Abstract: I prefer to standardize place names in Family Historian to take advantage of modern geo-coding and mapping features, and to record historical place names in research notes. But how do I organize my research notes so that I recognize all the variants as being 'the same place'?

Place name Variants

My main research is kept on my computer -- I attach sources to Ancestry's and Find My Past's online trees primarily as a means to keep track of what records I've already found on Ancestry and Find My Past. But there's a weakness in both lineage-linked software and online trees -- they don't provide tools to keep track of data about localities in the same way that we can keep track of information about people.

One of the problems of doing research online with sites like Ancestry and Find My Past is that the same locality can be reported in the search results under many different names. You might find someone in the same place and not recognize it because the place name that turns up in the search results is not the one you expected to see.

For one of my families living in Plymouth for three decades, when I attached the 1891 Census to the tree, Ancestry's online tree system assigned them a Residence in Charles, Devon, England. When you look at the record abstract in the New Ancestry interface, this is what you see:

  • Civil parish: Charles
  • Ecclesiastical parish: Emmanuel
  • Town: Laira
  • County/Island: Devon
  • Country: England
  • Registration district: Plymouth
  • Sub registration district: Charles

For the same record (matching archive reference of RG12/1725/24/41), Find My Past's transcription reports "Belgrave Road, Plymouth, Devon, England". Here's the transcription as it appears on FamilySearch.

It's a simple matter to edit the fact on the online tree to say "Plymouth" instead of "Charles" and to note the address and various sub-districts in the description field. In many modern programs, we need to regularize the place name to make use of queries and mapping tools. But if we record all the place names as they appear in the original source, how can we make use of that information?

What I'm trying to do now is make up research notes about the locality which I can refer to, in case I am offline and I can't make use of the GENUKI gazetteer, A Vision of Britain, FamilySearch's historical map site 1851 Jurisdictions (based on Phillimore's Atlas), or Curious Fox's lists of villages, or British History Online's gazetteers.

I would like something I can refer to quickly, so if I am evaluating a baptism for Emmanuel Parish in Plymouth, I can see at a glance that I am in the same area as this family from this census. I am currently cross-checking all my other records against the electoral rolls (and the 1939 Register for those people still living in 1939). I can capture pages from all of my favorite geographical reference sites, but I want to make some kind of summary of what I've collected.

Best Practices for Transcription

Do you transcribe the entire census record, headers and all?

The blank form for the 1891 Census has spaces to record:

  • Civil Parish
  • Municipal Borough
  • Municipal Ward
  • Urban Sanitary District
  • Town or Village or Hamlet
  • Rural Sanitary District
  • Parliamentary Borough or Division
  • Ecclesiastical Parish or District

Ecclesiastical Parish is useful when cross-checking against baptisms and other church records; parliamentary boroughs and divisions are clues for tracing electoral rolls. Even the sanitary districts can be used as clues to other records; I've found articles about local water quality via the British Newspaper Archive.

How do you organize this material? Do you keep spreadsheets, make tables, or some other method? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the methods you use?

Update #1

Since writing the question, I see I could have saved myself a great deal of difficulty in recognizing I was reading about 'the same place' by going directly to Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of England at British History Online, but at the time I wrote the question, I didn't know about the website; I was only vaguely aware of Lewis as the source behind A Vision of Britain.

Update #2

The problem becomes especially problematic when dealing with places which straddle county lines, or where the county boundaries have changed over time (Devon / Cornwall parishes near the border).

Yorkshire also causes a lumper/splitter problem because of the Ridings.

Another collision between modern mapping / geo-locating and places as recorded in historical records: the Family History Library catalog often uses a particular gazetteer as a standard (e.g. for Germany, the placename standard is Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs, which covers the German Empire from 1871-1918), but it isn't always clear to the end user which gazetter is the standard.

  • 1
    In my opinion, the FindMyPast/FamilySearch transcription is incorrect - the original record clearly states that civil parish is Charles, not Plymouth. I think the key here is recording the place as it was at the time of the event. However, I agree that it can be difficult to know how best to organize this geographic information when there are changing/unclear/overlapping boundaries at the various geographic levels.
    – Harry V.
    Nov 9, 2015 at 23:15
  • One should record the place as it was at the time of the event -- but I have census records for the same person that cite her birthplace as different places each time. If you sit down with GENUKI it quickly becomes evident that all of those place names refer to the same area. I can note this for each person in research notes, but it would also be useful to have a general locality reference.
    – Jan Murphy
    Nov 9, 2015 at 23:30
  • In 1901 FamilySearch reports the sub-district as Charles, but I don't see that on the actual image familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XSWP-HSY. FamilySearch puts them in St. Augustine ecclesiastical parish but the corresponding image at Find My Past says their EP is Emmanuel (same street, different house number). Thus my difficulty -- I need to record what's actually on the image, plus what it says on the index/transcription even if that doesn't match.
    – Jan Murphy
    Nov 9, 2015 at 23:41
  • 1
    Sub-districts are recorded on the first page of each census book along with the description of the area covered in that book (go to the first image in that set). All the censuses after 1851 are organized by registration district and subdistrict - e.g. see the National Archives catalogue.
    – Harry V.
    Nov 9, 2015 at 23:44
  • 1
    In terms of organisation, I'm experimenting with a Wolfram Alpha databin to store information and Mathematica to examine it. This seems to be enormously flexible, far mor so than spreadsheets or tables. This could become a proper answer if I get beyond the free trial period.
    – Chenmunka
    Nov 10, 2015 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


As I am sure you are aware, the complexity of the various administrative divisions in use in England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries makes keeping track of all these geographies very difficult. This question has puzzled me for some time about the best way to organize this information.

You have already highlighted my favourite source when trying to work out which district or division a certain parish is in: A Vision of Britain Through Time. However, it may be useful to extract certain information from the censuses and store it for easy reference for locations of primary interest.

While I do not routinely transcribe and document all the location information present on a census form, below I will describe an approach that recently occurred to me, and which I may use more in the future. This approach uses Gramps (AIO for Windows, v. 4.2.1), and takes advantage of the hierarchical place structure of this genealogy program.

A great benefit of Gramps is that the program allows one to specify each level of geography. For places in England, my basic geography that I use to describe events consists of five main levels:

[Address] < [Hamlet or Township] < Civil Parish < County < Country

For the purposes of recording all the location information in a census form, I created separate geographies for each type of information. These geographies might be structured as follows:

  • Civil Registration:

     Civil Parish < Sub-district < District < Registration County < Country 
  • Parliamentary Divisions:

     Civil Parish < Parliamentary Division or Borough < Parlimentary County < Country

In Gramps, you can create multiple structured geographies within the same file. As mentioned, the geographies are hierarchical and can contain as many levels as you desire. This is done simply by clicking the "Enclosed by" tab (see the second screen shot) and entering the next level of geography.

enter image description here

You can "Enclose" a given address or parish within as many geographies as you like, and when you click on that parish (for example, Coddington parish shown below), I get a screen that shows all the geographies I have entered.

enter image description here

Furthermore, in Gramps you can specify a date (or date range) to which the geography applies. For the example above, I can see that for civil registation purposes, Coddington was transferred from Bassingham sub-district to Balderton sub-district in 1900. I can also see that the parish would be found in Newark constituency should I want to find a person in the electoral registers. Other information and geographies, such as ecclesiastical parishes, could of course be added, but keep in mind that the result may be somewhat redundant. For instance, Coddington ecclesiastical parish is essentially the same as Coddington civil parish, but the two are technically unrelated entities, so cannot be directly related in the database. Thus, you will end up with multiple Coddingtons in the database and you must be careful to label and use them appropriately.

Just as another example, for an 1891 census fact in my database, I added the following record for someone who lived at the address of Inkerman, Selston, Nottinghamshire. The beauty of this is that I can quickly link multiple people. For example, in the Event section of Gramps I can filter all the people who have an 1891 census event within, say, Mansfield Parliamentary Division.

enter image description here

This approach can certainly use some refinement. I think a data structure that allows for multiple hierarchies is a must, because two-dimensional tables (such as spreadsheets) will quickly get very complex will all these geographies. The nice thing about using Gramps for this is that it handles complex place relationships very well, and is open source so is easily customized to suit your purpose.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.