Walking in their Footsteps: Maps and the Family Historian

The best stories always start with a map. Whether I was in Narnia or the Hundred Acre Wood, Middle-Earth or Treasure Island, the books of my childhood were ever the richer for having a map at the front, ready to help me navigate those magical worlds.

For me, the maps fascination has never subsided, and I know I’m not alone in this. The detail and artistry of many historic maps is truly awe-inspiring. But this admiration goes beyond the artistic: maps are also a highly practical business. Written records can gift us names of people, places, details of events; yet it is maps which anchor these details in the spatial realm and take us beyond WHO and WHEN, and truly into WHERE.

Historic map of the UK, with overlaid symbols to indicate typical local occupations according to the England and Wales census of 1851.
This historic map uses occupational data from the 1851 census to indicate the main products and industries in various areas of the country. Image supplied by the UK National Archives via Flickr, RG 30/2 Map of UK Occupations, 1851.

Often when I see the use of maps mentioned in genealogy, they’re described as being an optional extra to enhance your knowledge of the terrain. Not so. I advocate for integrating maps into your workflow right from the start. I’m here to persuade you that they can strengthen the foundations of your family history research and help you navigate tricky decisions.

I’ll start by addressing WHY we should make maps an integral part of our research. Then I’ll provide some top tips to remember when you’re mapping, and outline some key resources you won’t want to miss. My examples will focus more on 19th and 20th century cases, although the principles apply to earlier maps too.

So, my genealogy friends, what can maps do for you?

Why use maps?

Maps support logical reasoning and help you spot mistakes

If you use maps alongside your research rather than as an afterthought, they can help you assess the quality of record matches and guide you towards asking the right questions. Try this exercise:

  1. Take a branch of your family tree where several generations remain in a particular town for many years.
  2. Find a map (paper or digital) of the area for that time period.
  3. Locate and mark all the known locations for their births, deaths and marriages on the map (if you have a digital map, you might want to take a screenshot using “Print Screen” and add dots using an application such as Paint).

This should start to give you a sense of the physical network where your ancestors lived their lives. Finding historic streets can be difficult, so this exercise may take a little time, but I’ve supplied some top tips and map resources below to help.

A historic map of Manchester has been overlaid with a cluster of red dots on the left hand side, and a single blue dot on the right.
How would you proceed if you found a potential record match (blue) which didn’t fall within the area your ancestors usually lived and worked (red)? Digital map scan from the Ordnance Survey 25 inch to the mile series, Lancs. CIV6 – Manchester; published 1922. Licensed CC BY-NC-SA, scan of original map provided by National Library of Scotland.

Now take a look at all those locations. Are there any patterns? If you have quite an itinerant family, the dots might be dispersed. Sometimes you’ll see clusters, where a family lives within very narrow confines over several years – even for generations.

Mapping the locations will highlight any unusual points. Just like the example in the image above, perhaps you have a cluster of points in one district of your map and then a lone dot – called an outlier – in a different part of town. If you hadn’t mapped these events and just read the city of registration from the records, you might have been tempted to say “well they’re all in Manchester, so they must be right.” Once you see the map, the discrepancy between the red and blue dots becomes very apparent.

This difference doesn’t necessarily mean the blue outlier isn’t correct, but you have more thinking to do. Outliers usually mean one of two things:

  1. There’s another part of your ancestor’s story you haven’t found out about yet. If the “blue dot” is a correct match for your ancestor, there must have been some reason behind this event happening away from home turf. This alerts you to some interesting research questions to follow up – what feature of your ancestor’s life caused this jump?
  2. You’ve found your ancestor’s namesake. It’s possible that this outlier isn’t a match for your ancestor, but has the same name. Although this can feel disheartening, it’s actually great progress. Knowing about the existence of a namesake means that you can note them down and account for them in future searches. Forewarned is forearmed – if you’re already aware of the namesake candidate, there’s less chance of you putting the wrong person into your family tree!

Either way, this leaves you with fresh avenues of research – and in the second case, may help you to identify any cases of mistaken identity before they impact on your research too much.

An ordnance survey map of Nottingham made in 1899. The River Trent lies diagonally across the map and is indicated with a blue arrow. Three settlements have been marked with red circles: Burton Joyce, East Bridgford and Kneeton. These lie in different areas of the map but next to the river.
If you found possible record matches for a family in three different settlements (red dots) along the River Trent (blue arrow), would you discount these as all being the same family? If you saw this map and also knew they were boatmen, would this change your mind? Map is from the Ordnance Survey 1 inch to the mile series; sheet 126, Nottingham (Hills), published 1899. Supplied by National Library of Scotland under a CC BY-NC-SA licence.

Mapping the locations of our ancestors’ life events helps us account for how the local topography (land features) shaped their choices. The above map marks out the settlements of Burton Joyce, East Bridgford and Kneeton, Nottinghamshire. If you found families with appropriate names and ages appearing in these in turn over consecutive censuses, you might be tempted to dismiss them because they’re getting further away from the village you first found them in.

What links all three locations is that they lie close to the river. If the family you were investigating had a strong occupational history as boatmen, the topography and census data would make sense together. Here, the occupation – and hence the river – influences the choice of residence.

Records are usually created and stored according to geographical constraints

No matter what its origin, the records you use in order to trace your ancestors were produced in a particular place and time, for a specific purpose.

Location is a huge factor in how each record was created, whether it survived and where it is stored and accessed nowadays. Checking the relevant maps for your ancestor’s location will help you to work out which parish they might appear in, the probate jurisdiction where their will (if they made one) was proved, and where these records are held nowadays.

A Phillimore map of the county of Middlesex, indicating with blue, red, green and yellow the boundaries of different ecclesiastical jurisdictions.
An extract from the Middlesex map from Phillimore’s Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Different colours indicate distinct ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Source: Ancestry.co.uk – Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers

Maps from Phillimore’s Atlas and Index of Parish Registers are now available on Ancestry. This great resource shows the parishes which make up each county, along with the ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Nearby parishes don’t necessarily come under the same jurisdiction. In the above partial map of Middlesex, the parishes of St. Giles-in-the-Fields and Whitechapel come under the Commissary Court of London, whilst Clerkenwell and St. Leonard Shoreditch come under the Archdeaconry Court of London. These types of map are vital if you’re to know where to look for records!

Once you know the parish and jurisdiction, a resource like Genuki is invaluable for finding out where the relevant records are kept. Historic developments within the Church can bring some surprises – for instance, the Bishops’ Transcripts for Old Windsor, Berkshire are held at Wiltshire & Swindon Archives.

Maps bring rich context

Context is what transforms us from genealogists seeking a lineage, into family historians able to appreciate the community in which those individuals were embedded. Maps are a superb gateway into this.

An Ordnance Survey map fragment of Carlisle centre. Three non conformist places of worship are shown in two separate locations.
Nonconformist religious context in a map of Carlisle town centre. (Red) Two sites, the Scotch National Church and St. Mary’s RC Church (Blue) United Methodist Free Chapel. Ordnance Survey one-inch-to-the-mile series, Cumberland XXIII.3 Carlisle; published 1874. Digitised version provided by National Library of Scotland, CC BY-NC-SA.

For instance, if your ancestors lived near the old Lanes in Carlisle, Cumberland in the 1870s, then they had a multitude of worship options aside from the established Church of England. The above map highlights Methodist, Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic places of worship within just a few streets of one another. Seeing this, you might consider whether your own forebears could have been temporarily or even wholly involved in nonconformist faiths, if they lived nearby.

The full map on the NLS site is striking for the high density of buildings that dominated central Carlisle during this period. The narrow network of medieval terraces in the Lanes embraced a bewildering array of inns, markets, butchers and smithies that would have been a noisy and often raucous hive of activity.

It’s when we start to see our ancestors’ surroundings on maps such as these that we really begin to “walk in their footsteps”. Once we start appreciating the landscape of their daily lives, we transition from the mere names and dates of genealogy, to a fuller family history which reflects upon our forebears’ daily existence and sensory experiences.

Top Tips

1. Find a contemporary map

Many maps will probably have been made over time of your place of interest. Places change over time though, so if you’re researching the 1850s, then a 1930s map might not be so useful. Use some of the resources listed below to find a map that was produced around the time you’re researching. Although you might not be able to find a map from the exact year of interest, try to get as close as possible.

2. Try different visualisation approaches

Whether you prefer a digital approach to mapping your ancestors’ lives or whether you like the traditional paper approach, find a method that works for you. I use both in my research.

For paper maps, I like to buy the Alan Godfrey Edition reprints of old OS maps and add coloured stickers to indicate the location of births, marriages and deaths for particular families (see image below). This may sound like sacrilege to some, but I sometimes annotate the map borders with details of the people and add coloured lines to indicate the parish boundaries (caveat: if you’re doing this, make sure you know whether you’re drawing the boundary of an ecclesiastical or a civil parish). Adding a little colour to maps can be a great visual tool to help you see the structure.

Tracking family groups in my maternal lineage across Carlisle, working the old-fashioned way on paper maps.

Many digital mapping tools exist online. You can feed geographical coordinates for the places of interest (I’ll tell you how to do this in a future post) into a mapping program, which will put a point on a digital map for every location. I’m currently experimenting with the online data visualisation tool Flourish, so I’ll report back once my mapping is further along!

3. Beware of name and number changes

Just because your house was number 54 in its row back in 1850, doesn’t mean it will still be twenty years later – the street name might have changed too. Settlements are not static entities: they grow and evolve according to the needs of their inhabitants, so expect the landscape to change over the timespan of your research.

Remember that the Blitz destroyed many buildings; post-war rebuilding efforts often saw earlier streets disappear completely or get renamed. Approach all street names and numbers with caution and don’t assume that the modern label is the one your ancestors would have used for a place!

Index to archaic London street names from The Hunthouse online: Singleton Street (red) in Shoreditch is now known as Haberdasher Street (blue).

If your ancestors lived in London, then this is especially true. Online indexes of old London street names are particularly helpful for this. The Hunthouse (shown in the image above) indexes many defunct street names which were changed during 1857 – 1929 and 1929 – 1945. For those of you trying to locate streets which already existed by the early 19th-century, you may find Lockie’s 1810 Topography of London useful.

Street name changes for other cities might be uncovered by investigating the resources and knowledge at your local family history society and archive. Speaking to fellow researchers with an interest in the area can pay dividends!

4. Critique your maps as you would any other source

The 4.5 million or so maps in the British Library each tell their own story. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of maps as an unbiased resource, that somehow mapmakers should always have set down the vision in front of them as it stood.

Apparently not: Morgan’s 1682 map of London, though measured and drawn to scale, included St. Paul’s Cathedral before it had been built – and so the cathedral on this map does not reflect the eventual finished design. Rather than the “objective and true” representation which we might expect, Morgan’s map actively omitted the signs of poverty such as overcrowding and prisons, creating a sanitised depiction of London that would evoke pride rather than horror.

So particularly when working with older maps, do question where they came from and why they were produced. If you’re interested in the political and social decisions that have influenced mapmaking through the ages, I highly recommend you watch the BBC’s Beauty of Maps series, available on iPlayer until the end of September 2020.

5. Maps and censuses go hand-in-hand

Census returns present the majority of their households in a geographical order, reflecting where the properties appear in the enumeration district. Census returns sit very naturally with maps, as they allow you to inspect an entire community within one book.

When you’re looking at a digital surrogate of a census return, don’t restrict yourself to the entry for the family you’re investigating. Always navigate to the front pages of the digitised book and read the enumerator’s notes at the start. These usually include a description of the walking route, as you can see in the example below (lower-density rural areas may not present as much route detail in early censuses).

Front page entry for an 1861 enumeration book, showing the booklet navigation box available on Ancestry.
1861 census enumeration book, showing the description of the Shoreditch, Hoxton New Town district, which includes “the South side of Singleton Street from 1 to 24 inclusive.” Image via Ancestry.co.uk, ref. RG 9; Piece 239; Folio 35.

If a property or household you’re expecting to see doesn’t appear to be listed in the returns, viewing this area on a map can help to determine whether it may be in a neighbouring district (in which case you need to search for them in a different set of returns) or whether it may have been missed.


The National Library of Scotland (NLS) has one of the best collections of genealogy-friendly OS maps out there, and the interface allows you to overlay historic maps onto modern day maps to assist with comparison. This is usually my first port of call for digital maps!

The British Library has a vast collection of maps from all over the world. A significant number have been digitised and made available online, though the host location may vary depending on what collection you’re after. A recent article on the British Library blog outlines the star maps of their collection if you’re interested in learning more.

The Old Maps Online project indexes over 400,000 maps from various institutions – for example, some forward you to British Library resources using the BL’s layer visualiser, called Georeferencer.

A map exploration interface showing modern-day Shoreditch with two historic maps superimposed. A scroll bar to the right indicates other maps which can be added in as layers.
Georeferencer map interface, used for viewing maps from the British Library’s digital collections and layering historic maps over a modern day reference map. Many of these can be accessed via the Old Maps Online site.

Booth poverty maps of London: Digitised in 2016 by the London School of Economics, the Charles Booth’s London site provides socio-economic context for your research. A Victorian businessman and social reformer, Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was a vast survey of the economic and social conditions of the capital’s population, undertaken between 1886 and 1903. The resulting maps used coloured streets to indicate the wealth of its inhabitants; LSE’s site presents these in their entirety, along with many of the notebooks which Booth and his assistants used in their research.

User interface showing a map from the Charles Booth Victorian social study of London. A property of interest in Haberdasher Street, Hoxton, is indicated.
Map viewing interface for the Charles Booth’s London project, hosted by LSE. Haberdasher Street, our street of interest, is indicated at the centre of the map.

You can choose to browse the maps or read extracts from the accompanying notebooks; the maps also come with a useful search facility to help you locate districts, streets or landmarks. This user-friendly site is an absolute gem and leaves you wishing that Booth had managed to survey the rest of the country too!

Notebooks interface from the Charles Booth’s London project, hosted by LSE. Observations report “clean unbroken windows…curtains good, all doors shut” and assigns several streets to be pink in colour (fairly comfortable) on the map.

British History Online: In addition to its wealth of written and printed resources, BHO includes a map catalogue. The collection features OS maps for much of the British Isles – and early maps of London, including famous ones by Agas in 1561, Leake in 1667 and Morgan in 1682.

Off to Explore?

At the start of this blog post, I talked about the magical worlds of childhood as seen through maps in books. Much as I adore novels though, the very best stories are often the ones that have the merits of being true – just like the narratives our ancestors gift to us, and which we try to uncover despite layers of subterfuge, missing records or confusing namesakes.

Just as we pored over exciting maps at the start of our childhood books, I think it’s about time we all put the maps of our forebears’ worlds front and centre in our research domain. They’ll support your work, get you thinking in new ways, and help bring past worlds to life again. Maps brought magic to your childhood books – it’s time you let them bring some magic to your genealogy research…

7 thoughts on “Walking in their Footsteps: Maps and the Family Historian

  1. I can lose myself for HOURS in old maps and have been using them for years…when I create Ancestor Landing Pages for my blog, I map out each location they lived. Your advice above is wonderful – I will add this post to both my personal toolkit (on my WordPress site) and to the genealogy toolkit I manage on the library website (I’m a librarian, the genealogy tutor at the library, and also maintain the website)

    1. Really happy to hear that you enjoyed the Maps article, Teresa! Your “context maps” for the locations of individuals in your family tree are something we should all be doing – I think it’s a brilliant way to immerse ourselves in their worlds. I hope the resources and tips I flagged prove useful in the toolkits too, so please feel free to drop me a message either here or on Twitter (details on my About Me page) if there’s anything else you’d like to ask.

  2. Great article – after over 30 years thinking if I put a copy of a section of the city ancestors lived in was good I will now re-do all of them looking for time relevant maps and closer details. And as you say look deeper into the surroundings so as to enhance the story being told. Thank you.

    1. You’re very welcome, Marie-Jeanne. I hope that revisiting the maps for your ancestors’ neighbourhoods brings some new leads and interesting aspects to follow up on. I’ve always found that maps bring particularly good insights into the occupational, leisure and religious aspects of our ancestors’ lives – old OS maps in particular are a wonderful patchwork quilt of detail. Wishing you much enjoyment in your research!

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