Geography reading list

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  • Bartholomew, John

Constable's hand atlas of India, prepared under the direction of J. G. Bartholomew. Westminster: A. Constable, 1893

This excellent old atlas with 60 clear coloured maps and plans is available in a number of research libraries around the world. Ian Poyntz has made the area maps available on Rootsweb. The index is also available and it is a good starting point as it makes pinpointing the required location so much easier. Problems that variant spellings of place names cause can often be overcome by browsing the index.


  • The Imperial gazetteer of India, by Sir William Stevenson Meyer et al. New ed. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1908-1931

This authoritative and exhaustive 26 volume work is available online where it can be both browsed or searched. The first four volumes provide an official description of the Indian Empire, its history, economy and administration. The final volume is an atlas and The Digital Library of South Asia's online version of the Gazetteer helpfully gives both the 1909 and 1931 editions of this. In the intermediary volumes is an alphabetical arrangement of the places in the Indian Empire including cities, towns, villages and forts, rivers, mountains and regions. The information provided includes the place's location and status, together with any relevant details such as population, ethnic makeup, languages spoken, geographical features, natural resources, agriculture, industries, economics, schools, hospitals, history and notable features. The descriptions are often lively. A wonderful resource.

Research guides

  • Axelby, Richard

Science and the changing environment in India, 1780-1820 : a guide to sources in the India Office Records by Richard Axelby and Savithri Preetha Nair; edited by Andrew Cook. London: The British Library, 2010.

The title makes clear that this book is not directed at genealogists or even family historians. Yet such is the massive (but apparently not exhaustive) collection of references included that this book may indeed prove to be a work of significant value to family researchers seeking added information about the circumstances which impacted on their ancestors’ lives and professions in India.

As with defense, administration, planting and trade, scientific enquiry was carried out by men who may have been our ancestors. In David Arnold’s Foreword he points out that from about 1780 scientific study focussed on enhancing the material condition of Indian life through famine prevention, agriculture, and identification of products to benefit British and Indian commerce. This early period of scientific interest was reflected in the formation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 by senior EIC military and civil officers.

The introductory and explanatory sections absorb 23 pages, which are followed by these 11 chapters or divisions: 1. Plants and Botanic Gardens, 2. Agriculture, 3. Forests and Forestry, 4. Animals and Animal Husbandry, 5. Geology, 6. Meteorology, 7. Health and Disease, 8. Irrigation and Water Control, 9. Communications and the Built Environment, 10. Ethnography, and 11. Landscape and Topography. Each section starts with a brief introduction and outline of the major subdivisions of that section. These major subdivisions are further divided most often by location, or by specific topic such as plants, diseases etc.

Researchers with Planting ancestors will find the chapter on Agriculture worthwhile. For Indigo Planters, F/4/1277, no.51242 includes lists of plantations and factories with names of their European owners 1829-1830; papers re Land Grants for Coffee Cultivation 1827-1831 can be found at F/4/1398, and of course there are numerous references to Tea cultivation. We learn that Soldiers were encouraged in gardening as “Prizes awarded to the men who have been the most industrious and successful in the cultivation of barrack and soldiers’ gardens in the Bengal Presidency 1856-1857” can be found at F/4/2685 no.186678 and F/4/2695 no.191082. Chapter 7 on Health and Disease covers the whole range of hospitals, sanatoriums and asylums, including lunatic asylums, in which respect reference is made to “Returns of public patients (European and native) treated at Bhawanipur and Dullunda asylums from 1840-1858” to be found in P/13-P/15. Chapter 6 on Meteorology is valuable for its references to extreme weather events such as cyclones in which our ancestors may have been caught up or lost their lives.

The concluding part is an amazing 43 page index which makes the entire contents very accessible. It includes many personal names.

Clearly this is not a reference source for the beginner, but for the advanced researcher who enjoys browsing printed matter or who is seeking more depth about their ancestor’s lives on the sub-continent, and is able to attend the British Library in person. (reviewed by Sylvia Murphy)