Subject guide: biography on British History Online

By Philip Carter, Head of Digital and Publishing, Institute of Historical Research, University of London

British History Online has much to offer those approaching the period 1300 to 1800 via the life of a known individual—for whom some form of biography is possible—or via named but otherwise obscure figures who lend themselves to person-centred approaches to the past.

This guide begins with those sources—notably, diaries and correspondence—that provide information on the actions and opinions of a known individual, and which have most to offer the biographically-minded historian. The subsequent sections are arranged with reference to different forms of human activity: listings of office- and post-holders; accounts of professional lives; lives engaged in group activities; and sources that offer biographical information as a consequence of a person’s death.

Of course, biographical approaches to the past also draw on many more BHO sources that provide contextual information about an individual: where he or she lived, or the political events and built environment they experienced. A short selection of these contextualizing works is provided at the end of the guide.

1. Named diaries and correspondences

[* below denotes an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]

BHO includes a small selection of diaries and memoirs, principally recording the lives of early modern parliamentarians or merchants. Among the former is the six-volume diary of the MP Thomas Burton,* which provides an excellent commentary on the actions and speeches of the two protectorate parliaments, and adds much to the Journal of the House of Commons for these years; Burton’s diary also includes extracts from that of Guybon Goddard* (1612–1671), MP for King’s Lynn, for the 1654 parliament. Other named parliamentary diaries are those of the Chester MP Roger Whitley* for 1684–97, which provides much on regional political and social networks—and his contemporary, Anchitell Grey*, whose detailed notes on parliamentary proceedings were published in the 1760s as Debates of the House of Commons, from the year 1667 to the year 1694. Further details of other personal parliamentary commentaries can be found in Paul Seaward’s subject BHO guide to parliamentary history, while the Proceedings in Parliament, 1624: The House of Commons provide transcriptions of private diaries covering the final Parliament of the reign of James I, and was added to BHO in 2015.

One of the most striking personal records in BHO is The Diary of Henry Machyn (1550-1563). Machyn* began his ‘chronicle’ as a record of heraldic funerals at Holy Trinity-the-Less, where he was parish clerk, though his professional life was as a merchant taylor, admitted to the Company in 1530. Other lives in trade include a trio of correspondence collections: the Letters of John Paige, London Merchant, 1648-59 which ‘constitute the most complete documentation that is extant for any London merchant of the Interregnum’ (Introduction); the Letterbooks, 1771-1774 of Joshua Johnson to his partners in Maryland, which are again rare in offering one of the few extant records of an eighteenth-century London merchant; and the Letters of William Freeman, which are another recent addition to BHO. Freeman was a sugar planter and slave trader whose letters, written between 1678 and 1685, offer insight into the transatlantic economy in the late seventeenth century. The diaries of tradesmen are further discussed by Matthew Davies in his guide to urban history in BHO.

The correspondence collections mentioned above are each published by the London Record Society (LRS), as are three further named records: London Radicalism, 1830-1843: A Selection of the Papers of Francis Place, taken from Place’s huge archive now in the British Library; the Complaints Book of Richard Hutton; and The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris. As steward of the Quaker workhouse in Clerkenwell between 1711 and 1734, Hutton maintained a general commentary on his life and the institution he ran; further to the east, Henry Norris was one of eight Hackney justices (among them the typefounder, Samuel Caslon*) whose notebooks are extant for the period 1730 to 1754. Hundreds of letters from those prosecuted and gaoled for currency offences make up the remarkable Prisoners' Letters to the Bank of England, 1781-1827 (also from the LRS), with many of the letters written by or for women.

In 2016, BHO added several rich LRS resources that extend its biographical coverage well beyond 1800. These include the London diary of the mountaineer Edward Whymper* (while resident in Lambeth, 1855-59) and an excellent checklist of Unpublished Diaries, with short summaries and details of repositories. The selection is of considerable geographical and social range, and it includes many women authors. Ordered chronologically, the listing runs from item 1— the Tudor exchequer official Richard Stonley* (in 1581)—to an Ealing schoolgirl (item 883) in 1971.

2. Directories of office- and post-holders

BHO includes directories of named office-holders and members of institutions which cover aspects of educational, political, religious, and civic life in London and other major English centres. Alumni Oxonienses, edited by Joseph Foster and published in 1891, collates brief biographical records for members of Oxford University between 1500 and 1714. At their fullest, entries provide notes (akin to an early modern Who’s Who) on a student’s father, place of descent, college, age at and date of admission, degrees awarded, fellowships held, subsequent career—typically in the law or the church, male children (who attended Oxford) and the alumnus’s date of death. As well as being valuable for those studying individuals, or groups of one-time Oxford students, the institutional and geographical information in Alumni Oxonienses lends itself to prosopographical and person-focused data analysis: see, for example, Adam Crymble’s study of the geographical origins of early modern Oxford students, ‘The Origins of the Student Species’ (IHR blog, 17 May 2016).

Those Oxford students who enjoyed a prominent role in the Church of England are also recorded in Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, which is the standard authority for identifying the higher Anglican clergy from 1066 to 1857. The series is divided chronologically into three sets—for the periods 1066-1300 (9 vols.), 1300-1541 (12 vols.), and 1541-1857 (11 vols.)—and arranged by diocese within each chronological span. Each volume provides biographies listed by senior office, from bishops to canons, with entries arranged chronologically by date of appointment. The estate and household accounts (1479-97) of one such churchman, William Worsley*, dean of St Paul’s, are another recent BHO addition from the London Record Society.

A similar structure is used in Office-Holders in Modern Britain, a 10-volume series of aspects of ‘Whitehall’ and the emerging bureaucratic state from 1660 to 1870, though this record provides no more than the incumbent’s name and the date of appointment. Other directories of civic life include: the Registers of the Freemen of the City of York (2 vols. 1272-1558, 1559-1759), which list names and professions by date, and (for the capital) the Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London, 1188-1274 and The Rulers of London, 1660-1689—a biographical record of City aldermen which offers (where available) a wide range of attributes relating to a person’s family, residences, offices, wealth and social connections.

Further records of persons by place include The Inhabitants of London in 1638, which lists tithe-payers by household for 93 of the City of London’s 107 parishes, and the London Inhabitants Within the Walls, 1695, which provides the names and relationships of household members within the City. While the biographical detail in each of these directories is limited, both have useful contextual introductions suggestive of how such records may be applied in histories of seventeenth-century London. So too the London Marriage Duty Assessment, 1695, compiled by the Centre for Metropolitan History and published in 2011, which offers a census-like summary of residents by dwelling, with information on relationships, social status, and the age of inhabitants. The Duty Assessment was a form of taxation—levied between 1695 and 1706—on the event of births, marriages and burials, and of annual payments by bachelors aged over 25 and childless widowers. The 1695 assessment is the only extant return for London.

A final category of directories record members of a profession or identified group. An excellent example is the 2004 database Physicians and Irregular Medical Practitioners in London 1550-1640, compiled by Maggie Pelling and Frances White. The database provides records for 714 practitioners of medicine (female as well as male) whom the College of Physicians of London attempted to stop practising physic between 1550 and 1640. At their fullest, biographical records include details of birth and death, residence, education, censorial hearings and punishments.

3. Records of professional and group activity

The workings of government and the early modern British state are richly detailed in the Calendars of State Papers (CSP), which in BHO cover the period 1547 to 1739. The calendars provide detailed summaries of papers accumulated by secretaries of state (or by the Council of State during the Interregnum) as they relate to home affairs (CSP, Domestic), diplomatic affairs (CSP, Foreign), imperial affairs (CSP, Colonial), and so on. A Victorian and early twentieth-century labour to bring order to scattered records, the calendars are finding aids as well as summaries; digitized versions of full records are now available at State Papers Online (Gale Cengage, via many university libraries). For the period 1509-47, the papers of the chief ministers of Henry VIII can be located in the 28 volumes of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII.

As accounts of the day-to-day running of government, the Letters, Henry VIII and the Calendars of State Papers contain a wealth of biographical information: for example, letters in the CSP, Foreign between officials and British diplomats overseas, or foreign diplomats in Britain, which provide information and contemporary opinion on third parties discussed in the correspondence. As an indication of the value of this resource, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has 2800 early modern entries that include CSP as a source and 1000 entries that offer a direct quotation from the CSP by or relating to the subject of a biography; a further 700 Dictionary entries make use of material in the Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, with 300 offering direct quotations from the series.

Instances of formal group activity—political, professional and intellectual, and all published by the London Record Society—include: the minutes for the Commissions For Building Fifty New Churches, 1711-27; the Minutes of a Whig Club, 1714-1717; the Committees For Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts Minutes, 1786-90 and 1827-8; and the London Debating Societies, 1776-1799. Rather than naming participants in debates, the latter source provides listings of subjects under discussion, and concludes with a valuable index on topics covered—from ‘Addison’ to ‘Wollstonecraft’, ‘adultery’ to ‘widows’.

4. Lives after death

The wealth and goods that came to certain widows may be inferred from several BHO collections. Recent additions (in 2015 and 2016) to the run of Inquisitions Post Mortem now make available a series covering the years 1236 to 1447 and 1485 to 1509. IPMs were enquiries into incomes and rights held by deceased persons to discover what was owing to the crown. They provide the name and date of the deceased, the extent and value of lands held, occasional extracts from wills, and the name and age of the male or female heir, or heirs plural if there were no surviving sons and lands were divided between daughters.

Also of note are the Lincoln Wills, 1271-1532, the 245 wills from the London Consistory Court, 1492-1547, and the Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, covering in two volumes 1258 to 1358 and 1358 to 1685. As a selection of wills (drawn from the several thousand recorded at the oldest civic court in the City of London), the Calendar of the Court of Husting offers—to quote from its 1890 Introduction—an insight ‘into the domestic lives of families and individuals intimately associated with the municipal history of London’; this includes information on family relations, requests for burial by the writer of the will, and transferable property and goods relevant for the biographies of the deceased and the living. Further information relating to selected burials and funerals can be found in The Diary of Henry Machyn (1550-1563) [see above] and the Accounts of the Churchwardens, 1525-1603 for St Martin-in-the Fields, Westminster.

Information relating to funeral monuments, busts, and effigies is provided in the Inventory Volumes of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME), which are arranged alphabetically by parish in county volumes from 1908. Roughly 30 volumes in the series also include plates of statuary—as here for Essex, Volume 2, Central and South west. Within London, there is a wealth of information of burials, monuments, and memorial inscriptions in the Survey of London, which comes close to being an official record of the capital’s built environment. The Survey’s 60 volumes are organized by parish and include detailed information on London churches and their furnishings, as well as in some cases personal records (e.g. wills) for church officials: see, for example, the will and testament of Robert Tate in Volume 12, the Parish of All Hallows Barking.

5. Placing people in context

Works such as the RCHME and Survey of London also provide much information on the built environment created and experienced by historical individuals. The supreme source for contextualizing individual lives—in terms of archaeology, topography or social structures—is the Victoria County History, which is fully discussed in Adam Chapman’s guide to Local History in BHO. But, as Adam notes, the VCH is also extremely valuable as a biographical resource in its own right—with detailed attention paid to prominent local figures who left their mark on, and shaped the history of, a particular parish. Useful geographical and spatial context is also provided by BHO’s collection of digitized maps which include several scalable and manipulable views of Westminster and the City of London between the 1560s and 1670s. Historical mapping for Britain is provided by the complete series of the original Ordnance Survey series (at the scale of six inches to the mile [1:10,560]) and by a selection of the Survey’s later maps at the scale of 1:2,500 for cultivated and inhabited areas.

6. Strengths and weaknesses

BHO’s strengths in biography-related content lie with its named collections (themselves focused on parliamentary diarists and London merchants) and in its large-scale works—notably the Calendar of State Papers and the Victoria County History—which provide a vast amount of biographical detail, albeit arranged in chronological or geographical formats in these two resources. Directories that provide core life information for people who shared a university or profession are also valuable for pinning down someone mentioned in passing in another source. Research using some of these directories may be taken further with reference to the biographical and genealogical websites listed below. The data provided in such records are also a potential source for digital analysis and visualization. BHO is also strong in providing contextual content and some portrait likenesses in the form of funeral monuments. This, of course, is useful for genealogical study as well as historical research.

Broadly speaking, the nature of the sources provided in BHO means a concentration either on people prominent in the hierarchy of central and civic government and the church, or those about whom very little or nothing more is known aside from a listing in a directory of freemen or City residents. Biographical information on the emerging ‘middle sort’, Scottish figures, or on early modern women is therefore more limited. Some content on the latter is available via the VCH, records of wills, unpublished diaries, prisoners’ letters, or specific accounts of those few professions practised by women, such as the irregular physicians. Careful browsing BHO will, of course, identify further sources of value for women’s history not mentioned here.

7. Further reading and websites

David Hey, ed., The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History (2nd edn., OUP, Oxford, 2008).

Adam Smyth, ‘Diaries’ in Andrew Hadfield ed., The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1500-1640 (OUP, Oxford, 2013)

Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (CUP, Cambridge, 2015)

Susan E. James, Women’s Voices in Tudor Wills, 1485–1603: Authority, Influence and Material Culture (Ashgate, Farnham, 2015)

Zachary Leader ed., On Life-Writing (OUP, Oxford, 2015), especially Alan Stewart on the Tudor diarist, Richard Stonley

Lena Orlin, Locating Privacy in Tudor London (OUP, Oxford, 2007)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [includes biographies of 27,500 men and women active between 1300 and 1800]; also for those authors' named works asterisked above.

Dictionary of Irish Biography

History of Parliament

Clergy of the Church of England Database, 1540-1835

Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913

Connected Histories: British History Sources, 1500-1900 [which in addition to the Church of England Database and London Lives, also includes British newspapers, 1600-1900, another important source for historical biography]

London Lives, 1690-1800


research guides to sources in BHO

Scotlands People

State Papers Online