World’s largest historical gazetteer provides a unique portrait of Britain from 100 years ago

An online project – GB1900 – gives a uniquely detailed portrait of Britain from 100 years ago.

The map shows the location of windmills 100 years ago

GB1900, which was launched in September 2016, has created a complete list of two-and-a-half million place-names and other landscape features from early Ordnance Survey maps of Britain. Thanks to the work of over 1,000 online volunteers, this free, public resource will be of particular use to local historians and genealogists.

Some interesting highlights of the data:

  • The database counts 13,516 smithies, where blacksmiths shoed horses, and 1,328 windmills.
  • There were 708 “Hill Farms” in Britain, but only 123 “Valley Farms”.
  • There were 279 places called “Gallows Hill” or “Gibbet Hill”.
  • There were over 300,000 footpaths, and 14,000 bridle routes. These are helping to identify rights of way missing from modern maps, which have to be registered by 2026.
  • Over 5,000 places are labelled as “liable to floods”, providing comparisons of modern flooding problems with 100 years ago.

The partners in the GB1900 project are the University of Portsmouth, the National Library of Scotland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, the National Library of Wales and the People’s Collection Wales.

The aim of the project was to computerise all the place names and other text on very detailed Ordnance Survey maps covering the whole of Great Britain, published around 1900.

On the GB1900 website volunteers worked on digital images of all the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey County Series maps, at six inch to one-mile scale. These maps show not just every town and village but every farm, hill and wood – and include names for most of them. The site’s software enabled contributors to mark each name by clicking next to it, and then to type in the name itself. They could also add any personal memories they had of the place. To ensure correctness each name was identically transcribed by two different volunteers.

The final list of 2.5 million place names and landmarks is the most detailed gazetteer ever created for Britain and it is the world’s largest ever historical gazetteer. The data is being released under a Creative Commons licence, making it usable by everyone without charge.

The location of chalk pits in England 100 years ago.

Professor Humphrey Southall, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Portsmouth, said: “We wanted to tap into local knowledge about place names around the UK. Thanks to the wonderful people who volunteered information through this project, we can provide a wonderfully detailed picture of Britain from over 100 years ago.

“Names of places are a vital key to unlocking the social and linguistic history of the land. They recall agricultural practices and local industries, changed landscapes and lost settlements. They preserve a rich heritage of Welsh- and Gaelic-language forms from across Wales and Scotland, chart the arrival of English, and illustrate interactions between the two.”

A special event on Monday 9 July at the Institute of Historical Research, within University of London Senate House, will see the launch of the data, which is available to download on the University of Portsmouth’s Vision of Britain site (www.visionofbritain.org.uk), under an open license. The data will also be available as a searchable gazetteer on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

The event will also be thanking a significant number of the volunteers who contributed information and data to the project.

One of the volunteers who contributed to the project, AC said: “I’ve got a fascination with maps and I found the site very addictive. Once you get into it, you just keep on wanting to do more.

“Mainly, I like looking at the old maps but on the website you can overlay the new map and I like seeing the difference between what the landscape looked like in 1900 to how it looks in the modern day.

“The other fascinating thing, looking at the 1900 map, is just seeing how each village was almost like a separate entity in its own right.  They all fairly uniformly had a post office, a pub, a church, and Methodist chapels, that sort of thing, whereas nowadays they’ve all been merged.”

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