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Historical research in London archives


This post was written by Charlie Berry, a doctoral student at the Institute of Historical Research and cross-posted from the History Collections website

As a research student, a lot of my time is spent beavering away in libraries and archives. My thesis topic, neighbourhoods in fifteenth-century London, means that I am fortunate in having most of the material I need all in one city.

The collections available in London libraries and archives are extensive and usually remarkably well-catalogued. Since I mainly work with documentary sources, the majority of my research time is spent either at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell or The National Archives at Kew. The collections at both are vast, covering a broad range of periods and topics, and it’s easy to follow trails through the documents all in the one reading room. I’m also fortunate in that both the LMA and National Archives have printed and manuscript indexes available for a lot of the material I look at, which is invaluable for pinpointing the records I need.

Beyond the large archives, there is an amazing array of diversity in the collections available to researchers in London. My thesis research has also taken me to the Guildhall Library, which mainly houses the records of London’s livery companies. Local Borough archives too offer a wealth of material which is perhaps underused by historians. My local archive in Hackney is a wonderful resource I used during my MA as well as whilst recently taking part in a local history project. That project is itself creating an archive of material at the Bishopsgate Institute Library, which has archival collections specialising in radical history.

There’s such a large amount of material out there in London’s archives, large and small, that there must be a million untouched research topics hiding in the files and folders just waiting to be explored, with friendly archivists there to help you find them! History Day at Senate House is a great opportunity to find out more about the kinds of collections available in London (and beyond).

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Study for a one-year Masters in History at the Institute of Historical Research


senate_house_uolIf you are currently looking to enrol on a Masters course in History which begins this autumn, 2015, whether full or part-time, then the IHR has just the course for you: our Masters in Historical Research.

Taught by acknowledged specialists, taken successfully by recent students, this is an ideal course for learning essential skills required by historians today. These are also skills in the manipulation and analysis of data which are transferable to business and the professions.

Whether you have graduated this summer in History and want to stay on for more, or took a degree some years ago, whether in History or a related subject, the IHR’s Masters in Historical Research may be right for you.



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Master’s programme in Garden & Landscape History


Grotta Grande_Boboli

The Grotto Grande in the Boboli gardens.

We are launching a new Master’s programme in Garden & Landscape History this October here at the Institute of Historical Research. Librarian and lifetime-learner Clare Brown was excited to hear about our new MA and wrote to tell us about her experience of Garden History.

The MA in Renaissance Studies which I started in 2005 was the first serious study I’d done since leaving university in 1995. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about it, yet neither did I want to do anything related to ‘literature’ or traditional ‘art’. The reason I didn’t want to do literature was because my first degree was a joint honours in English and Librarianship. This ruled out Shakespeare and other literary modules. The reason I didn’t want to do ‘art’ was pure contrariness.

I’d made a conscious decision to choose courses in which I had no grounding at all. I wanted nothing conventional. Thankfully, The University of London promotes interdisciplinary study and allows you to connect diverse subjects.

I saw that Italian Renaissance Gardens was offered as the summer term module and immediately signed up. I knew nothing about English gardens or any kind of garden, apart from the fact they are pleasant to sit in when it’s sunny and best to avoid on wet visits to Versailles. So my starting point was open minded ignorance.

Comparing Renaissance Italy and Enlightenment England served to remind me that England was a cultural backwater for most of the early modern period, until travel became wide spread. Everything began in Italy and wealthy English land owners took these fashionable ideas and made them suit the English countryside. Hence the interdisciplinary nature of the study of Garden History: to get a sense of its origins, you have to look to Italian literature, culture, botany. It was in doing this that I came upon the Medici gardens and met the man of my dreams.

The man of my dreams was Francesco I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was a hopeless statesman and worse ruler, but as a science-obsessed melancholic dreamer, he was perfect. After an introduction to him in one of the course lectures, I was hooked. I also had my essay topic. My module course work focused on the Grotto Grande in the Boboli gardens. This necessitated a midweek dash to see it in the flesh, and was the first of many Italian garden visits where I’ve skipped the churches, galleries and academies in favour of curious outdoor mannerist fancies.

I brought together alchemy and natural philosophy as a way of understanding the grotto, which led to my dissertation topic. My title was ‘Pratolino and the transforming influence of natural philosophy’. The topic is PhD worthy in my view so ultimately, I probably didn’t do it justice, but I achieved something to be proud of, and it has informed much of my later work and interest and opened up a fresh way of thinking about places I’ve visited.

Read more from Clare about the Grotto Grande

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Historic Gardens: Research in Action


Ham_House_2007The IHR is delighted to announce  the launch of this new course, which provides an introduction to how archival research findings on historic gardens can contribute to garden restoration, conservation and management. Taught on Tuesday mornings (11.00-13.00), Historic Gardens: Research in Action adopts a case-study approach to the exploration of these relationships through a combination of lectures, seminar-based discussions and site visits.

 Course details

Researching the history of a garden or landscape is an absorbing and exciting activity that draws together documentation, maps, paintings, horticulture and other information to tell the story of the garden’s development and the people involved in its creation. The results will be a well-referenced report that describes chronological design overlays and planting and may identify the garden as of significant historic interest. This short course takes researching a garden’s history a stage further by a consideration of how these findings can contribute to a garden’s restoration, conservation and management. It also provides a practical understanding of the range of methodologies currently employed in the identification, protection and care of historic parks and gardens in the UK.

Examination of these issues is made through case studies chosen as examples of gardens restored to different historic periods and under different types of ownership and management. Visits will be made to the seventeenth-century formal gardens at Ham House (National Trust), the eighteenth-century landscape garden at Painshill Park (Painshill Park Trust), and the early twentieth-century garden of plantsman E. A. Bowles at Myddelton House (Lee Valley Regional Park Authority). Sources of evidence for restoration and plans for garden management will be studied in both classroom sessions and with expert guides during site visits.

See here for full details, and to register

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MA Landscape and Garden History


Wisley_EntranceInterested in gardens as landscapes?  Take a look at the new MA Landscape and Garden History at the IHR.

The course starts this Autumn, running every Thursday (10am-5pm) with the first session on 2 October.  The lecturers are all well-respected academics in their fields and include Brian Dix (archaeology), Paula Henderson (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Sally Jeffery (Italian Renaissance and French seventeenth-century gardens), Michael Symes (eighteenth century), Rebecca Preston (interwar suburban gardens) and Brent Elliott (plant collectors and garden designers) and Barbara Simms who will be teaching American gardens and twentieth- and twenty-first century gardens.

The third term will be devoted to dissertation writing under the supervision of an appropriate academic.

Teaching will be undertaken at the Institute of Historical Research, but with practical sessions at Museums and libraries as well as visits to gardens in and around London including Chiswick House, Garden Museum, Tate Britain, British Museum, Painshill Gardens and Wisley.  There will be an optional overseas visit to Italy for those that wish to take it.    There will be a strong emphasis on tutor/student interaction in class. Visit

You may also be interested in the ‘History of Gardens and Landscapes’ seminar at the IHR, and there’s a handy guide here to the IHR Library’s collections on Garden History here.


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