Harben, Henry and his Dictionary of London

Above: Part of the title page of ‘A Dictionary of London’.

Henry Harben is a famous name for those who study the history of London. Every week hundreds of people contact the Guildhall Library, in the City of London, with a query about London’s history or how an unusual name came about. The Guildhall Library, whose origins go back to medieval times, looks after the largest and most important collection of books relating to London’s history anywhere in the world. Many of the enquiries are received by the library by telephone while others are by people making a personal visit to the reception desk. When a question is asked about a church or street, the first action that the librarian takes – if he or she does not happen to know the answer already – is to reach across the desk to a small collection of reference books. One of them is Harben’s ‘Dictionary of London’. That will give you some idea of how important this book is to those who research the history of the City.

It is a sad fact that the more information we have, the less most people seem to know. Another sad fact is that, in these days of the Internet, people are less inclined to actually pick up a book or visit a library for information. Instead, they prefer to just type in the word they are looking for on the search engine of a laptop or tablet and then assume that the information that they find is accurate. The whole world now seems to work on information gleaned from the Internet. There is Wiki, which is renowned for being an easy source of information. There are hundreds of Websites which would have you believe that they all carry authentic information. There are newspapers on-line and, of course, there is Facebook.

You are probably thinking that linking Facebook with Wiki is a step too far. Well, as it happens, they are both the same in that you have no idea when you read either of them whether anything is actually correct. There is no information on the Internet that is Prime Source material. So what is a Prime Source material? Let’s take a simple example. If you visit a reference library that has an old map of London (possibly 300 years old), that is a Prime Source material. If you look at a facsimile of that map in another book or see an image on the Internet, then that is a copy and not a Prime Source.

In the case of a map, the image on the Internet is probably good enough for most people and it carries the same visual information. However, if an author produces an article after reading a Prime Source in the form of a book, how do you know if the article is accurate or, more likely, whether by writing the article the author has interpreted what was read with their own ideas?

This is why Harben is so important. Henry Harben spent his life researching the history of every street, lane and alley in the City of London. He also included all the churches, chapels, gates, wharves, schools and commercial buildings, the major taverns and private houses in the city, and the railway termini of his day. Harben intended publishing his work which was meticulously written down on a large card index but he died in 1910 before he had completed his research. It was his long-time friend and associate who decided that something had to be done about the massive collection of research notes. The result was that Henry Harben’s cards were published in book form in 1918, just containing the terse notes about each topic that Henry had made. The book was published in 1918 and called ‘A Dictionary of London.

As it happens, it is a century since the book was produced. Thousands of learned researchers have used the book as the basis of their own work and in all that time no errors have been found. The author is little known and, because of the rarity of the book today, few people have ever seen a copy. If you look online, you will find that the book is reproduced in facsimile so that everyone has access to the information. Many of the articles about the City of London on this Website always use dates and facts taken from Harben’s work. The author of this Website does not have the book himself but has acquired a photocopy of the entire book which extends to 641 pages containing over 6,000 entries.

While Harben’s book cannot be called Prime Source material, we know that the author worked from Prime Source material while compiling his notes and for that reason, it is considered to be so accurate by scholars of London.

Using the Internet each day, we all do well to realise that even encyclopaedia’s on the Web are not a Prime Source of information. Some Websites have realised the importance of Prime Source material and they reproduce old books so that others can use them without the need to go to Reference Libraries to look at the printed versions.

There has been much talk of ‘fake news’ in recent times. Well, there is plenty of ‘fake history’ on the Internet, even on highly respected Websites. If ‘getting it right’ matters to you, then you should take time to check out the source of an article and check with respected sources of information that the article has the same information and not a distorted version.


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4 Responses to Harben, Henry and his Dictionary of London

  1. Malcolm says:

    You say that a facsimile of the book is available online. Whereabouts is it? I’ve found that British History Online has the complete text of the book but I’ve been unable to find a facsimile.


  2. terence ratcliffe says:

    Adrian, thank you for your gentle reminder about source documentation. Your blog continues to lighten up my week and fills in many shortcomings in my own residency. Seasons Geetings!


  3. You say the nicest things. A Happy Christmas to you too.


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