UCL News


Tracing your family history made easier with old handwriting online guide

16 March 2005

People wanting to unlock their family history will soon be able to thanks to a new online tutorial devoted to helping people decipher old documents and read old handwriting.

The online tutorial in palaeography, which was developed by University College London (UCL) and the National Archives (TNA) and will be launched on 16th March 2005 at the Institute of Historical Research, can be accessed at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography

Old handwriting is well-known for being difficult to decipher but the increased interest in tracing family history means that more and more people want a guide to analysing documents written between 1500 and 1800. Interest in the subject can be gauged by the popularity of The National Archives' online censuses, which have received more than 100 million searches since they have gone online and the large audiences of programmes such as 'Who Do You Think You Are'.

Elizabeth Danbury, Senior Lecturer in Palaeography and Director of International Projects and Research at UCL's School of Library, Archive and Information Studies said: "Our aim is to help people who are trying to trace their family history do just that. Many of the documents out there, once uncovered, reveal very little to the reader because they're just so difficult to read. This online tool should provide those people with an interesting, modern guide to help them decipher old records that often seem mysterious and obscure."

Michelle Hockley, Project Manager, from The National Archives said: "This tutorial is a breakthrough for a wide variety of researchers: family and local historians, archival students, postgraduates - indeed anyone who wants to discover the past through historical documents. Now people will be able to decipher centuries old handwriting in an easy step-by-step interactive tutorial from their own homes."

Until now expertise on old documents hasn't been readily available to the general public - relatively few people teach palaeography (the study of ancient writing) and palaeographers have tended to focus on medieval document translations. The aim of this tutorial is to provide this much needed knowledge to all those in the community who want to access it. The resource also gives access to on-line copies of original records in The National Archives.

Images of old documents including a letter dated 16 March 1554 from Elizabeth I, as princess, to her sister Queen Mary I can be accessed (see notes for editors for links). After hints, tips and some background to the document is given, the reader is encouraged to have a go at transcribing it and can even get scored on their efforts. There are lots of interesting facts to uncover - at the time of writing that particular letter, Elizabeth was under house arrest, on suspicion of treason, having been implicated in the abortive rebellion of Thomas Wyatt.

Manuscripts and records on everything from literature, law, art and architecture are available on this site and historical information can be accessed about the types of handwriting in use at the time. In the case of the Elizabeth letter, the style of handwriting is called italic, a style developed in Italy during the Renaissance period. Elizabeth 's use of it would have shown how modern and educated she was.

Another document shows an extract from an Exchequer roll of the 'Treasury of Receipt' dated 1507 which records the first payment to 'John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter' who played regularly at the courts of Henry VII and later Henry VIII. A handwriting game can be played and there is even an ancient recipe for mince pies.

Notes for Editors

  1. Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500-1800 - A practical online tutorial was developed by The National Archives (TNA) in collaboration with UCL's School of Library , Archive and Information Studies (SLAIS).
  2. Lifelong Learning Online Tutorials in Palaeography can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/
  3. Letter dated 16 March 1554 from Elizabeth I can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/doc1/default.htm#context
    The handwriting game can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/game/default.htm
    An ancient recipe for mince pies can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/doc15/about.htm
  4. John Blanke recorded in the Exchequer roll can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/doc11/about.htm
  5. UCL's School of Library, Archive and Information S tudies can be found at: http://www.slais.ucl.ac.uk
  6. The 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses can be accessed at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/census
  7. For more information, to arrange interviews or attend the launch event please contact Alex Brew in the UCL Media Relations Office on 0207 679 9726 or 07747 565056 a.brew@ucl.ac.uk