamshire Archives, Sheffield Archives, the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, Cheshire Archives and Local Studies and especially The National Archives.
What do you want to do with the information you find out?
Is the research for your own personal interest, writing a blog or publishing a book? If you are sharing any information that you find (even if you aren’t being paid for it) make sure you have all the right permissions to do so – please contact us and we can advise further.
The collections at Derbyshire Record Office occupy nearly five miles of shelving and almost all of the items in the collections offer some insight into local history in Derbyshire so I could not possibly list all the sources that you might find for a local history study in single guide. Here are the most useful sources, with links to our other research guides and catalogue where applicable.
- Maps: always a good place to start, because they offer a visual interpretation of the area and give a good overview of development over time. Maps are created for all sorts of different reasons, and are sometimes accompanied by other records that give a lot more detail. However, they are usually only a snapshot in time, and more digging is needed to fill in the missing pieces.
- Newspapers: from the 18th century to the present day, newspapers are an invaluable source of information: local news, crime, coroners’ reports, sports and entertainments, elections, farm and property sales, bankruptcies, disasters, scandals, advertisements and the price of fish are all reflected in their pages. By the end of the 19th century, 94 Derbyshire newspapers had been published and you can read most of them in Derbyshire libraries and/or Derbyshire Record Office. Some are also available to search online via the British Newspaper Archive.
- Photographs and illustrations: You can enjoy and order copies of many of the old photographs from our collections on Picture the Past
- Trade and telephone directories: primarily available from the mid/late 19th century, although there are some earlier examples in the late 18th century, these printed books are invaluable for discovering local businesses and traders, as well as giving a good overview of each town and village in the county
- Census returns: the first census returns, from 1801, provide useful statistical information, and from 1841 detail the names, ages and occupations of everyone in the country.
- Church registers: most commonly used by family historians, but also very valuable for local history, such as estimating population, examining birth rates and family sizes, mortality and life expectancy, literacy (have the bride and groom signed their names in the marriage register), and occupations.
- Crime and punishment: records of the local courts, police and prisons.
- Hospitals and workhouses: including Babington at Belper and Scarsdale at Chesterfield, the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, Kingsway Hospital and Pastures Hospital.
- Businesses: from large firms such the Butterley Company, Ferodo, Bryan Donkin, and companies within the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site such as WG & J Strutt Ltd to small and independent traders, they may be financial accounts, production and sales records, marketing materials, and occasionally employee records. Search the catalogue using the ‘Organisation Type’ field. There are also various records for important industries such as coal mining, lead mining and railways.
- Local people and families: there are around 2000 collections for various people and families from Derbyshire’s past – some you will have heard of, but most who of whom you probably haven’t. You can search for names in the catalogue, but the best way to find out what collections cover the area you are interested in to select type the place name in the Any Text field, and select ‘Family and estate’ under Organisation Type.
- Manorial records: the best way to find out what records exist for Derbyshire’s ancient manors is to search the national Manorial Documents Register.
- Local government: especially since the Victorian period, the local development and the experience of people in a local area has been heavily affected by its local governance. We hold records for Derbyshire County Council, Derby City Council, district, parish, town and borough councils, and the Quarter Sessions, who were responsible for some aspects of local government from the 14th century.
- Medical Officer of Health reports: with statistical summaries and detailed descriptions revealing what it would have been like to live in a particular place at a particular time.
- Sale catalogues, wills and inventories: where they exist (usually for the better-off local residents) these records are a wonderful peek into the home and domestic lives within a town.
- School and education: before the 19th century, access to education was limited, and for many non-existent. From the mid-19th century, and especially from 1870, school records can be used not only for information about the history of a particular school, its teachers and pupils, but also as an invaluable resource for local history – from accounts of air raids during World War Two to local epidemics (particularly measles, influenza and whooping cough) and poor attendance because of the circus being in town or the boys helping to bring in the harvest.
These are the main sources that you can find for almost any town, village or area in the county. There are also electoral registers, building plans, records of sports associations, community groups, coroners, plus various sources that may be quite unique to a specific area so it is always worth searching the catalogue for a place name to see what treasures and curious items you might discover.
Researching the history of a community, i.e. a group of people with a shared interest or common identity, is in many ways very similar to researching the history of a local area, but instead of searching for information about a place, you search for information about organisations, societies and groups (e.g. miners welfare charities or youth organisations), specific individuals who you know were leaders or active members of the community, and the interest (theatrical and musical groups) or identity (LGBTQ+) that brings the community together.
Getting started in local history
There are a large number of books and guides in the library to researching local history, including:
- F. G. Emmison (1966) Archives and Local History
- W.G. Hoskins (1967) Fieldwork in Local History, includes chapters on mapping and dating walls and hedges, documentary sources to use in conjunction with field studies
- W.B. Stephens (1973) Sources for English Local History
- Philip Riden (1987) Record Sources for Local History
- Accounts and transcripts for Derbyshire in the Domesday Book
- Kenneth Cameron (1959), Place-Names of Derbyshire (3 volumes)
- Derbyshire Victoria County History publications (1905-2013)
- Gladwyn Turbutt (1999) A History of Derbyshire (4 volumes)
- David Hey (2008) Derbyshire: a history
We already have a range of research guides available and continue publish more on a regular basis. Of course, you can always contact us directly if you have any queries.
2 thoughts on “Local and Community History”
Hi Becky. This is a useful summary of what’s available. Pleased to see honourable mentions for libraries, including the excellent Derby Local Studies & Family History Library. Out of interest, which organisation / group has declared May to be Local and Community History Month?
Thanks @platypus_man Nationally Local and Community History Month is coordinated by the Historical Association