Creating a local history database

By Katharine Childs. Posted

Eyam holds detailed records about the parishioners who were victims of the Great Plague of 1665–1666, as seen in this example

Katharine Childs describes how her pupils aged 7–9 used local history data to create a flat-file database about the villagers of Eyam in the UK

Creating a database of local history information can neatly link computing and history together in the primary curriculum. In Derbyshire in the UK, the village of Eyam is well known for the decision of inhabitants to self-isolate during the Great Plague of 1665–1666. Many lives were saved elsewhere by halting the spread of the plague, but almost a third of the residents in Eyam died. This collective act of bravery was included in my school’s topics for Years 3 and 4 (ages 7–9) and so I planned a series of lessons to create a database of plague victims.

Databases unplugged

The lessons started with some unplugged activities to help pupils learn more about why databases are useful. The class could quickly sort themselves into height order, and found it reasonably easy to sort themselves alphabetically by first name. Sorting by less visible data, such as date of birth, was a lot slower. We talked about how computers can help to speed up tasks such as these. 

Local records provide a detailed list of the 273 plague victims in Eyam. We created a paper database of this data by making index cards of each person (see the image on the next page). I split the full list into sections and allocated each section to a different group. This helped with learning some key database vocabulary. Each card was a record and each specific piece of data was held in a field. As the class worked, they organically voiced questions to investigate further, such as “Did more men or more women die?” and “How many children the same age as me died?” 

Index cards helped pupils to connect to the idea of a record in a database

Creating the database

We then created an electronic database using 2Investigate, which is part of the Purple Mash suite of software. Pupils worked together in pairs to input the data from the cards, with one child reading aloud the data and the other child inputting it into the database. We paid close attention to one key difference between paper records and digital records: on the index cards, the fields could be populated with any type of data, but in our 2Investigate database, each field had to be assigned a type: letters, numbers, or a drop-down menu of specified options. Because all the work was saved to the school network, I was able to merge the different databases together and create one whole-class database. Finally, we used the database to find out the answers to our initial questions. 

In English, the class had been writing diaries from the point of view of a family living with the plague; in history, they had been looking at the causes of the plague and the beliefs that people had about its origins. Computing lessons gave them an understanding of the scale of the impact on the village and helped them to piece together all the individual stories to form an astonishing narrative. They also came to better understand the importance of computing skills in the real world. 

A natural next step from these lessons would be to go on to create visualisations of the data, which you can read all about in Data visualisations for inquisitive minds, by Ben Garside. 

Using local history data sources

Finding local history data sources is often easier as a collaborative task. Asking school governors and parents, or an enquiry to the local archives, may turn up information. It’s also important to remember that local history is different for everyone, and that historical data records often contain bias towards a single gender or ethnicity. Some examples of other data sets that could be used in this task include: 

  • A passenger list from Windrush in 1948

  • A list of suffragettes arrested from 1906 to 1914

  • A list of parishioners derived from the 1911 UK census


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