Posted by Ancestry Team on June 20, 2014 in Collections


Newly digitised, navigable atlas collection details 500 years of British history:   

  • Victorian atlas reveals the shifting shape of Britain’s landscape over the last 500 years
  • Collection of 57 maps shows England’s lost counties such as Westmorland and Huntingdonshire 
  • Parish borders reminiscent of time when people associated more with their church than town hall

A historic atlas of Great Britain has today been published online for the first time, offering a unique view of England, Scotland and Wales over the last 500 years.

Digitised by, the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, contains 57 separate county maps, which show how Britain’s ancient parish and county boundaries have changed shape over the centuries.  Navigable online, the Atlas lets users scroll over whole counties and zoom in and out to identify local parish towns and churches.

The maps, digitised from original documents held by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies give an insight into how England’s historical county maps remained unchanged for centuries, before many of the ancient counties were split up to make more governable areas.

PhillmoreMapsAlthough it doesn’t exist as a county today, Middlesex is shown as it was in the 19th century, occupying large swathes of London such as Islington and Chelsea (and London itself is as a much smaller settlement barely more than one mile wide, recognisable only by a map marking of St. Paul’s Cathedral). The Home Counties also feature in their original form before the London Government Act 1965 saw the creation of Greater London, with Essex and Surrey’s original boundaries shown in the maps.

Other counties that appear in the atlas but no longer exist today include Westmorland (now part of Cumbria), and Huntingdonshire, which became a part of Cambridgeshire following a Government Act in 1971. Lancashire is also shown here in its original form, comprising modern day Manchester and Liverpool as well as parts of Cumbria and Cheshire. It was subsequently reorganised and downsized, losing nearly a third of its area in the process.[i]

Before Britain’s population grew over the centuries and regional administration became more sophisticated, people often identified more with their local parish when considering where they came from, but over time these parish borders changed to such an extent that it is almost impossible to determine the exact location of parishes and their records using modern maps.

The Phillimore Atlas is thus an authoritative guide to the drastic changes in Britain’s county and parish borders over the last 500 years and a valuable way of adding geographical context to family history research.

The maps were the brainchild of Cecil Humphery-Smith, a genealogist and heraldist who founded the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, based in Canterbury, which promotes family history both through courses and its extensive library.

At, the records can be searched and browsed by county, and offer a colour-coded and easily navigable view of every area of the country. Furthermore, users searching the website’s Lancashire Parish records as well as the 1851 Censuses and Free Birth, Marriage and Death Index will find that every record in these collections links to a relevant map.

In addition, almost eight million new records have been added to the Lancashire Parish records currently available on the site.



Miriam Silverman, Senior Content Manager: “The borders of the UK parishes and counties have changed so much over the last 500 years and that really makes these maps the key to navigating the past and progressing with your family history journey.”


2 Figure gained by comparing the size of Lancashire before and after its reorganisation in 1974 in the Local Government Act. Before the Act, the 1961 Census County Report states that Lancashire’s area was 1,201,849 acres (1,877 sq. miles). Today – according to ONS’s UK Standard Area Measurement – the area of the county is 1,189 sq.miles (a 36 per cent drop)

1 Comment

  1. Ruth Phair Mason

    I was struggling to find a good map of Westmorland where many generations of my ancestors lived so I could show my elderly mother where her dad and other relatives were born. The map in this collection is perfect. Thank you!

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