Putting Family History on the Map

Historic maps can help you better understand the lives of your ancestors, and can even clear up some mysteries, explains Paul F Cockburn.

Some 14,000 years ago, in what is now Abauntz in the Navarra region of northern Spain, an unknown man or woman picked up a stone tablet and began to carve onto its surface a succession of lines and markings.

These weren’t just decorative, however. After being discovered in a cave by archaeologists in 1993, the tablet—measuring less than seven by five inches, and less than an inch thick—is now considered to be among the earliest known maps found in Europe. Those scratches are believed to represent mountains and meandering rivers near where it was found; more importantly, those areas where foraging and hunting were good—such as the herds of ibex found on one of the mountains visible from the cave itself.

On its own, the tablet has provided scientists with an interesting insight into early modern humans’ capacities, at least when it comes to spatial awareness, planning and organising hunting. For, although it undoubtedly lacks the accuracy of current mapping technologies, these carvings nevertheless have the same purpose as that up-to-the-minute GPS-enabled map app on your smartphone: to be a useful tool to highlight places of interest and help you get to them.

A sense of context
While we tend to think of maps being primarily an aid to finding our way about on the ground, they can also help anyone exploring the past.

Family documents, census records, and newspapers are likely to be your first ports of call, but old maps can add genuine context, according to Laragh Quinney, Maps Reading Room Manager at the National Library of Scotland. “For people doing their family history, one of the big strengths of maps is that they give you a feel of what a place was like at the time your ancestors were living there,” she says.

“Particularly in the last 200 years, there have been so many changes, with industrialisation, and the growth of towns and cities,” she adds. “What today might be quite a big sprawling suburb or commuter town, if you go back 150 years to when your ancestors were there, it may have been a small village. Just a few houses. Obviously, that would be a very different place in which to live, compared to if you go there now.”

Also, many places mentioned in family documents may simply no longer exist. “The farm that someone worked on will have disappeared under a housing estate,” Laragh says. “Or maybe the colliery they worked at is long disused; you can go back to the old maps and see where the colliery was, see where the miners’ houses used to be, where the railway which served it was—and get a feel for the place.

“Old maps can be great for pinpointing places too small to show up in modern maps, or where the name has changed,” she adds. “They’re very good at adding that bit of context; you can see where the local school would have been, where the local church might have been—or, indeed, in Scotland, where the six churches in the village might have been thanks to the 19th century’s different schisms and congregations!”

If your ancestors seems to have moved around a lot during their lifetime, then orientating yourself using maps of the time can let you see how far they actually travelled geographically, which may be far less than you thought. It’s perfectly possible for a succession of places, even if they’re in different counties or parishes, to be almost on top of each other geographically, barely more than a few miles apart as the proverbial crow flies.

Or it could be further than you think; the late historian David Hey persuasively argued that, in pre-industrial Britain, market towns attracted people to and from their surrounding villages, most people moving from village to market town and then to another satellite village—perhaps the same distance away in the other direction. The reason? It was in the market town that goods were sold,where servants and labourers were hired, and even where boys met girls.

Time spent studying maps of when your ancestors lived will ensure that you’ll become far more familiar with how things were in your ancestors’ day.

A Source of Information
It’s fair to say that old maps can, on occasion, help sort out some of the questions which inevitably turn up while searching through old records. For example, you may have tracked down two or more possible baptisms for an ancestor, and be inclined towards the church closest to where the family lived at the time. A contemporaneous map, however, might well suggest that—before the building of a nearby railway line, or the construction of better roads that overcame some local geographical barriers—that a technically more distant church could have actually been the easier one for your ancestors to reach at the time, and so a better place to prioritise in your research.

Admittedly, not all maps focus on ensuring people don’t get lost; even the Ordnance Survey was originally set up by the British government in 1791 to catalogue the state of those southern English counties considered most vulnerable to French invasion.

Maps can be as much about who owns what as what lies where: indeed, “Cadastral” information—as detailed land ownership and boundary information on maps is known—becomes much more common as the surveying and creation of maps shifts to being a more civilianised profession from the 19th century.

Yet this kind of information can go back much further: some town maps dating as far back as the Middle Ages will name who was living in which properties. The British Library and Guildhall Library in London hold 18th and 19th century fire insurance plans including details of the materials used to build houses in towns across England, their height and sometimes even the names of the householders.

Meantime, there are some 19th and 20th century maps designed to make a particular point, whether it’s Charles Booth’s 1903 “Maps Descriptive of London Poverty” colour-coding every street in terms of income, or the 1923 pro-Temperance movement’s map of Edinburgh’s Old Town which highlighted the large number of public houses and licensed grocers selling alcohol in the area.

Out in the countryside, estate maps detailing the large land holdings of the time began to be drawn up in the late 16th century. Often accompanied by rent rolls naming the tenants, these are a useful resource for those researching their rural ancestors, not least when they exist over an extended period of time and predate surviving parish registers. Most of Estate maps remain in private archives, or in solicitors’ offices, but there are also plenty in national and county record offices, usually catalogued under the estate owners’ names.

“Estate maps can hugely vary in terms of what information is on them,” admits Laragh, “but if you’re lucky enough to be somewhere where estate maps were made, some of them will have names of tenant farmers. Some will even have details of crops that were being grown. Others, compiled when plots were being sold off, will show land values and how estates were broken up. At the National Library of Scotland we have a lot of maps from the Sutherland Estate, so if people’s ancestors came from Sutherland, there’s some wonderful estate plans to do with work on the estate, and the estate villages or things that were done in attempts to improve the land. That can be really informative.”

Another potentially useful source are the tithe apportionment maps, which cover about three quarters of English and Welsh parishes between 1838 and 1854. Tithes were originally a tax which required one tenth of all agricultural produce to be given annually to the local church and clergy. After the Reformation, many of these tithes passed, along with the land, to lay owners; by the early 19th century, however, these were deemed out-of-date and increasingly unpopular against a background of industrialisation, religious dissent and agricultural depression.

The 1836 Tithe Commutation Act required tithes in kind to be converted to more convenient monetary payments and established the Survey which produced the maps and associated records now stored at the National Archives and accessible through TheGenealogist website (https://www.thegenealogist.co.uk). Copies can also be found at county record offices—some of these have also been digitised—so its worth enquiring about them at the relevant county records office.

A Sense of History
No map can show all the available information, which means that mapmakers down the centuries have had to select what they put on the map to suit their particular purposes.

Most town and city street maps quite deliberately focus on roads rather than buildings. Other maps will feature deliberate omissions; right up to the 1980s, for example, numerous British military facilities failed to appear on the relevant Ordnance Survey maps. (As it turned out these were clearly marked on the maps being used by the Soviet Union!)

Maps are neither totally objective nor 100% accurate, and need to be interpreted cautiously and carefully; certainly they shouldn’t be used in isolation. (Boundary maps, for example, are best referenced alongside the relevant legal documents.) You should always approach any maps with a small degree of skepticism, and ideally some understanding of how, when and why they were made. Specialist maps staff at the UK’s national libraries should be able to help.

Even a simple question—when a map was made—can be “complicated”. When a geographical survey was made and when the resulting map was published are never the same; especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the gap can be several years. Some Ordnance Survey maps are reprints based on earlier maps with just a few recent additions—such as railway lines—added on top. So, just because some buildings are indicated on a map, it’s not 100% confirmed that they were still standing by the time a particular map was published; at the same time, a lack of buildings on the map doesn’t mean they hadn’t actually been erected!

Simple human error is also a factor, given that quite a few people would be involved in the making of early maps: the surveyor who measure and collected the information; the draftsman (or draftswoman) who selected the information and drew what is called a “manuscript map” by hand; the engraver who engraved the map onto a flat metal plate, usually of copper; the printer who impressed the copper plate on to paper; and the publisher who distributed and sold the printed map. In some early cases a single person might perform all these tasks, but as mapping developed into a civilian career, this became increasingly unlikely—with each stage of the production process potentially introducing errors. (On the plus side, errors—if reproduced in later versions—are a useful tool for dating when copies of maps were made.) Given that engraved copper plates were costly to produce, mapmakers in general tried to make the most of their investment; while some information might, on occasion, be updated by hammering out a section and re-engraving it, the rest of the maps would be left unchanged.

Nor are all maps even intended to show what is “real”; maps can be created to highlight proposed changes and new developments which either never happen or do so in somewhat different forms—records of worlds that never happened, for whatever social, economic or political reasons.

Finding Your Way
Despite such caveats, maps remain a valuable resource about your ancestors’ lives, and the often tumultuous times they lived through. “A succession of maps, especially from the late 1890s onwards, can provide regular snapshots [of a place], letting you see the changes happening,” says Laragh.

While an increasing amount of material is now available online (either free or through paid-for sites), it’s worth remembering that a significant proportion of even national collections are still to be digitised. So don’t neglect to check what’s listed in the libraries’ catalogues—their staff will be happy to help you find your way!

10 Useful Map Websites
Here are some of the most useful maps-related websites for genealogists focusing on the UK.

British Library
With one of the world’s largest collections of maps, plans and topographical views—an estimated 4.5 million items—the British Library offers a chronological spread of more than 2,000 years. Includes Ordnance Survey, War Office archive maps relating to East Africa, and the King George III Topographical and Maritime Collections.

National Library of Scotland
More than 180,000 items from the National Library of Scotland’s two-million-plus map collection are now online but, while focusing primarily on “North of the Border”, the full collection includes detailed Ordnance Survey maps for the whole of Britain, and earlier county maps and town plans from England and Wales.

National Library of Wales
The largest map collection in Wales—ranging from the 16th century charts to present-day digital maps—contains more than a million sheets of maps, charts and plans as well as thousands of atlases. The emphasis is on Welsh material, but also includes items covering the rest of the world.

Valuation Office Map Finder
This map-finder offers a simple way to reference more than 95,000 Valuation Office Field Books (viewable only at the National Archives) describing more than nine million individual houses, farms and other properties in England and Wales, including details of land use and value, plus the names of owners and occupiers.

Know Your Place – West of England
This English Heritage-funded digital mapping project is an excellent example of how local archives can effectively share their collections and information online, while also enabling users to “pin” comments, photographs and stories to the site. The project currently covers Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the former Avon area.

Britain from Above
This website offers some 95,000 images from the 1.26 million aerial photographs of Britain taken between 1919 and 2006, recording the changing face of the nation during the 20th century. Includes urban, suburban, rural, coastal and industrial scenes, providing important evidence for understanding and managing the built and natural environments.
Old Maps Online
An excellent portal to more than 400,000 historical maps held by archives and libraries around the world; originally a collaboration between Swiss online mapping company Klokan Technologies GmbH and the Great Britain Historical GIS Project (based at the University of Portsmouth), the current site continues to be maintained by volunteers.

British History Online
This site offers historic maps of London from before 1800 and maps from the 1872 series of the Ordnance Survey, including the complete 1:10,560 series and selected areas of the 1:2,500 maps. The Ordnance Survey maps can searched by keyword, title or postcode.

Describing itself as “Britain’s most comprehensive historical map archive”, this site offers for sale a wide range of historical maps covering England, Wales and Scotland, including the Ordnance Survey County Series, Town Plans and post-war National Grid maps, plus Cold War-era Russian Maps of UK target locations.

Public Profiler
This Great Britain Family Names Profiling website enables you to produce simple surname distribution maps based on data from 1998 and from the 1881 census. The project’s database covers 25,630 “Celtic”, “English” and “Imported” family names, which featured at least 100 entries in the 1996 electoral register.

First published in Family Tree Magazine, #October 2017.