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    Sun Fire Insurance plaque

    ​Sun Fire Insurance plaque

Useful tips from London Metropolitan Archives staff to help you get the most out of our resources.

LMA’s online catalogue – how to use Advanced Search – an example 

The Place in the Sun project, a volunteer project to index the enormous series of Sun Insurance Office fire policy registers, is our longest running volunteer project, and a source of hundreds of thousands of index entries in our online catalogue. Historian Derek Morris is one of our volunteers and makes great use of the index in his own research. Here he explores the index and shares the secrets of Advanced Search on LMA’s online catalogue.

A million names online

The vast extent of the Sun Insurance Office fire insurance policies which fill 1,262 thick volumes, covering 1710 to 1863 (CLC/B/192/F/001/MS 11936), have been opened up to local and family historians since 2003 by the creation of an online index. Before 1794 the index covers the whole country. After 1794 the index is mainly for policies taken out in London and the Home Counties.

At October 2018 the index covers 1781 to 1841 and has put over 350,000 policies online, and every few months a new batch of policies is uploaded to the LMA's collection catalogue as the team of volunteer indexers work back from 1781 towards 1710, and more slowly forward to 1863. As we index every name there are at least a million names online.

Robin Pearson in 'Insuring the Industrial Revolution' (2004) wrote “It is safe to say that by the middle of the eighteenth century fire insurance in the capital reached well beyond the homes of the upper and middle classes”. It is now realised that even in the poorest areas of London people took out insurance. Insurance was not confined to the wealthy, and it is found that even labourers insured property.

The main point to be made is that, no matter how poor you think your forebears were, it is still possible that they can be found in the online index to the Sun Insurance Office policies. It is important to understand that a wealthy property owner in say the West End might insure dozens of properties in the East End or Hillingdon, and the policy might provide the names of all the occupiers and their trades so that even poor people get indexed. The large estate in Shadwell of Mary Bowes, a forebear of the Queen Mother, was insured in the 1790s by her executors and is a good example.

Searching insurance policies

To search for an individual or a place you can enter their name or the location in Simple Search. If you add the word 'insured' to your search you should only return results from the indexed Sun Insurance Office policy registers. Relevant results will all have the reference code starting CLC/B/192. Depending on the name, you may find that you get lots of returns, however, it is always better to narrow down your search if you get too many results. 

It is possible to use Advanced Search for more sophisticated searches, for example, you can limit your search to find people living in one part of London who were insuring property elsewhere (say, an inhabitant of Wapping, who insured property in Deptford).

This is a three step process.

Step one

To find who, living in one place, insured property, stock or ships in another place, go to the LMA catalogue, select More Search Options and scroll down to Advanced Search.

In the Title box add the place for which the policy was taken out, along with the word 'insured'

In the Scope box add the place for which you are wishing to find a link. 

On 2 November 2018 I found:

  • Three policies taken out in Wapping and referring to Deptford
  • One policy taken out in Deptford and referring to Wapping
  • Seven policies taken out in Whitechapel and referring to Southwark
  • Three policies taken out in Southwark and referring to Whitechapel
  • No policies taken out in Colchester and referring to Ipswich
  • One policy taken out in Ipswich and referring to Colchester

Step two

Once the Advanced Search is complete it is necessary to look at each policy online and eliminate those entries where the search engine could not distinguish between a place and a surname. Examples include a Benjamin Colchester, a tallow chandler who lived in Ipswich, George Kent, who lived in Stepney, and James Garrard, a victualler in Colchester, who insured the Ipswich Arms Inn in London.

A recent paper that uses this search technique to explore links between parishes on the north bank of the Thames, and those on the south bank was published in November 2018: D. Morris and K. Cozens, 'The Thames as a Barrier in the Eighteenth Century', Local Population Studies, 101, (2018), XX-YY.

Step three

The online index to the Sun insurance policies does not include:

  • Additions and alterations, which might include the names of other family members, mortgagees, etc.
  • Insurance values and premiums
  • Household goods, clothing, plate, etc.
  • Steam engines
  • Building construction and size

These details can be found in individual policies though they tend to be brief. You can see the full entry in the policy register by visiting LMA to consult the original volumes or contacting the enquiry service at LMA Enquires to request a copy. 

Further information can be found in LMA Research Guide 48, Fire Insurance Records.

Further reading

  • D. Barnett, London, Hub of the Industrial Revolution; A Revisionary History, 1775-1825 (1998) 
  • H. A. L. Cockerell and E. Green, The British insurance business, 1547-1970; an introduction and guide to historical records in the United Kingdom (1976)
  • P. G. M. Dickson, The Sun Insurance Office, 1710-1960 (1960)
  • A. Evans, Local and Family History from Fire Insurance policies for the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Vol. 1 (2001)
  • D. T. Hawkings, Fire Insurance Records for Family and Local Histories, 1696 to 1920 (2003)
  • D. Morris, 'Labourers and Insurance', Cockney Ancestor, The East of London Family
    History Society, No. 133, (Winter 2011) pp. 10-11
  • D. Morris and K. Cozens, 'Huguenots and Housing: Insurance and Land Tax 1740-1840', Huguenot Families, The Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 18, (June 2008) 
  • R. Pearson, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: fire insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850 (2004)  

Making the most of your visit to LMA

We are always pleased to welcome people to LMA and we would like you to make the most of your visit here.

Before your visit

  • You can check our opening hours and pre-register for a history card
  • Look in the LMA Collections catalogue for relevant records
  • Don’t forget our research guides which are on our catalogue
  • If you’re not sure whether we have what you need, or want a bit of help with the catalogue, then email LMA Enquires
  • Pre-order items if you have a history card already or ask about restricted access records or material stored offsite well in advance of your visit.

When to come

  • We are open until 7.30pm on Wednesday evenings and last productions are at 6.40pm which gives you more time to find that key document!
  • We are usually quiet at 9.30am when we open so if you can get to us then, you’ll be ahead of the crowd
  • We are open one Saturday a month (except in November); the second Saturday of each month. Saturdays are very good for family history as our volunteers can spend up to 45 minutes helping solve your queries
  • Check out our events listing on Eventbrite to see if there is a talk or workshop which interests you

Make the most of your visit

  • Ask staff if they can recommend any other sources
  • Buy a photo pass or commission photography of the items you have found
  • Have a look at our exhibition
  • We have lots of library books and journals which are relevant to our archival holdings – what is on display in our Information Area is only a small part. Please ask staff about relevant books
  • Ask about maps!
  • Use our Mediatheque for images, films, oral histories and digital sources such as Mapping the Metropolis and Layers of London
  • You are welcome to bring sandwiches to eat in our visitors’ lounge (and do look at the noticeboard while you’re there) or there are lots of sandwich shops and cafes within a few minutes’ walk.

Help deciphering old handwriting

For tips on deciphering all kinds of documents, book a place on one of the workshops at LMA on reading old handwriting. We now offer workshops at three levels - beginners, intermediate, and advanced. Using copy documents from LMA’s collections these practical sessions will give expert help and individual assistance in reading different types of handwriting.

It is important that you select a workshop at the right level for you. For the intermediate and advanced level workshops, some experience of reading historical documents is required. If you need further advice, please email the LMA enquires.

Beginners: this practical session gives expert help in reading different types of handwriting from the 18th to early 20th centuries. You will practise with copy documents from LMA's collections and get tips for deciphering historical writing. No previous experience is necessary.

Intermediate: this practical session gives expert help in reading different types of handwriting from the 16th and 17th centuries. You will practise with copy documents from LMA's collections and get tips for deciphering early historical writing. Some experience of reading historical documents from this period is required.

Advanced: this practical session gives expert help in reading different types of handwriting from the 15th and 16th centuries. You will practise with copy documents from LMA's collections and get tips for deciphering early historical writing. Some experience of reading historical documents from this period is essential.

Sessions cost £8, and booking is essential. To find out the next dates, please visit our page on Eventbrite.

If you cannot visit LMA, The National Archives have a good online palaeography tutorial which covers 16th-18th century handwriting. Some other UK record offices and local studies libraries also run sessions on reading old handwriting so it’s worth checking out what’s on offer close to where you live.

Access to digitised items

Did you know that a selection of digitised and digital items can now be accessed via a terminal located in the LMA Information Area? These include oral history interviews, key City of London manuscripts such as Liber Horn which are not yet available on the online LMA Collections Catalogue, medical images from hospital collections such as Normansfield Hospital, and some of our visual material and large sets of digitised images from organisations such as Thames Water predecessors which are not suitable for online access. They currently comprise:

  • Thames Water Predecessors, Abbey Mills pumping station, 'works as executed' books, 1857-1971 (ref. ACC/2558/LL/02/001-153)
  • City of London Letter Book A, 1275-1298 (COL/AD/01/001)
  • City of London Liber Horn, 1311 (COL/CS/01/002)
  • City of London Cartae Antique, 1327-1495 (COL/CS/01/007)
  • Normansfield Hospital – photographs and glass negatives, early 20th century (H29/NF/PH/19/002-005)
  • Joyce Green Hospital – glass plate negatives and stereoscopic photographs, early 20th century (H48/PH/02-04)
  • Footprints of the Dragon - unedited oral history interviews, transcriptions and project photographs (LMA/4513/02/02)
  • Speak Out unedited oral history interviews (named by interviewee; no reference numbers)

Other items have been digitised but need to be uploaded onto the terminal for public consultation. If the catalogue says ‘Digital copies available by appointment only then email the LMA enquiries and wait for an email of confirmation (usually within 5 working days) before visiting LMA.

Also available in our Mediatheque within the Information Area is Collage Researcher which visitors can use to perform searches across some of our visual material (prints, maps, photographs etc) including many items which are not rights cleared and therefore cannot be made available online in the web version of Collage – The London Picture Archive (see below). It is available to on site visitors to LMA as part of our commitment to provide digital surrogate access to material which minimises its handling and aids its long-term preservation. At September 2019 it provides access to a further 30,000 images, with more to come in the future.

Digitised items online

An increasing number of digital copies of documents comprising many thousands of images are available online on the LMA Collections Catalogue and are accessible via a dedicated search feature. In 2017, in connection with the 950th anniversary of record keeping in the City of London, 950 ‘Digital Documents’ (around 12,000 digital images) were made available via the LMA catalogue including the 950 year old William Charter which started it all. Material is being added all the time.

Digital copies of some of our most popular collections are available to view on other websites including Collage – The London Picture Archive containing over 250,000 prints, photos, drawings, maps and film clips from our collections. A list of digital documents on other websites is available here.

Many of our most popular family history records have of course been digitised by Ancestry and are available to view for free at LMA.

Saturday volunteers at LMA

Did you know that on LMA’s open Saturdays our experienced family history volunteers are here to help?

Our volunteers can offer a 45-minute consultation to help get you on the right track at LMA; showing you how to use and get the best out of LMA sources for family history research. They will do their best to help if you have got stuck with your London ancestors and need some new ideas to get your research going again.

We don’t usually take bookings for these consultations - just turn up on our open Saturdays. If you are coming some distance then do get in touch in advance. We are usually open all day on the second Saturday of every month (except November). You can check when we're open on our opening times page.

Before you come to visit us for the first time, why not read our family history webpage with links to our collection research guides?

Please bear in mind that our volunteers may not be able to solve your genealogy conundrums, but will give you some ideas to explore. If you need lots of general family history support, do consider joining a family history society or paying for professional genealogical advice. If you want to keep up to date with UK-wide family history, take a look at the Society of Genealogist’s online monthly newsletter which also contains top tips for researching your ancestors.

If you are an experienced family history researcher, you may find a consultation less helpful than somebody who is just starting out.

Our volunteers enjoy the challenges of helping people with their family history stories and as part of the LMA volunteer experience we have an annual celebration day as well as occasional extra treats such as visits and events.

If you are an experienced family historian who knows LMA’s genealogical sources and would enjoy helping people find their London ancestors, please email LMA enquires for further details.

Social Media @LondonMetropolitanArchives

Social Media @LondonMetropolitanArchives

In LMA’s collections there are over 100km of shelving filled with archives that document centuries of London history and we want to share - letting you know what we have and how you can gain access. Furthermore, we want you to know about the fantastic work our staff do, news and updates about our service (and any changes to it) including information on the many events and exhibitions we run that might be of interest. 

How do we share? Well, in addition to our mailing lists and website we post content on social media networks - Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Each provide a different and informal way for our audience to engage with the documents, photographs, maps, prints, film and audio we hold. Equally, it provides an opportunity to start a conversation either with us or others interested in our collections.

LMA groups and clubs

To get more out of LMA, why not come along to a group or club? LMA runs several groups and clubs where the participants gather together to socialise and share common interests. They’re also an opportunity to look at LMA’s remarkable collections from a different perspective, perhaps exploring a personal connection, or getting a completely new viewpoint. Everyone is welcome, the groups are informal and, although held regularly, there’s no commitment to attend. The staff involved introduce their groups:

LGBTQ+ History Club

LGBTQ+ History Club is a regular monthly meeting to explore lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual and queer histories. The programme varies from everything to informal documents viewings, formal presentations, to mince pies and poetry at Christmas. Planned topics include King Cross Stories, New Collections at LMA and Xena the Warrior Princess!

We meet on the first Wednesday of the month at LMA in the Huntley Room 6-7:30 pm. Keep up to date with the full programme on the LMA LGBTQ+ Facebook page.

LMA Book Group

LMA’s Book Group meets once a month to discuss a particular title, with a display of documents that can help set the scene or draw out some of the themes of the work. We concentrate on fiction with occasional forays into non-fiction and diaries and so far have read works from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries.

The group is informal, there’s no commitment to attend, and guests are welcome even if you haven’t read the title in question, though in such cases we can’t guarantee not to spoil the plot.

We meet in the Huntley Room on the first floor at LMA 6-7pm, usually on the second Wednesday of the month. Dates and details of upcoming reads can be found on the LMA book group page and are listed on LMA’s Eventbrite pages. Events are also listed on the LMA Facebook page where readers (even remote ones!) are encouraged to post their thoughts.

Claire Titley - Information Officer

Film and Photography in the Archive Group

LMA is home to remarkable collections of photographs and films. These collections document the history of London and Londoners with immediacy and detail. Film and Photography in the Archive Group meets three times a year to display and discuss these collections and showcase the work of contemporary photographic and film artists.

To find out details of the next meeting, keep an eye on LMA’s Eventbrite pages for further dates and details.

Tom Furber - Development Officer

Document handling

Document handling sessions

Those consulting original documents need all sorts of skills to access the information they contain. In previous Top Tips we've mentioned deciphering handwriting and the sessions LMA runs to help you do this, but did you know that we also hold sessions on handling documents?

One of the major causes of the degradation of documents is inappropriate handling so making sure that unique and irreplaceable items are handled properly is essential to ensure that they are preserved for the future. If you struggle when faced with a recalcitrant roll, a devilish deed or a massive map, or wonder how best to turn the pages of a tightly bound tome, then these sessions are for you.

The practical and interactive sessions aim to help you to handle archival items in the most appropriate way. As well as demonstrating how to handle various archival formats, a conservator will also explain the dos and don'ts that apply in the Archive Study Area (ASA). If you have any questions about handling specific formats or particular problems you have encountered, the conservator will help with that too.

Sessions are held regularly on the second Wednesday of each month at 1pm and last an hour. The sessions are free, but you will need to book on Eventbrite to be assured of a place.

Onsite staff help and guidance

LMA's visitor regulations state that visitors to the ASA are required to handle material with care in accordance with LMA's Handling Guidelines. New users obtaining a History Card for the first time will be asked to read the Guidelines immediately on receipt of the card. Copies of the step by step illustrated Guidelines are available for consultation in the ASA to all users so please ask staff for a copy. ASA staff will help you to handle documents appropriately, and in case of difficult handling issues will call on the duty Conservator to advise. Please take LMA staff advice (staff will intervene if they see items being handled inappropriately) and use the book supports, weights and other aids provided. In the year when LMA celebrates 950 years of London's archives, we need to ensure that our records survive the next millennium!

The LMA collections catalogue - making sense of your search results using Sort

Making sense of your search results using Sort

If you have performed a search within the LMA collections catalogue and have been given a bewildering number of results, you can refine your search to cut down the number of search hits. Look at our previous Top Tip on Search Filters to get you started. However, you can also sort your results so those most likely to be useful will appear first.

If after applying filters or otherwise narrowing your search, you still have a lot of hits, you can sort your hits in one of four ways. The default order in which the catalogue displays your results is by 'relevance'. This means it puts at the top all instances of your search term which appear in the main descriptive fields such as 'title' or 'scope', followed by instances of the term in other fields. You can change the order of your results by selecting one of the following options which appear along the top of your display of results:

Sort by reference code

This will display all results from an individual collection together, as the reference codes of all your hits will display in alpha-numeric order (the prefix of every record’s reference code corresponding to the unique reference code of the collection to which it belongs). This sort is useful if you are looking for results within a specific collection or collections.

Sort by title

This will display the titles of all your search hits in alphabetical order. This sort is useful if you are looking for a specific type of record, as all records with the title 'minute book' will be displayed together, as will all records with the title 'account book' etc.

Sort by date

This will display your results in date order. However, this type of sort needs to be used with care, as LMA's date descriptions, as mentioned above, are still in several different formats. This can skew your results, as the sort is performed over data at the beginning of the field. For example all instances of dates beginning 1975 will display together, but dates beginning 28 Mar 1763, 28 Mar 1764, 28 Mar 1865 will also display together, and all dates beginning 'circa' will also display together. LMA's house style is to catalogue dates with the four digit year first, followed by a three letter month and a two digit day, to allow easy searching and sorting of date fields. Unfortunately many records catalogued in previous years and decades are not in that format and it is these that will cause problems with a date sort. We are gradually changing all our dates into the house style, but until then beware of using a date sort on your search results.

Sort by relevance

As mentioned above this is the default order in which your results will display. If you have applied a reference code, title or date sort to your results and wish to return to the default order, you can do this by selecting 'sort by relevance'.

The LMA collections catalogue - filtering search results

Making sense of your search results using Filter

If you have performed a search within the LMA collections catalogue and have been given a bewildering number of results, you can refine your search to cut down the number of search hits.

When the catalogue displays a list of search results it also gives the option to apply a filter. You will find the filter options down the right hand side of your display of search results. There are three filters to choose from:

Filter by Level

This allows you to narrow your search to only those records which you can request to view in the ASA, or only to Collection (or top) level records. To narrow your search to records which can be requested to view, click next to File level; to narrow your search just to top level records, click next to Collection level. When you have chosen your level, click on the ‘apply filter’ button immediately beneath and your search results will be amended.

Filter by Date

This allows you to narrow your results to a specific century. At present it cannot restrict more specifically than to a century, as LMA's date descriptions are in many different formats which the software is unable to interpret. Click next to the century you require, or if you are looking for pre-17th century records, click on the first option (1000-1600), and then click on 'apply filter' immediately beneath.

Filter by Format

This allows you to narrow your search to a specific type of record, such as photographs, films, maps and plans etc. Filtering by the term 'textual document' will remove all non-textual records such as photographs, films, maps and plans etc from your results. Again, click on your format and then click on 'apply filter'.

Applying multiple filters; changing and removing filters

You can apply more than one of the above filters to your search results at any one time. If you change your mind about one or more of them, click on the ‘remove filter’ button immediately beneath the filter. To remove all filters you will need to click on 'remove filter' for each of the filters you have applied.

The LMA collections catalogue - bookmarks

When you are searching the LMA collections catalogue, bookmarks are a useful way to keep track of items which you may want to use in the future or catalogue entries you may want to refer to again.

To bookmark an item, click on 'Bookmark this item' at the bottom of the screen. Then to view your bookmarks, click on 'My bookmarks' under 'Your account' on the left hand panel on the screen. Once saved, a bookmark will remain on your personal list of bookmarked items until you remove it. Selected items from the list can be exported as a data file or printed out.

Bookmarks are separate from 'My requests' which lists the details of items which you have previously requested to see in the ASA at LMA and allows you to keep track of your current orders.

In both cases, if you click on the item reference you will be taken to the detailed catalogue entry for the item.