Lacey Bonar is a PhD Student studying medieval Europe.She was awarded a WVU Humanities Grant to intern with the Layers of London Project during the summer of 2017.
I spent the summer of 2017 working as an intern for the Layers of London project housed in the Institute of Historical Research in Bloomsbury, London. I received a Summer Humanities Internship Fellowship through Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at WVU, which allowed me to live in London for 7 weeks. I spent the majority Senate House in Bloomsbury, London of my days at Senate House working on this project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund while it was still in its early stages.
As a PhD student from the United States, I could not have asked for a better summer internship opportunity. While my research is primarily on medieval women, I also study public and digital history and I have a passion for helping others engage with history on a more personal level.
The Layers of London project helps people to do exactly that. The Layers of London website contains multiple map overlays that let users engage with the “layers” of the city’s past. This map, below, shows the city in 1682. Website visitors can zoom and scroll with this map, exploring the city’s layout and landmarks that were featured on this map over 300 years ago. Website visitors can click the blue location pins that other users have uploaded to learn more about the history behind particular places or people. If a visitor has something of their own to share, they can easily create a pin and upload their own historical information or memory.
The layer of the Morgan Map of 1682
Layers of London also encourages people to engage with history on a personal level. If anyone has a story that they want to tell concerning the larger London area, they can upload a pin to the website and share their story with the world. In my capacity as an intern, I met with community partners, interested groups, and school employees to help explain the ways in which they could use the project’s website to fit their own purposes. Student could upload information about their schools, nursing home residents could upload photographs or memories, or an amateur historian could upload a pin for a particular event or person related to a geographical location in the city. The possibilities are endless.
A pin that a user made for a school in their area
My biggest personal contribution to the Layers of London project came from the 6 weeks I spent uploading building plans for the London borough of Bexley. I traveled to the Bexley Local Studies and Archives Centre in Bexleyheath where these records are housed. I met with archivist Simon McKeon to gather information on the records themselves and to get a sense of the general history of Sidcup and Footscray, the areas where most of these building sites were located.
Some of the building plan pins I uploaded for Bexley
I left the archives armed with a few CD-roms containing digitized records of a wide variety of building plans ranging in date from 1900-1934. All of these plans had been submitted to local councils for approval prior to construction, leaving a detailed record of proposed construction for future generations. Some of these buildings were constructed and still stand, others have since been torn down, and others still were rejected by the council before they could be built. Most of these building plans were for the construction of personal homes, but some plans were submitted for public buildings including schools, hospitals, and churches. This collection also included proposals for major alterations to pre-existing structures such as the installation of drainage systems and the reconfiguration of floor plans.
I set out to plot these building proposals throughout the areas of Sidcup and Foots Cray on the Layers of London website. As an American on her very first trip to England, I had limited geographical knowledge of this particular area. Some building plans contained house numbers or hand drawn maps showing the precise location of the proposed building, but others were more difficult to pin down geographically. Determining the sites of these locations was a fun challenge. I borrowed some local history books, area guides, and period directories from the Bexley Local Studies and Archives Centre which I used to piece together enough information to properly locate these “mystery properties.” I felt like a detective searching for clues and digging through information to find the proper location for garages, shops, and bungalows.
I began to get a real sense of the Sidcup and Foots Cray communities through this work. Some of the community buildings and larger personal properties were detailed in the local histories and guides due to their significance to the area, which allowed me to include information in these particular pins that enhanced the information found on the building plans. Many of these community buildings have since been demolished, but a few remain, including a pub called the Seven Stars, which is over 500 years old and still operates in its original building on Foots Cray High Street. The Bexley Archives holds this photo, below, of the Seven Stars undergoing construction in 1912.
Using Google’s Street View, I was able to “walk” Foots Cray High Street and see the Seven Stars today. This is one of the many appealing aspects of the Layers of London project. Anyone can access the website from anywhere with Internet access, and users can compare the website’s pins with the modern-day communities in which the pins are situated. This adds another layer of history that provides the website’s users with endless hours of historical entertainment.
The Seven Stars on Google Street View
Interning with the Layers of London project was an amazing opportunity. I was able to work on a wide variety of initiatives for the website including creating digital content with the building plans and meeting with community members and teachers to introduce them to the website. I also proofread the final version of a grant proposal and met with contributors who were interested in uploading personal pins and archivists who hoped to contribute layers of maps from their own institutions. These hands-on experiences exceed anything that I could have learned about by reading a book or a scholarly article.
I could not have asked for a more ideal internship or a better team of people to work with for the summer. This internship allowed me to combine my interests of public history, the digital humanities, and community engagement, serving as an invaluable learning experience. It was exciting to be working on such an amazing project and it was personally rewarding to help others engage with the history of this vibrant city through the website.