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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.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Welcome to a new series of Life Solved. This is the podcast that showcases exciting and impactful work that's happening here at the University of Portsmouth, lifting the lid on research that could transform life in the future. This time, if you're a buff for maps, history or geography, if you're curious about place names and local stories, if you're puzzled about the footpaths we wander, we'll be finding out how it all matches up. Thanks to historical geographer Professor Humphrey Southall and his colleague Paula Aucott. We'll explore the new resource that's helping us connect our past and present.

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

Anna Rose: GB 1900 is the creation of this team of University of Portsmouth colleagues supported by a network of passionate, crowdsourced volunteers. It's the most detailed historical-geographical index ever compiled for Britain, featuring records of place names from around 1900. It's one part of a wider objective.

Humphrey Southall: A lot of what we're trying to do is transform data for historical areas, to modern areas to create Time series, which can be analysed in a straightforward way.

Anna Rose: Let's find out how these resources are already giving us new insight into social histories, overcoming inconsistencies in record keeping, and challenging our assumptions about populations past and present. This story begins with a disappointment for Humphrey, or so he thought. Having originally suggested the project to establish an index, known as the Gazetteer, of place names in Wales, he pitched for a much larger scale, long term project and missed out on funding. Crestfallen, Humphrey began to look at the resources already available. This led them to putting together software from the Welsh project and maps from the National Library of Scotland to do a national project. They use digitised images of Britain's six-inch maps from between 1888 and 1914. That's six inches to one mile, by the way, not tiny maps.

Humphrey Southall: I've become quite heavily involved in research on digital gazetteers, but in the course of planning that larger project, we'd realised there was a potential for doing a very low-cost project, which would still recognise significant parts of the original vision. And that was because a project in Wales had already developed some software for gathering names from the six-inch maps. And I've actually had a bit to do with inspiring that project. And we also knew that our partners at the National Library of Scotland had computerised all the six-inch maps for the whole of Britain.

Anna Rose: That was the vision for GB 1900. Humphrey explained how it complements the research and data that already exists.

Humphrey Southall: A Vision of Britain Through Time is a very extensive historical gazetteer of Britain designed not primarily to just tell you where places are, but to tell you what they were like. So it contains a great deal of information about counties, about districts, about individual parishes and villages. GB 1900 will very usefully complement that by providing a more extensive gazetteer and the interface we've got developed, in particular, once you found a farm, a street or whatever in GB 1900, it will take you directly to information about the parish that that place was in. And we see that as being a very useful facility, both for people interested in local history, the places where they themselves live and in family history, the places their ancestors came from.

Anna Rose: The thing that really makes GB 1900 different is the fact that it connects hard data to social references.

Humphrey Southall: I'm a historical geographer and my original focus and a major continuing focus is not really about places, but statistics about places. So for a very long time, we've been computerising historical statistics from the census, from vital registration records and so on. And it didn't take very long once one got into this work to realise that these were not really the names of towns or villages, they were the names of districts, counties, parishes and so on. And to know where they were, you really needed to know the boundaries of those areas. And so a lot of our work has been linking the statistical information to boundaries that we've constructed for historical areas and enabling new kinds of analysis. So we've done a lot of different projects which are about working with historical statistics and using our geographical knowledge to enable us to sort of link the past and present, essentially.

Anna Rose: Given the depth and reach of the data needing to be found, verified and crunched, a project of this scale takes a lot of time and resource to produce. An earlier project called the Survey of English Place Names has been running since the 1920s, ever more complicated by its quest to include as much information as possible, Humphrey had to think of a way around initiating a century-long project.

Humphrey Southall: The Survey of English Place Names has been running since 1922 without completing, and it was fairly clear from the meeting we had in Aberystwyth in 2011 that it was not particularly realistic to launch a project in Wales that was going to take a century. They had to do something rather quicker. So I proposed the use of crowdsourcing as a way of moving a great deal faster. One of the reasons they've taken so long is they greatly extended their original vision because originally they just wanted to gather the names of parishes, i.e. of the main villages. But they expanded it to include, for example, trying to gather in all the names of fields. And in fact, the data set they've created, which we've in fact used in connection with GB 1900, I think the majority of names and fields, even though they've covered only quite a small fraction of the country for fields. And I know from my own growing up in the country that if you talk to farmers, every field has a name, but these names are not recorded anywhere. Now, those names do arguably contain useful information about the local landscape.

Anna Rose: Crowdsourcing was a great solution, but where do you find an army of volunteers to avidly research local history? Fortunately for the team, there was mutual benefit in inviting volunteers and local contributors to take part in building this resource.

Humphrey Southall: I think one very large use of this data is simply five family historians trying to find places their ancestors come from. Showing that this would actually motivate volunteers was part of the original objective in quite a real sense, not necessarily of all the people involved, but certainly, it was a significant part of ours.

Anna Rose: Paula Aucott worked closely with the volunteers to deliver the game-changing crowdsourced element of the project.

Paula Aucott: For a lot of our volunteers it was all about the places they live, but also some of them looked at how it was comparing what it was 100 years ago to what it is now. And they found that quite interesting. Others were looking at where their ancestors lived and sort of got a better picture of what the areas were like when their ancestors lived there.

Humphrey Southall: The data, I mean, it lists every farm, every hamlet by name. It doesn't list every street, but it probably lists about half the streets in England and Wales that existed in 1900. So this is an enormous resource for finding out where exactly people came from.

Anna Rose: The community of 1200 volunteer geographers contributed an incredible two million, six hundred and eighteen thousand, five hundred and thirty three entries. Each name had to be confirmed by two separate people to be valid for inclusion. And Paula says the volunteers were passionate about the contribution they were making to this resource.

Paula Aucott: Overridingly, they liked the geographical aspect of it. So most crowdsourcing projects are quite scientific, so looking at galaxies or looking at particular species or documents. So I think the fact that the project was quite pictorial, you were looking at a map, most people find looking at maps interesting anyway. And I think they just liked that. And they also like the immediacy of the tool because you put an entry in and immediately it came back to you and showed you that entry was marked on the map. They got a sense of satisfaction from seeing their work appear in front them. They got into it and they found it addictive.

Anna Rose: But aside from pooling resources to aid the work of historians and family history researchers, the project has a much more practical everyday use. It's actually preserving a cultural and linguistic history in modern developments.

Paula Aucott: The Welsh partners have taken the Welsh past of the list, and they've incorporated it into an official list that when developers are looking to create new roads, etc., they're supposed to check against this list to see if there's a historical name they can use. And that's the preference of the Welsh government for them to use one of these historical Welsh names rather than just make one up.

Humphrey Southall: And this is also about the Welsh language. A large part of what the Welsh government are concerned about is that property developers are not just inventing names, they're inventing names that, generally speaking, are English names. And this provides them with a large collection of historical Welsh names.

Paula Aucott: I suppose it's reinforcing the historical locality.

Anna Rose: Building developments aside, the map is useful in more traditional ways, too, and it's good news for walkers.

Humphrey Southall: Right across England and Wales, there's a network of rights of way/footpaths that let you go through the countryside. That Path network was originally a matter, essentially, of established local practice. In the 1960s, there was a process for registering those paths, those rights of way, so they could be added onto the detailed maps produced by the Ordnance Survey, the National Mapping Agency. The problem is that process in the 1960s depended rather heavily on how far essentially volunteers gathered in this information. And there were gaps in what was recorded. And there is a mechanism for adding paths that were missed in the 1960s. But it'll only be possible to establish new rights of way by this mechanism up to 2026. And so the Ramblers, which is the National Association for Walkers, essentially have this project 'Don't lose your way', which is trying to fill those gaps. And they're using the data from GB 1900 because we gathered essentially all text on those maps. And the single most common string of text on those maps was F full stop. P Full stop (F.P.) which is the abbreviation for footpath. And we had over 300,000 footpaths on the maps, in addition to a number of bridleways.

Anna Rose: The team's research is already offering a sort of long game perspective at a time when trends and speculation over population fluctuations have been rife. But how does the data collected by GB 1900 also feed into the wider picture of changing social factors?

Humphrey Southall: The problem with looking at change over long periods is in Britain at least, there's been an almost constant pattern of changes to the administrative geography and consequently to the areas used for statistical reporting, which has made long term analysis very difficult. We've got techniques for manipulating the data based on our knowledge of the boundaries that enable us to construct times series for constant areas. So we've done a number of projects for people like the Greater London Authority, a think tank called the Centre for Cities, for the EU regional policy people when they were still interested in the UK, which are essentially constructing time series that a statistician can work with in a straightforward way. And what this work tends to bring out is much greater continuity than people often realise. Well, I'll give you one example of work we did, which was working with the Office of National Statistics Longitudinal Study. What we were able to show there was that children who were brought up in areas of high unemployment in the 1930s did have measurably worse health today, even if they'd moved around the country. And that's part of the line of work, which is basically showing that providing you get the data which tracks people from when they were born, from when they were growing up to their health in old age, you can show there are large effects of the conditions you're living in in childhood on later health.

Anna Rose: Looking beyond this project, the team have some other exciting plans for how to use the data in other analysis.

Humphrey Southall: We're currently discussing a project with a political scientist, which will be looking at past electoral statistics. Paula has been experimenting with looking at the flu epidemic of 1918 and what more can be done with the data there as sort of the last pandemic that had a really big impact prior to the present one. In fact, another member of the team may well be busy actually typing in some mortality statistics from the 19th century, which at some point will be adding to our vision of Britain's system.

Anna Rose: The team is looking ahead to a time when data from the GB 1900 project can be shared on a live interface. At the moment, you can download the data from the Vision of Britain website. It's thought that this, in addition to the Vision of Britain database it complements, will help us better understand the past in order to help us adapt to change in the present. If you'd like to look at it yourself, you can explore some of this online by going to visionofbritain.org.uk. Thanks for joining us for Life Solved. If you want to find out more about research at the University of Portsmouth, go to the website port.ac.uk. We'll be back next Thursday with another story of how work that's happening here is changing all of our lives for good. Catch you then.

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