Subject guide: urban history on British History Online

by Matthew Davies, Executive Dean, School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy and Professor of Urban History.

British History Online contains an extensive range of sources for urban history from the early medieval period to the 20th century. There is a particularly rich array of source material for the history of London, which during this period grew from a city of some 80,000 people into one of the world’s largest metropolises. But there are also important sources for other towns and cities in the British Isles, reflecting the increasingly rapid urbanisation that took place in the middle ages and the early modern period, and the impact of industrialisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The extensive sources available through British History Online range from personal records such as diaries and wills, to chronicles and descriptions of the history and physical appearance of towns and cities, and the extensive and rich records of government, the judiciary and institutions such as parishes, guilds and societies and associations.

History and topography

The forerunners of today’s urban historians were the chroniclers and antiquaries who wrote about the origins and development of towns and cities from the medieval period onwards. On British History Online these are represented by a number of London chronicles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and by later works such as John Stow’s Survey of London (1603 edition), Daniel Lysons’ The Environs of London (1752), John Noorthouk’s New History of London (1773), and Walter Thornbury’s Old and New London (1878). Henry Harben’s Dictionary of London (1912) remains an invaluable reference work for the city’s streets and principal buildings. Equivalent works for other centres include Eneas Mackenzie’s Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1828).

Arising from a pioneering research project, the Historical Gazetteer of London before the Great Fire (part 1) provides extremely detailed histories of the properties in five City of London parishes, centred on the wealthy Cheapside area, from the eleventh century until the 1660s.

The volumes published by the Survey of London are a meticulous and detailed guide to the physical development of London’s streets and buildings. Some 47 volumes have been digitised, the most recent being the two published in 2008 which dealt with Clerkenwell.

The digitised volumes of the Victoria County History (VCH) contain a great deal of material relating to the history of English towns and cities, including Birmingham, Cambridge, Burton-upon-Trent and many others, contained within volumes devoted to their respective counties. For London, some of the present-day London boroughs were studied in VCH volumes for Middlesex, Essex and Surrey. The City of London itself was the subject of just one VCH volume, published in 1908 and dealing with the religious houses. The latter was superseded by a volume published in 2008 containing accounts of the religious houses in both London and Middlesex, which is available from the Institute of Historical Research.

Copies of early printed London maps are also included on British History Online, providing a visual context to the written sources. They include the so-called ‘Agas’ map of the 1550s and William Morgan’s detailed survey of 1682.

Politics, law and government

Some of the earliest publications of records relating to Britain’s urban centres focused on their legal and governmental histories, reflecting the preoccupations of historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with institutional and legal structures. Again, London is especially well represented, with digitised versions of the printed Calendars of Letter Books (11 volumes, A-L), Plea and Memoranda Rolls, and Husting Rolls, and the printed index to the series of records known as the Remembrancia, providing a set of key resources for the study of the government of medieval and early modern London. These are supplemented by invaluable biographical works such as A. B. Beaven’s, The Aldermen of the City of London, and J. R. Woodhead’s The Rulers of London, which contains over 1,400 biographical records for members of the Courts of Aldermen and of Common Council from 1660 to 1689. The records for other towns and cities include Charters and Documents relating to the City of Glasgow, five volumes of records for the city of Cardiff (medieval to modern), and records of those admitted to the freedom of the city of York. Several valuable Historical Manuscript Commission reports describe, in varying degrees of detail, urban records from towns such as Bury St Edmunds, Lincoln, Hereford, Southampton, Coventry, King’s Lynn and Exeter. Some of the volumes contain full transcripts, others briefly list the archives.

Other legal records include assize records for London, nine digitised volumes of the calendared records of the Middlesex Sessions from 1550 onwards, the Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris, the Hackney Petty Sessions Book, and more than 6,000 cases from the medieval Court of Common Pleas involving Londoners and litigants from across England (1399-1509).

Demography, economy and society

While many of the sources described above also provide information about the inhabitants of towns and cities, other resources on British History Online are specifically concerned with urban populations and economic development. For England and Wales as a whole, the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs, developed by the Centre for Metropolitan History, is a comprehensive resource that documents royal grants of markets and fairs—in settlements of all kinds, not just towns, until the early sixteenth century. For the population of early modern London, taxation records are rich and invaluable sources: British History Online includes a number of such records, including Two Tudor Subsidy Rolls (London Record Society), data from the 1666 Hearth Tax Returns for London and Middlesex, the 1693-4 ‘4s. in the £’ tax, and indexes to the 1695 Marriage Duty Assessments, the latter published by the London Record Society. There are also taxation records for other towns, including York. London’s economy and people can also be studied using the records of some of the city’s ‘livery companies’ (craft and merchant guilds), including the Carpenters and Merchant Taylors. There is also a biographical database of physicians and medical practitioners who were active in London from the mid sixteenth to the mid seventeenth centuries. Useful too is the Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, produced by the University of Wolverhampton. Finally, British History Online has medieval and early modern records of the important trading ports of Bristol and London.

Personal/biographical sources

As well as the biographical dictionaries of urban rulers and occupations, described above, there are also a number of useful sources relating to the personal and business lives of inhabitants. They include the edited letter books of London merchants John Paige and Joshua Johnson, the famous diary of the mid sixteenth-century London funeral arranger Henry Machyn, and wills and inventories for the inhabitants of several towns and cities, including Lincoln and London.


As well as the Victoria County History, which deals in detail with the development of parishes and religious houses across England, British History Online provides an array of sources for the religious history of towns and cities. For London these include parish records of different kinds (vestry minutes, churchwardens’ accounts, fraternity registers) for several parishes, as well as tithe assessments. The Historical Gazetteer of London, cited above, also includes accounts of the five parish churches covered in the study area. London is well represented in the records for religious houses (e.g. Greyfriars, Holy Trinity Aldgate), but there are also important records for monasteries in Cheshire, Staffordshire, Cumberland and Westmorland and elsewhere. Two Historical Manuscripts Commission volumes deal extensively with the records of the Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral, which include a great deal of material relating to the town itself such as property records. While much more wide-ranging in their coverage, the Calendars of Papal Registers (1198-1492) have many references to towns and cities, as well as to individuals such as merchants and clerics.

London Record Society

Many of the digitised sources for urban history on British History Online were published by county or local record societies. Of particular importance for the history of London are 32 volumes published by the London Record Society, with more likely to be added. They reflect a wide range of sources/themes for London’s history, including parish records, letters and diaries, taxation and population listings, records of clubs and societies, and legal records, and they cover all periods in London’s history from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries.

Other sources

The broad coverage of British History Online means that there are many other sources which include information about Britain’s towns and cities and their inhabitants, but which are not specifically ‘urban’ in their origin or general focus. In particular, some of the long runs of official publications are worth searching and browsing, including the Calendars of Close Rolls and the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII. Parliamentary records, such as the journals of the House of Commons and House of Lords, and the medieval Rolls of Parliament, frequently deal with matters concerning towns and cities.

Strengths and weaknesses

London history is a particular strength of British History Online, a result in part of the number of published sources available compared with other towns and cities, but also the partnerships between British History Online and the London Record Society and the Survey of London, which between them account for almost 80 publications. The coverage of other urban centres is patchier, although the VCH volumes provide very useful surveys of a number of English towns and cities, and there are some important runs of publications from the Historical Manuscripts Commission as well as from other local record societies.

Search strategies

The range and quantity of material on British History Online means that searches are sometimes best undertaken within particular publications or publication series, especially if common terms/names are used. Generally, phrase searches will help to cut down the number of results. Some publications include digitised indexes, which can be helpful when looking for individuals but should be treated with caution as few tend to treat subjects as thoroughly as names or places.

Further reading

The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vols. 1-3, ed. P Clark (Cambridge, 2000).

I W Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991; 2003)

C M Barron, London 1300-1550: Government and People (Oxford, 2004)

R Dennis, Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930 (Cambridge, 2009)

H J Dyos, Exploring the Urban Past: Essays in Urban History, ed. D. N. Cannadine and D. Reeder (Cambridge, 1982)

P Griffiths and M S R Jenner, Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London (Manchester, 2000)

Readers in Urban History: The English Medieval Town 1200–1540, ed. R Holt and G Rosser; The Tudor and Stuart Town, 1530–1688, ed. J Barry; The Eighteenth Century Town 1688–1820, ed. P Borsay (all Harlow, 1990); and The Victorian City 1820–1914, ed. R. J. Morris and R. Rodger (Harlow, 1993)

Related websites

Centre for Metropolitan History

Centre for Urban History

London Metropolitan Archives

London Record Society