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  1. #1

    Default Early British Topography


    I have begun a project transcribing descriptions of British places written in different periods. My aim is to have (where possible) a description of a place from different periods of time.

    For example, I would like something like this:

    - Early Greek or Roman descriptions. I have Plutrach and Antonine, but have not investigated their usefulness yet
    - A dark ages source*
    - Domesday Book (not yet available)
    - Norman+ (1100s-1200s), I have Gerald Cambrensis and two other sources, the names of which escape me.
    - Late Medieval (1300s-1400s)*
    - 1500s - Leland and other whose names escape me at the moment
    - 1600s - Many, including Camden, Speed et. al.
    - 1700s - Many available, not decided on sources yet
    - c. 1800 - George Alexander Cooke
    - c. 1825 - Lewis's Topography
    - c. 1850 - Lewis's Topography, much expanded 2nd edition
    - c. 1900 - Kelly's directories

    There are in particular, two periods which I haven't been able to locate any suitable sources: The Dark ages and the period c. 1200-1499. Though I would be grateful for suggestions of sources from any period.

    To clarify what I am looking for - I am looking for descriptions of settlements, counties and the nations of Britain. The latter sources provide this in quite an organised fashion, e.g.

    "Oswestry, a town and borough in the hundred of Oswestry and county of Shropshire. There was a castle here, built in 1086 by FitzAlan. John Jones, Esq. is the principal landowner. It is 15 miles from Shrewsbury and 267 from London."

    Earlier sources just tend to include descriptions of places in general passage. I understand that from the earlier sources, at best what I am likely to get is cities, some counties and the countries. Though I was wondering if there might be some sort of administrative records that may give fleeting descriptions of towns.

    A couple of people I have mentioned this project to have scoffed at it, saying it is too big etc. I do understand this is a large project, but I have already completed my c. 1800 sources, which are the second largest in terms of words. I also understand that there may not be descriptions of some places for some periods. Thirdly, I do have the time/money to invest in this.

  2. #2


    My first reaction was, goodness me, that sounds like many lifetimes' work!!! I have spent 20 years or so researching the history of one little town in West Oxfordshire. The more I discover, the more I know I don't know.

    My second reaction was, isn't that what Vision of Britain is trying to do? Many accounts of tours of the country, such as those by William Camden, Celia Fiennes, Daniel Defoe, Arthur Young and William Cobbett, are already available on the Vision of Britain website: you can browse by author in their 'Travel Writing' section or search for particular place names in the 'Places' section then click on 'Historical places and writing'. The latter also shows gazetteer entries. Here's what you get for Exeter, for example:


    It would seem a huge task to try to replicate that. Where the information is already included on other sites, perhaps you could link to it instead?

    After those rather negative first and second reactions, I tried to think of some early sources that might help in your quest.

    For my home town (Witney, Oxfordshire) the earliest known documentary reference is in a charter of 969 AD. The charter describes the boundaries of an estate granted by King Edgar. It's fascinating, especially trying to match up the landmarks with surviving features of the landscape. What it doesn't tell us is what was going on within that estate.

    You can search here:


    (put the place name in the 'Title word' box) or switch the 'Browse' tab for various ways of browsing, e.g. according to what's been translated and published. Browsing by date shows that the earliest charters (604 AD and possibly slightly earlier) relate to Canterbury and Rochester.

    Any modern translations are likely to be subject to copyright so I don't think you'd be able to quote them in their entirety. It might still be useful if you referred to any surviving charters covering the particular area. (That's easier said than done, though: the exact places referred to in the charters haven't always been identified.)

    For areas covered by the Victoria County History this would be the obvious place to look for references to early descriptions. Many volumes can now be seen on British History Online.

    Have you come across the 'Medieval English Towns' website? In case not, you can find it here:


    It has some case studies on particular towns and gives lots of ideas for source material. Some links are broken but it's still well worth exploring. The section called 'Florilegium Urbanum' has some material which may interest you. For example, there's the brief but entertaining 'Critique of English Towns' from the 'Chronicle of Richard of Devizes' (1190s). Having lived in Bath for some years I rather like his description of it :'Bath, placed, or, rather, dumped down in the midst of the valleys, in an exceedingly heavy air and sulphureous vapour, is at the gates of hell.' (Mostly his comments are about the people, rather than the places, though.)

  3. #3
    A fountain of knowledge Ken_R's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2009


    Best wishes with your project.

    Are you aware of British History Online?

    Put the 'usual' in front of the domain name.

  4. #4

    Default Gough map

    You could include a description of how the place is depicted on the wonderful Gough map. The exact date of the map isn't known but perhaps 1360s/1370s. You can search/browse features on the map here:


    e.g. search by modern placename or by 'icon' (such as castle, decorated roofs, islands...). For a complete list of places shown on the map, click on the 'Browse' tab.

    P.S. you may get more ideas for sources in the 'Contexts' section, particularly in 'Abbreviations' which refers to all sorts of published and unpublished material.

  5. #5


    Quote Originally Posted by david64 View Post
    Domesday Book (not yet available)
    I'm not sure what you mean by 'not yet available':



  6. #6


    Since this post I have found all the sources I require.

    Quote Originally Posted by Coromandel View Post
    My first reaction was, goodness me, that sounds like many lifetimes' work!!!
    Bar the Kelly's transcriptions, which I would imagine will take at least three months to do, I have most of the text. A lot of the early works (pre-1066) are available in the public domain. A couple of the others I have licences.

    Quote Originally Posted by Coromandel View Post
    My second reaction was, isn't that what Vision of Britain is trying to do?
    Yes. This is the only other project of a similar kind on the same scale. There is one book (Camden) I have that they also have.

    Thanks for your other suggested links. Although they aren't useful to this project, I have added them to my bookmarks.


    Re. - none of the material of this site is permissible to use.

    Re. - this project only lists an abstract of details, though the are working on a copyleft transcription of Domesday.

  7. #7


    Quote Originally Posted by david64 View Post
    Since this post I have found all the sources I require.
    I think I misunderstood what you were looking for. Sorry I couldn't help.

  8. #8
    Newcomer to Brit-Gen
    Join Date
    Jun 2013


    I think what you are doing is a great idea. My aim when I have sorted out my family, as I can not report on what was actually happening to them personally, I plan on writing notes about what was happening in their particular area, important events or people, such as authors, poets, painters, war etc. emb1

  9. #9
    Famous for offering help & advice
    Join Date
    May 2008
    NSW Australia


    Hi David, I've come across some interesting books of the type you're after at the Internet Archives, if you do a search for the Parish or County that you're researching and "texts", you could find something, also the books are mainly out of copyright so shouldn't be a bother.


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