Archive for December, 2011

Today I am very pleased to announce that videos from our Novel Approaches conference were added to the History SPOT platform (see here for the videos pages), to Youtube and iTunes-u. So you now have the option of watching or simply listening to what our panelists had to say.  In fact today (which will be the last update to History SPOT before Christmas) has very much been about a return to the end of November when I was busily working on the virtual conference.  I therefore thought that this was as good a time as any to write down a brief summary of the conference:


Novel Approaches Conference
17-18 November 2011

Where do the borders between academic history and historical fiction lie? Can historians legitimately write historical fiction whilst also maintaining their legitimacy and truthfulness as an historian? How ‘authentic’ should an historical novelist be when writing about past events and persons? These, and many more questions, were the focus of this years’ highly successful IHR winter conference. Novel Approaches: from academic history to historical fiction featured historians, novelists, and publishers in a discussion and debate about the relationship of historical fiction and academic history.

Hilary Mantel and Alison Weir both argued that ‘authenticity’ and ‘accuracy’ was essential to their craft and that in many ways what they did was not that different to that of the historian. James Forrester (pen name for the historian Ian Mortimer), however saw historical fiction as more fantasy than accurate history. Forrester/Mortimer made the distinction between History and Fiction through writing for both forms under different names.

Amongst the many threads that were taken up throughout the conference was a concern that academic history was seen as ‘stuffy’; ‘dull’; and ‘irrelevant’ by the public and that (perhaps more troubling) historical fiction was often viewed as a better sort of history and one that was equally as accurate. I don’t think any historical novelist would claim that what they wrote was strictly ‘truthful’ when it came to the past, although many (including Mantel and Weir) would argue that they only made up those elements that fell between the cracks of historical knowledge. Within that argument, it seemed, was a slight queasiness regarding where historical fact merged with fiction and how the reading public could differentiate between the two. It must be said that the same queasiness affects historians when they regard their sources; how does the historian remain neutral when regarding the evidence? Is it possible to remain entirely neutral? Is it even possible for the historian to discover the past and write about it in a ‘realistic’ manner that is, in itself, not partly fictional?

After the conference end began our first ever ‘virtual conference’. The virtual Novel Approaches includes podcasts from History SPOT; book reviews from Reviews in History; bibliographies and online resource lists (compiled by the people behind BBIH) and a host of additional articles, materials and opinion pieces. The conference ran between Monday 21 November and Friday 25 November 2011 but the resource itself is there indefinitely. Indeed today we updated the site so that it will be a little easier to navigate. For those who registered for the virtual conference you should find in your email inbox a new Newsletter (issue 2) with information about upcoming events, some photographs from the conference, and a few other short articles. This and the previous Novel Approaches newsletter will be published on the virtual conference site in the new year so those of you who didn’t register won’t miss out.

Please do feel free to have a look at the Novel Approaches website, to contribute to the continuing discussion around these resources and make use of the site whether your interest is in academic history, historical fiction, or somewhere in-between.

And that’s all from me for another year.  I hope you all have a good Christmas or holiday break!  I’ll be back in the new year with more SPOT newsletters, podcasts, handbooks and live streams than Santa Claus could stuff into a sack!

Best wishes,


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Locating London’s past: a geo-referencing tool for mapping historical and archaeological evidence, 1660-1800
21 October 2011
Robert Shoemaker, Tim Hitchcock, Matthew Davies, David Green, Peter Barker, Ian Gregory


This workshop looked at the Locating London’s Past project (LLP) which launched earlier this week.  As a digital project LLP is actually a re-launch, of sorts, of digital projects already available in other forms elsewhere.   By making use of various datasets including the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Hearth tax data, plague deaths records and more, LLP gives the researcher the opportunity to ask new questions from old data.  The project is based around an interface that makes use of geo-referencing tools allowing users to map the datasets across London as it appeared in the early modern period (and as it appears today).  Researchers can therefore locate crimes, wealth, distribution of ale houses, plague deaths, taxes and much more across London and use it as an analysis tool aggregated by parish, population density and various other options. 

In this first video, Professor Robert Shoemaker walks us through the website and gives various examples of how it can be used and what we might learn from doing so.  The video is in part taken from the raw footage recorded from our live stream of the workshop itself back in October alongside images and video borrowed from the website.  In addition, the second video offers an account of the roundtable session that ended the day.  Unfortunately the video quality is poor but the discussion itself was interesting.   

So, to the Locating London’s Past website.  Is it any good?  I decided to look at the extent of fire insurance in any given area.  To do this I first selected basic population data and choose to look at it by density in the 1740s (being the closest in time to the fire insurance data which covers the range 1777-1786). I then added fire insurance data (total) to my search and came up with these results.


Of course there are strong limitations to this search.  For starters the fire insurance data only looks at the Sun and Royal Exchange insurance companies, who primarily operated in the South East and largely monopolised insurance of industrial properties.  That explains the strong density in the east end.    

Afterwards I tried adding data from the Hearth Tax records to see if there was a correlation between wealth (roughly found by higher amounts of hearth tax paid in a parish) and the taking up of fire insurance.  From the results it would seem not.  Indeed the opposite appears to be the case which would make sense considering that Sun and Royal Exchange largely insured in one particular area and often industrial properties.


So what did I learn from this brief exercise?  This is a fantastic resource but it is one where you need to think carefully about the data that you are using and combining.  Of course, that is true with any data used to come to a conclusion but more so here I think.  The mapping of fire insurance against population density and hearth tax confirms not only that the Sun and royal Exchange operated largely in one region of London, but also that it bears little relation to the hearth tax data which covered the 1660s (approximately 100 years earlier). 

It is probably safer to start by mapping something simpler.   For example various types of crime across London checked against population density, wealth or poor relief.  Alternatively start simply by looking at the number of killings by parish (moderated by the 1801 census population data).  I tried that and compared that data to female victims with the same selection.  It was not that unexpected that most killings of women were in the east end.  However, what is interesting is the apparent lack of female killings elsewhere in London (except for a bunch that cross over the Themes between Covent Garden and Lambeth Palace).


At the moment I’m still pretty new at trying to work this out and my knowledge of early modern London is perhaps not as good as it should be, but thankfully the people at Sheffield and London have made the website pretty user friendly with a lot of useful information regarding each data set.  Nevertheless, to make proper use of the site would require sitting down for a day with a large cafeteria of coffee or pot of tea and carefully working my way through the site and experimenting.   Once worked out I think a lot can be gained from this site and some genuinely exciting and useful information discovered.  I look forward to seeing what research does appear in the near future as a derivative of work from Locating London’s Lives and, perhaps, at some point I’ll have a spare afternoon to make a proper stab at it myself.

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