Great Britain Historical Geographical Information System (GBHGIS)


The earliest part of the project's data holdings are trade union unemployment statistics computerised by Humphrey Southall for his doctoral research into the origins of Britain's north-south divide in the late 1970s.

In 1989, the Leverhulme Trust funded a two-year project employing Dr. David Gilbert. This created a Labour Markets Database, greatly extending our holdings of early unemployment, poor law and small debt statistics, and starting work on census data. This project also explored user-friendly on-line mapping, pre-web (see D.M. Gilbert and H.R.Southall, "Data Glasnost: a user-friendly system for access to research databases across wide-area networks", History and ComputingVol.3 (1991).

In 1993, Southall and Gilbert decided they needed a more conventional computer mapping system to make sense of all these data, and got the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to fund a new one year, one person project to map Registration Districts and Poor Law Unions. Despite its modest scale. this new project was entirely about boundary mapping, not historical statistics, and meant we could employ a researcher with GIS training -- Ian Gregory.

Meanwhile, the combination of a series of small grants for data entry and contributions from collaborators were steadily expanding our data holdings, and in 1996 the Labour Markets Database (LMDB) was re-named the Great Britain Historical GIS. That year we also created our first web site.

A patchwork of small grants meant that by 1997 the project had grown to five staff. In 1998, a major new ESRC grant gave us longer-term funding focused on historical census reports, and supported a program of statistical data entry at the Queens' University, Belfast. The team in Belfast established themselves as the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis, and continued computerising statistics for us up September 2003.

At the start of 2000, Humphrey Southall and the project moved from London to the University of Portsmouth, with existing substantial funding from the ESRC and the Wellcome Trust. A major activity over the next 18 months was an application for funding from the UK National Lottery. This led to a grant eventually worth £3/4m., funding a three year project to create the Vision of Britain web site.

The web site required a new and much more tightly integrated architecture for the underlying collection of information. Although that new system is maybe more of a database than a GIS, it is the geographical information in it which makes it unique -- so we now call the whole system the "Great Britain Historical GIS", not just the collection of digital boundaries.

Since the launch of the Vision of Britain website in late 2004 the information contained within it has continued to be extended.  Much has been done to improve the underlying data consistency and add further content.  In 2006-8 the European Union FP6 programme funded a collaboration with 6 international partners and part of the outcome was the creation of a new underlying structure to hold the data within.  The JISC funding following on from that enabled a complete re-vamp of the website including new Parliamentary boundaries and election results, a large body of scanned map images and a new map library interface launched in 2009.