One place, many faces

One place, many faces

Dr Janet Few explains the processes and rewards of one-place studies, a growing offshoot of family and local history

Dr Janet Few, a local, family and social historian, author and lecturer

Dr Janet Few

a local, family and social historian, author and lecturer

Family historians normally focus on their own direct ancestors but these people did not live in isolation. They had neighbours and workplaces, they lived in villages with churches, schools, shops and institutions. In order to understand families of the past, they need to be ‘put in their place’ by investigating the localities of which they were a part. One-place studies differ from traditional local histories in that they focus on people, their relationship to their communities and to each other; thus bringing family and local history together, to the benefit of both fields.

A one-place study involves dissecting a small, definable, geographical area, to examine the individuals, buildings and processes of the past in as much detail as possible. These studies are undertaken by individuals, or groups, who have an interest in the history of a particular community, be it a parish, town, hamlet, or even a single street. The website of the Society for One-Place Studies ( provides further information and also lists places that are already being actively researched.

One-place studies
One-place studies involve, among other things, populating a settlement’s houses with the people who lived in them

The dedicated one-place researcher will pounce upon any information concerning their place with the avidity of a bird of prey. One-place studies are not just about indexing documents and collecting data, though. Ultimately they are about using that data to answer questions about a community, its residents and their lives. One-place studies involve reconstructing communities of the past. There are four stages to this process. First, examining the physical space, its terrain and buildings. Once the researcher has a feel for the community and how it may have looked at different points in the past, it is time for the second step, populating the place by looking at all the people who lived there. Many of sources used to do this will be familiar to family historians but for a one-place study, they will be approached in a different way.

The real benefits of a one-place study come when the data is synthesised in order to make connections. There will be connections between people. Here family trees will be created, not just for a single family but for their neighbours as well. Then it is time to make connections between people and places; to decide who lived in a particular dwelling and to create residential histories for each home. People are also connected to institutions. Who joined the congregation of a particular place of worship, worked for a specific business or attended the local school?

Those undertaking a one-place study become an expert on their place. They may choose to examine any one of a number of themes, or indeed examine them all. They might think about the population of the place and how and why this changed over time. What about the occupations in the locality, the businesses, the leisure opportunities? Considering migration into and out from the place is important. Where are new arrivals coming from? Where do those who leave go to? Researchers may attempt to come to conclusions about why these migrations took place. Other possible themes involve studying faith or education in the locality or investigating the community at a particular point in history, for instance during World War One. Comparing the study area with others gives an understanding of how typical a community was. Finally comes disseminating the results of the research, be it in the form of a book, website, exhibition or presentation.

If all this sounds like a great deal of work, that is because it can be. Like mainstream family history, it does become an obsession. Is it worth it? Without question. You can watch your own ancestors come to life as they are set in the context of their community. This intensely personal brand of history is a wonderful way of encouraging others to engage with their heritage. Enjoy investigating and sharing the history of your place, and your perceptions of the past and indeed your own life, may never be the same again.

Explore places further in our local history special issue in December 2013, available

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