HSP's Historian and Head of Reference Services Dr. Daniel Rolph recently featured several "hidden gems" from HSP's collections in the International Society for British Genealogy & Family History's latest British Connections newsletter.
All of the items materials discussed below may be found via HSP's online Discover catalog. If you have any questions about getting started researching your family history, contact HSP's Reference team
British author Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1898 his famous poem, “The Explorer,” which contains the appropriate following lines:
“Something hidden. Go and find it.
Go and look behind the Ranges—Something lost behind the Ranges.
Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), located in Philadelphia, is a private organization founded in 1824, whose collection is composed of some 21 million manuscripts, 700,000 books, and over 500,000 graphic items. This massive amount of data also includes hundreds of unique and diverse volumes relative to the history of the British Isles. These collections are currently sitting on the HSP’s “ranges” of shelving, “lost and waiting” for the public or researchers to come and discover. The records, pertaining to their ancestors, are available for consultation either by a personal visit or via the Research-by-Mail service offered by the society.
The above volumes are a treasure trove of resource materials which the family historian may use in order to obtain family and vital record information. The records mare in publications from throughout the entire British Isles, be it England, Wales, Scotland, or Ireland. In some cases these records are online although many are not. Whereas many researchers are forced to visit multiple institutions or pay exorbitant fees via the Internet in order to acquire British records, these volumes are all gathered together at a single repository.
Thus, one may wonder “how, when, and why did The Historical Society of Pennsylvania obtain such a vast amount of British-related publications?” The answer lies to a marked degree with Albert Joseph Edmunds, an English immigrant born at Tottenham, County Middlesex, who came to the United States in 1885. Edmunds eventually served as a cataloguer for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania from 1891 to 1936. Prior to this, Edmunds had been employed as a cataloguer at the Leeds Library in England and had worked as a librarian at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He eventually became a world-renowned scholar of comparative religion and of spiritualism.
During his tenure at HSP, Edmunds succeeded in acquiring numerous volumes relative to the history of his native country, also leaving behind over 36 linear feet of his own papers, diaries, etc. which are housed at HSP.
In this small article, it is impossible to relate in full, the totality, scope, and sheer volume of fascinating data awaiting the would-be researcher. These publications contain a vast amount of local and family history as well as folklore. In addition, there are numerous articles pertaining to nature, art, military, and the early architectural history for almost the entire British Isles.
By making use of this material, the family historian may contextualize much of his or her ancestor’s residence since the volumes are filled with lithographs of landscapes or buildings, illustrations of family tombstones, coats-of-arms, vital records from church registers, obituaries of various individuals found in family sketches, queries, and so on.
One should also visit the general website of the society to view the online catalogue Discover in order to do a basic search. Searches can be done by name, author, title, or place. Note that the British-related volumes have not been digitized. It will require an actual visit by the researcher. If one can’t make a personal visit, the society’s Research-by-Mail service can also be used to acquire the necessary information.
The following is a very brief and randomly selected listing of a small number of volumes found within the British collection. Also, if one would like the full bibliographic citations for anything listed below, I would refer the reader to Discover once again. Remember as well that these are all hard-bound, original volumes, not xeroxes or print-outs.
- The London Gazette | Nov. 1665 to 25 July 1797
- The London Chronicle, Vols. 1–LXXX | Jan. 1757 to Dec. 1796
- Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser | Jan. 1787 to Nov. 1787
- The Reliquary, 1860–1894 | 34 volumes of folktales, armorial crests, genealogies, etc.
- John Morton, The Natural History of Northamptonshire: with Some Account of the Antiquities… (London: R. Knaplock, 1712)
- James Hakewell, History of Windsor and Its Neighbourhood (London: Edmund Lloyd, 1813)
- Calendar of State Papers |186 volumes
- Patent Rolls, 1216–1485 | 47 volumes
- Treasury Books, 1660–1725 | 10 volumes
- Papal Registers, Feudal Aids, all of which are valuable in doing early surname research and distribution
Publications of the Harleian Society
- Various “Visitations” of the Herald’s for the counties of England, with coats-of-arms and family pedigrees, primarily for the 16th–18th centuries, over 120 volumes
- Thomas Dugdale, Curiosities of Great Britain: England & Wales…Historical, Entertaining & Commercial | 8 volumes, including 19th century renderings of buildings, maps, landscapes, etc.
- Francis Grose, Esq., Famous Antiquities of England and Wales | 7 volumes, includes such early lithographs of the famed Stonehenge, descriptions of ruins, dated from the 18th century
- Parliamentary Writs: Medieval to the Modern Era (House of Lords/House of Commons volumes) | State Trials, volumes covering periods from 1495–1741.
- Gazetteer of the British Isles: Statistical and Topographical, ed. John Bartholomew, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1887)
- An Entire and Complete History, Political and Personal, of the Boroughs of Great Britain… (London: B. Crosby, 1794) | 2 volumes
- British Army List, 1763–1850 | These volumes include names, rank, death information, with later volumes giving details relative to battles, various “Regiments-of- Foot” or the Infantry as we would say were involved in throughout the world, during the days of the British Empire.
- Francis Blomefield, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk… | 5 volumes, first printed in 1739, accounts of various manors, rectors, vicars, family histories, back to Medieval times
- William Berry, County Genealogies: Pedigrees of the Families of the County of Kent, 1830 | Berry was the Registering Clerk for the College of Arms in London
- Edward Wedlake Brayley, A Topographical History of Surrey (London: G. Willis, publisher, 1850) | 10 volumes with lithographs of churches, landscape views, ancestral estates, data concerning Medieval to Modern eras)
- Augustine Page, History of Suffolk: A Supplemental to the Suffolk Traveler or Topographical & Genealogical Collections Concerning That County (Ipswich and London, 1844)
- John Collinson, History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset (Bath, 1791) | 3 volumes
- Parish Register of Almondbury (Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Parish Archaeological Section, 1988) | Vol. 3, 1683–1703
- Leeds Parish Registers: Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials: 1695-1722 (Leeds, 1909)
- The East Anglian: Notes & Queries…Counties Suffolk, Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk (London: 1864-1910) | 17 volumes, contains genealogical queries, pedigrees, origin of place-names, family coats-of-arms, etc.
- Shropshire Parish Registers (on various diocese), Shropshire Parish Register Society | Over 48 volumes, covering primarily the 17th–18th centuries
- J. Y. W. Lloyd, The History of the Princes, the Lords Marcher, and the Ancient Nobility of Powys Fadog, and The Ancient Lords of Arwystli, Cedewen, and Meirionydd (London: T. Richards, 1881–1887) | 6 volumes
- Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory: 1829–1833 | 5 volumes
- Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1864–1962 | 115 volumes
- Bye-Gones, 1880–1896
- Parish Register Society of Dublin, with miscellaneous registers such as: Church of St. Michan: 1685–1686; Church of St. Peter & St. Kevin: 1669–1761, etc.
- Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland (Dublin: 1881–1931) | containing articles relative to church records, gravestone inscriptions, etc.
- Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series, 1906–1974 | Volumes 12 to 80
- Ordnance Survey Letters: Letters Containing Information Relative to the Antiquities of the Counties of Armagh- Wexford, of the Ordnance Survey in 1835 (Reproduced under the direction of Rev. Michael O’Flanagan; Bray, 1927-1933) | 34 volumes, gives data concerning myths, local history of various towns, parishes, etc.
- Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow: 1573-1833 (published from 1870–1916) | 14 volumes
- Walter MacFarlane and James Toshach Clark, Genealogical Collections Concerning Families in Scotland: 1750–1751, (Edinburgh: Univ. Press, 1900), ed. from the original manuscripts | 2 volumes
- W. Innes Addison, Roll of Graduates of the University of Glasgow, 1717–1897 (Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 1898)
- James Patterson, History of the County of Ayr: With a Genealogical Account of the Families of Ayrshire, (Edinburgh: 1847) | 2 volumes
Though Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, and other online sites for British Isles research are indeed helpful, hands-on research is still highly productive in the digital age.
Working here at the society for over 31 years, I actually researched my own Rolfe/Rolph family coat-of-arms, which enabled me to discover that I had more material obtained from within our British collection upon the subject than was available through the College of Arms in London!
Doing British research at HSP can be a rewarding experience. It definitely should be consulted prior to spending time or money at expensive online sites, or before hiring private researchers within the British Isles.
Born and raised in Kentucky (10th generation), Dr. Daniel Rolph has been researching his own family lines for some 50 years, primarily out of the British Isles and specifically his Rolph/Rolfe line back to 16th century England. Dr. Rolph is the Historian and Head of Reference Services at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a position he has held for 31 years. Dr. Rolph authors two blogs for HSP: Hidden Histories and History Hits.