Documenting our Past

How do we read old documents?

Documents are not always easy to read. For example, look at the way the name Elizabeth is written on the right.

Other people’s handwriting is sometimes hard to read; here the 'e' is an unusual shape, the 'z' looks like a 'g' and the dot of the 'I' is really far away.

It has also been abbreviated and contracted in ways we are not used to.


Elizabeth has been shortened to Eliz “ - with the “ marks showing there are letters missing. Sometimes the way a word is shortened depends on the person, it could be their own secret way of doing things!

Other problems can include:

  • Use of old fashioned words or spellings. In the second image above, ‘House of Correction’ means a prison, but that isn’t a word everyone will know.
  • Words that have been spelled differently to how we spell them today. For example the ‘Kingston’ of Kingston upon Hull was written as 'Kyngston' sometimes in the past.

There are some simple steps which can help you read a document:

  1. Find a word in the document you can read and understand
  2. Read each word, letter by letter. Use the letters from the words you can already read to help you
  3. Read the word aloud. Often misspelled words are spelled exactly as they sound
  4. Use a dictionary to help you find the meanings of old fashioned words. Sometimes an ordinary dictionary won’t have an old word for something in it, so that might need more research at an archive
  5. Ask a second opinion. Somebody else may be able to read what you can’t
  6. Use a magnifying glass. Sometimes when words are bigger they are easier to read
  7. Ask an expert. The National Archives website is a good place to start online  (see Related Links at the bottom of this page). Staff at your archive or local studies library may also be able to help
  8. Guess! Sometimes this is the only option left. If you follow through your guess you may be able to back it up with more evidence later on.

Why not try out our 'Transcribing Documents' worksheet? (see link below)

Document icon Learning article provided by: Hull History Centre | 
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