Getting started with historical research

David S. Johnson

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

There has been a resurgence of interest in what came before us, almost a renaissance in fact, over the last few years. Whether this is a reflection of our wanting to revisit the second millennium as we embark on the third, or is a spin off from increased television coverage on matters historical, is debatable. What is beyond doubt, however, is the recent growth in the number of historical societies, local community based historical research projects that often culminate in a book, and small-scale publishers concentrating on the history of their local area, however large or small it is perceived to be. Indeed, the Association of County Archivists has described the increase in usage of research facilities as 'astonishing'.

I have a feeling that, for every one active amateur researcher, there are two would-be researchers out there.

A profile of a researcher

I believe successful researchers — those who achieve their initial aims and add to our corporate body of knowledge — share a number of common characteristics. The basic prerequisite is having a topic you want to pursue. No one can tell you to go and research this or that unless it is something you have at least a fleeting interest in ... and it is amazing how readily a vague interest can blossom over time into an all-absorbing passion! You will probably be a self-disciplined person with the willpower to spend hours in a dimly lit room when the sun is beating down outside but, there again, you could be like me and keep a keen eye on the weather forecasts: dry days for playing out and wet ones for the archive. If, on the other hand, your research is put off and put off, the chances are you will lose your thread and will come to see it as your personal henpecking master. You cannot allow yourself to become a slave to it, but it needs to be maintained. In addition, you will need the determination to see it through. What at first might seem to be a tight little project may transform itself into a hydra-headed undertaking and, if you are not prepared to complete it (and more later on what complete means), there is no point embarking on it in the first place. So, if you have the topic that interests you, the self-discipline and the will, you are ready to take off. However, many are perhaps put off by asking themselves the question 'where ever do I start?' Patience, though, as we are not quite ready for that yet. There are a few more considerations.

Points to bear in mind

Firstly, you must ensure you choose a topic that is manageable, not too large in scope nor too narrowly focussed. No one could conceivably research, for example, lead mining or tanning or the rise of Quakerism or developments in vernacular architecture or whatever across the whole of North Yorkshire or the historic West Riding. On the other hand, a study of land improvement or developments in walling techniques on a single farm, though providing useful information, would probably mean little in isolation. Having said this, many tightly focussed projects do stand alone as valuable additions to the knowledge bank, such as studies of individual houses, mills or bridges: studies of individual figures from village life; studies of changing ownership of a given piece of land. Secondly, it is worth reminding oneself that a research project is akin to an ancient spreading oak tree. We start our probe at the base of the trunk, feet firmly placed on the ground. We know we have only one way to go —onwards and upwards - because we have only just started. As time goes on our research trunk divides into two major boles. Each seems equally inviting so we toss a pencil sharpener to decide which to explore first. Eventually our chosen bole will split into ever more branches. Many of these branches are relevant and need investigating but others are mere distractions. Now, some distractions can turn out to be as interesting and captivating as the main topic, and it is so easy to end up pursuing these loose ends. My article on Nether Lodge in the previous Journal, for example, was the result of such a distraction: I came upon the material by accident while searching for something else and could not resist following it up. Fine, you might say, but it does tend to prolong the whole process.

As a corollary to this it is important to give oneself a cut-off point to prevent the task carrying on to infinity. It is so very easy to convince oneself that there is something new just around the corner waiting to be discovered. There probably is but how many more such corners might there be? I was talking to a distinguished and many-lettered archivist and journal editor recently and he gave me a very sound piece of advice. My own personal line of research - the lime industry in the Dales - has engaged me now for nearly four years and it seems to have no end. '"Well", said the archivist, "draw a firm red line under it now and get it written up!" I really am trying to act on his advice. This brings me back to defining the word 'complete', in terms of historical research. The inescapable fact is that research can never be complete. There is always something else to discover, or someone else who has a new interpretation to offer. History does not have an end.

Fourthly, the serious researcher must accept that there is a cost implication, and costs can add up quite rapidly. Every trip to a reference library or archive incurs transport costs plus probably photocopying costs and even a trip to the nearby cafe. Every source obtained through the inter-library lending service costs money, especially if brought from out of county. Some material you want to see may be housed in one of the national repositories which requires, at least, an overnight stay away from home. You could take this to the extreme, if obsession looms, as happened to me last summer, when I ended up in Bavaria pursuing two particular leads and, as I write this, I fear I feel a trip to Berlin coming on.

Lastly, how deep a researcher goes depends on personal circumstances, priorities and competing demands. Be aware that historical research can ensnare you. It can become a disease that has no apparent cure: it is, nonetheless, an affliction I am more than happy to have.


So, where do you actually start the search? The superficial answer is that it depends on what you are intending to research. For the purposes of this article we will assume it is being carried out within the Trust's geographical area.


The first place might be a reference library with a good local section. Because Craven has been administratively confused in the past, and because we sit at the conjunction of three counties, we have a number of such libraries at our disposal. Skipton library is highly accessible, having three early evening openings each week and a good collection of local material, mostly indexed. Settle library has a small collection whereas Lancaster reference library is a mine of information with an admirable indexing system. It, too, has evening openings on certain days. The Brayshaw Collection at Giggleswick School contains a lot of original material and genuine researchers can apply for access. I have also found useful material at Northallerton reference library, at the Leeds Library, at Manchester's excellent Central Library and in the John Rylands Library on Deansgate in Manchester, as well as in various university libraries though access to these can be a problem, especially during term time.

Regional Archives

Again, we are fortunate in having a number of excellent facilities within spitting distance. The West Yorkshire Archive Service operates a number of centres across that county. Sheepscar in Leeds stores many tithe awards and maps, Enclosure documents, ecclesiastical papers relevant to Craven, many industrial and family records and a host of miscellaneous records. Wakefield houses the old West Riding Registry of Deeds holding 12,000 accessible volumes of deeds from 1704 to 1970. It also contains an enormous quantity of old West Riding county documents with records from a range of other official bodies.

The Yorkshire Archaeological Society, part of WYAS, is housed at Claremont in Leeds and this, to me, is the stereotypical archive to which there can be no such thing as a quick visit. It has a large collection of books, old and new, and an absolute plethora of family documents including those of the Cliffords, the Lords Ribblesdale and the Middletons of llkley. The records of the West Yorkshire Vernacular Buildings Study Group are also kept here, as are many transcripts of parish records. A large collection of historic maps — not all classified — are stored here also.

The North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton has a huge collection of documents, much on microfilm, including parish records, papers of prominent families (such as the Farrers of Clapham) and historic maps. Further relevant material can be found in the county archive at Kendal, at Preston and in the Borthwick Institute in York. It might also be worthwhile obtaining a reader's card from the County Archive Research Network which permits one easy access to over 30 county archives across England and Wales. The card can be obtained in person from any participating archive: our nearest is Kendal.

National Archives

Of national significance are the branches of the British Library (BL), and the Public Record Office. The BL's main reading rooms — and magnificent they are - are housed next to St Pancras station and access to its vast collection of rare books and maps, journals and official publications, and 'run-of-the-mill' books, is by Reader's Pass, obtainable in person and valid for five years. The BL's Newspaper Library is located in northwest London but the Document Supply Centre's reading rooms at Boston Spa are probably more convenient for us, though it has more restricted opening times than St Pancras. The Patent Office, which used to be located near Lincoln's Inn, is also now at St Pancras. The Public Record Office, at Kew, contains documents from present and past government departments, papers relating to dissolved companies and a plethora of material including, for example, some on the building of the Settle-Carlisle railway. As with the BL, access is by a Reader's Ticket. The Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington houses what must be the nation's premier map collection. The only real way to ascertain what is where is to approach each archive and ask them. They are invariably obliging to mailed or e-mailed requests. The Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York is a mine of information for ecclesiastical research as well as for research into the history of houses, for obtaining guidelines on translating and understanding past styles of handwriting. Much of the collection is directly related to York itself but it does extend across the county, and it holds the largest collection of wills outside the PRO.

Leeds Central Library, next to the city hall, is worth a look. Particularly useful in the Local Studies section is their very large collection of Trade Directories covering the old West Riding, including Pigot's, Kelly's and Slater's Directories from 1830 to 1936. All businesses and traders are listed across all townships in the area each covers. is the address of the National Register of Archives, which will search and look up any archives.


A wealth of historical material is to be found in back copies of newspapers, though you will probably only be allowed to view them on microfilm. While this can be an incredibly painstaking and slow process and manageable, I find, only in relatively small doses, it is worthwhile persevering. The Craven Herald and the former Craven Pioneer can be consulted by appointment at Skipton reference library, similarly the Lancaster Guardian can be seen at Lancaster Reference Library, and the Westmorland Gazette in Kendal. Lancaster, incidentally, has carefully catalogued all past issues of the Guardian onto a card index so it is very user-friendly which cannot be said of the Herald in Skipton. Some copies of the old Settle Chronicle are kept in Settle and some in Skipton, but I have yet to find a complete run.

Photographic Archives

Specialist photographic collections exist

and are normally willing to assist with enquiries concerning specific sites or localities. I have used the collections of Aerofilms, which have an extensive set of aerial photographs of the Dales from various periods, and of the British Geological Survey. Both will supply copies in either print or slide form for genuine researchers ... at a price.


An increasing number of web sites are springing up and the only way to determine what is out there is to surf the net using key words, to then dabble and see which sites are worthy of closer inspection. Two sites are of particular value as starting points: has all the published first edition Ordnance Survey 6 inch map sheets. The print quality is rather fuzzy and you have to scroll up and down and from side to side to see a whole sheet but it is a convenient starting point. You can print off freely. Equally useful is which has been described as mind blowing It covers the entire country and Ireland, parish by parish, and contains, inter alia, a transcript of Baines' Directory of 1822, details of individual localities within parishes mentioned in Baines, and genealogical listings. It is definitely worth a browse.


Having spent months — or maybe even years — trawling through all the above, you may well discover some of the most exciting material completely by accident: you do come to hear that so and so has this, or that an imminent sale of documents has something of interest. You will also find material in the most unexpected of places and in private collections, the existence of which will only come to your notice by chance or by word of mouth. The deeper you delve, the more will come to light.


Research is an enjoyable and stimulating experience, and successful research results from perseverance ... and sometimes from courage. There are archive personnel who seem to regard the reader as an interloper into their sanctum and, while I have nothing but regard and gratitude for the help I have received all over the country, I have to confess to being puzzled at times by the minutiae of how a few of them operate. Also, if you can consult rare documents in some archives with bare hands, why does Wakefield make you wear tiny white gloves: in some pencils are essential but in others pen is acceptable. At Sheepscar maps must be covered with plastic sheets, but not in others. Go to Northallerton and you are almost grovelling in the dark on the microfilm machines, but not elsewhere. To use some you must book in advance, but in others you can just turn up. However, in all, do not dare speak in more than hushed tones!

It has also been my - rare - experience to have literally come across the 'here be dragons' in some archives and I was once reduced to a slobbering wreck by one male dragon in one West Yorkshire archive on my first visit there. I had already committed the mortal sin of not having a pencil, and I had had to request his assistance twice but, for him, the final straw came when I sat down on a chair that collapsed beneath me. Some readers shot me a withering look, others suppressed a titter, but he bore down on me like a ferocious male Gorgon. And do not do what I did last summer in the wonderful Technical Library of the German Museum in Munich. Not only had I forgotten a pen or pencil (I managed to 'borrow' one from the enquiry desk), but I had also managed to forget paper (so I used dozens of tiny request slips instead). When apprehended I simply played the eccentric Englishman abroad ... and remembered to bring everything the next day.

Research is fun!





Ogilvies map of 1675 in the Journal Britannica, shows the main road from Lancaster to York passing by Hellifield Peel which was the second house the Hammertons built.

Battle Hill 1673 Austwick
Photo: Maureen Ellis






Hammerton Hall
This photograph was taken by Diana Kaneps, Speight says 'the original owners up to the attainder of Stephen Hammerton in 1537 lived in great splendour in the hall. The mansion has since undergone some restoration... and now has the appearance more of a retired country seat, than of an old war-proof strong hold or barrack-house as it must have been.'

Ogilvies map of 1675 in the Journal Britannica, shows the main road from Lancaster to York passing by Hellifield Peel which was the second house the Hammertons built.

Battle Hill 1673 Austwick
Photo: Maureen Ellis

Hammerton Hall

This photograph was taken by Diana Kaneps, Speight says 'the original owners up to the attainder of Stephen Hammerton in 1537 lived in great splendour in the hall. The mansion has since undergone some restoration... and now has the appearance more of a retired country seat, than of an old war-proof strong hold or barrack-house as it must have been.'