Researching Local History

By Emma Bray

Banner Image: Hartsop Roman-British settlement at Hartsop © Anne Clarke

If you are interested in finding out more about local history, there are lots of places to look. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Look around

Many features in the landscape have been influenced or created by humans. If you notice “lumps and bumps” in the ground, they may well indicate that there was formerly a structure on the site. A series of ridges in a field may be evidence that it was once under the plough. Old walls become buried over time, but leave a ridge which becomes covered in grass. The patterns of existing walls may tell a story – as a general rule, walls built as a result of parliamentary enclosure tend to be straighter than those edging fields which were enclosed earlier.

The pattern of walls may tell a story © Anne Clarke


A wide range of documentary resources can be accessed in the archives. Cumbria Archive Service has an online catalogue, CASCAT, which is a good place to start. The archivists are usually happy to give guidance on where to look if you are unsure. Once you have located a reference, you can request the item which will be brought up from storage and photos of documents can be taken for a licence fee.

As a general rule, records for areas such as Patterdale that were historically in Westmorland can be found in Kendal and those for areas such as Matterdale that were in Cumberland are housed in Carlisle. There are exceptions, for example, Methodist records are filed according to the Circuit and estate records may be filed according to the primary seat of the family, so it is a good idea to look online first.

The archives hold various maps such as estate maps, tithe maps (which date from around the 1840s), enclosure maps and early Ordnance Survey maps can all help to show how land holdings have changed.

Field System and Land Usage at Dowthwaitehead 1844A = Arable, M = Meadow and improved grass, P = Pasture

Information about houses and who lived in them can be found in wills and probate inventories, manorial records (for example, the Lowther family papers), solicitors’ papers, sales details, census records and nineteenth century trade directories. Trade directories are also useful for researching businesses. The archive holds the census as well as death and baptism records on microfiche. The census gives the names of the occupants, ages, sex and occupation and their relationship to each other. From 1851, it also gives the place of birth. The house name is also often given which can be useful when looking at the history of a house.

In Cumbria, communities were governed by manorial courts from medieval times to the nineteenth century. The decisions of these courts can give useful information about houses, boundaries and communal responsibilities for common land and roads. Hearth tax returns (giving the number of hearths per house) and muster rolls (lists for military service) are also worth consulting. These older documents tend to be written in secretary hand which is difficult to decipher, but many have been transcribed.

The archives also hold church documents - for individual churches and diocesan records such as Bishops’ Visitation returns - and school records. School log books kept from 1870 can give a real insight into school life.

Local newspapers are a good source of information for nineteenth and twentieth century history. Many are held on microfiche in our local libraries, but they are not always searchable or catalogued, so an idea of date is useful to narrow down a search.

by Emma Bray

Other Topics you may find interesting