Online Primary Sources for Modern British History

The first site a researcher should head to is British History Online, a vast repository of primary and secondary source material, most freely accessible. The Victoria County Histories (165 volumes); The Survey of London (41 volumes); The Calendar of State Papers (ESSENTIAL! 200+ volumes – these are enumerated lists that have such detail – abstracts, summaries, interviews, figures – that recourse to the original documents is in most cases unnecessary); dozens of Parliamentary volumes, and hundreds of other documents. This is an ongoing project that gets larger every week.

Clergy of the Church of England Database was culled from over 50 archives and traces clerical careers from 1540-1835. It contains information about patrons, ordination, parishes, appointments, education, etc.

Cobbett’s Parliamentary History covers Parliament from 1066 to 1803 and includes proceedings, key debates, figures, political reforms and protests. (A secondary source worth mentioning is the History of Parliament Online: 21,000+ biographies between 1386 and 1832; histories of parliaments, overviews of topics, and listings of constituencies.) The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution 1625-1660 includes the Civil War and the Long Parliament. Early Stuart Libels – 17th century political poetry, also includes anti-libels.  Hansard Digitization Project provides the official record of all Parliamentary debates from 1803 to 2005. Over three million pages are available. There are several search features.

History of the United Kingdom: Primary Documents ranging from antiquity to the present.

HISTPOP: Online Historical Population Reports contains census reports from 1801-1937 for England and Ireland.

Internet Library of Early Journals  features six journals: three from the 18th century and three from the 19th.

Irish History Online contains over 74,000 citations.

London Lives 1690-1800. Over 3 million people are contained in this database. Obviously many are just minimally documented, but others more substantially so. Accompanied by many scholarly articles commissioned for the site.

Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. Proceedings of almost 200,000 criminal trials.

Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 from 1235 until the 1707 Union.

Victorian Dictionary: Exploring Victorian London uses contemporary sources to explain various topics. Victorian Web covers all things Victorian with links to source documents as well as present-day books in full text.

British Diplomatic Oral History Programme contains dozens of interviews of foreign service officers. Cabinet Papers, 1915-1982 provide copious texts from the UK Cabinet. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation provides free access to thousands of documents. Selected Speeches of Winston Churchill is just that.

Great Britain Foreign Office produced various reports, papers and correspondence from the early 19th century through 1922 and a substantial open collection of its British and Foreign State Papers is available  as well through 1922.  Also, look at its Historical Section that wrote dozens of country reports and topical assessments to assist the UK delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.


[London] Gazette. The newspaper of record in England; it has been published for over 300 years. The military term “gazetted” comes from being mentioned in this paper and was a sign of honor. Also, “mentioned in dispatches” comes from having your name put forward by a superior in recounting a military exploit in which you were prominently featured. Tens of thousands of issues can be searched. Naval Chronicle. While not truly a newspaper, from 1799 to 1819 it was the place to find out about the British navy and its actions. It obviously covers the Napoleonic Era. Read biographies and first-hand accounts of every incident the navy was involved in. Bound into forty volumes. Spectator was a famous newspaper from 1711-1712; its 500+ issues were bound into eight volumes which were then corrected and re-published in a ten volume edition. Another Spectator, probably named after the first title, started appearing on a weekly basis in 1828 and is still being published today. Tatler ran from 1709-1710. and its 200+ issues were also bound into a set. Scattered runs of the Illustrated London News the first weekly of its kind are available, the volumes range from 1849-1919. Going further afield, dozens of New Zealand newspapers from 1839-1945 are available at Papers Past. Its Australian counterpart – Trove – features more than one hundred newspapers from 1803-1988. For an Irish perspective, see The Dublin University magazine, a literary and political journal (1833-1880). The Annual Register is a great source because it not only presents contemporary reviews of history, politics, and literature, it also contains valuable data and translated (where necessary) primary sources.


Broadside ballads were songs printed on one side of a piece of paper and dealt with current concerns of the time as well as recounting tales of old. These delicate works provide insight into what was considered important back in the day. Look at this blog entry for more information: Britsh Broadside Ballads.

Pamphlets run the gamut from legal to religious to political. Some were printed for Parliament, others for Oliver Cromwell; all of them offer unique insights into the times. More than 20,000 are housed at 17th-19th Century British Religious, Political, and Legal Tracts.


The Selden Society is dedicated to publishing original source materials on English law; the volumes span the centuries. One can read Select Pleas in Manorial and Other Seignorial Courts (Reigns of Henry III and Edward I) or Public Works in Mediaeval Law. Other online volumes (about forty in all) are available here. A comprehensive list of all the Society’s publications is available. Another good place to look is the British Legal and Governmental Documents containing English translations of older sources. And do not forget the English Law section of the wonderful Internet History Sourcebook. On the Laws and Customs of England (aka Bracton) is a rationalized explanation of the English legal system as seen through 13th century eyes; it is considered a milestone in English law.


The term “manuscripts” here refers to handwritten, unpublished documents, many of them being collections of family histories, letters, and the like. These form valuable material for researchers but were at times hard to find or access. To remedy this situation, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts was created by royal warrant in 1869 to both locate and describe these repositories. Until its dissolution in 2003, the Commission issued over two hundred “reports“, detailed inventories of the great baronial houses in the UK. Each volume provides a great deal of important information: discussing the content of the manuscript collection, offering a history of the contents, as well as issuing calendars of all the documents and printing selected writings full text. It took the handwritten documents and converted them into printable works, a remarkable achievement. Many of the Commission volumes can be accessed here by their title; other report series are here, too. There is a limited guide to the series, essentially to parts of the first nine reports: Guide to sources of English history from 1603 to 1660 in Reports of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1952).

One of the most significant manuscript collections in private hands in England is contained at Hatfield House. More than 30,000 documents are available from ambassadorial reports to financial accounts. The shorthand description is the Cecil Papers being as they are the work of William Cecil, Lord Burghley and his son Robert, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, both of whom reached the highest levels of power during reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the early years of James VI. They cover such events as the Tudor plantation of Ireland, the Gunpowder Plot, the Spanish Armada, the loss of the city of Calais to the French, and French interference in Scotland.The papers were calendared by the Royal Historical Manuscripts Commission in a twenty-four volume series entitled: Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Honourable Marquis of Salisbury. This interactive version allows keyword searching of the whole series or individual volumes. This is a required resource when dealing with this time period. Absolutely essential.

For those who would like a flavor of the full documents, the following volumes offer selected full-text material from this vast collection: A collection of state papers, relating to the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, from the year 1542 t0 1570 (1740); and A collection of state papers relating to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, from the year 1571 to 1596….(1759).


 Use HathiTrust which holds over 10 million books, many available for free. Type in “Great Britain History Sources” in the dialog box and retrieve hundreds of primary source materials. You can also search for biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and various other eyewitness accounts. In addition, the Early English Books Online site contains over 25,000 transcribed books that were published in England between 1473 and 1700.


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