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Maps and Family History Research

I love a good map. Ever since the early days of secondary school when we were taken out to walk around the streets near the school, changing the orientation of the map to the direction we were going, I was hooked. Map reading has been useful so many times over the years both in the UK and overseas, and now most of us are lucky enough to have mapping instantly available with a couple of taps on our smartphones. If you’ve not fully exploited maps in family history research are you missing out?

Historical Maps

The absolute best website for old maps is at the National Library of Scotland. They have all sorts of tools and technical gizmos to help you delve into the past. My personal favourite is the side by side viewer, which lets you look at a current Ordnance Survey map right next to a historic map of your choice. It’s a really effective way of seeing how areas have changed over the years. Although the NLS collection is focused on Scotland, the mapping covers all of the UK and international collections are regularly added.

Disappeared Place Names

Major UK cities underwent radical regeneration in the 20th century. Port cities like Liverpool and Glasgow saw whole areas demolished and rebuilt. Glasgow even had much of its city centre flattened to put a motorway through the middle. If you have found a street name on a marriage certificate or census but can’t find the location on a modern map, don’t assume you’ve made a mistake. It could well be that the street doesn’t exist now. Look on an old map or street plan for the area you’re interested in, and see what turns up.

Some streets were renamed but do still exist. A really good example of this is the famous Byres Road in Glasgow’s west end. The street was originally Victoria Street, and was in the Burgh of Hillhead. When several burghs merged to form Glasgow in 1891, there were four different Victoria Streets in different parts of the city. So the Victoria Street in Hillhead was renamed as Byres Road.

Relationships Between Places

Another useful feature of maps is being able to work out the distances between places you have found in your research. Google Maps is good for this, as you can find directions from one place to another by car, or walking. This gives an idea about just how far your great grandad would have walked to work, or what the nearest town would have been to the small hamlet where your ancestors grew up.

Streetview and Family History

The final – and arguably best – feature of online mapping is Streetview through Google Maps. This lets you drop a pin into the map and then take a virtual stroll around your chosen location. If the location hasn’t changed much since the time your family lived there, it can give a flavour of what life would have been like for them. If you drop the pin into the map and find yourself in the middle of a modern housing development or industrial estate, this provides a clue that looking for old photographs or maps could be productive.

Enjoy exploring the world of maps – but be aware, you can lose hours whole exploring.

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