From the office: Mapping the lives of our ancestors

By Jon Bauckham, 5 December 2013 - 4:49pm

The launch of a new online map resource led editorial assistant Jon Bauckham on a journey down the streets of Victorian London

Thursday 5 December 2013

Jon Bauckham, editorial assistant
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When Google Street View first went live in 2007, I was taken aback by the sheer scale and ambition of the project. For the first time, you could take a virtual tour of towns and cities all over the world. 

While its UK coverage only included a handful of cities at first, Street View has since expanded to include around 99 per cent of our roads, as well as a few 'off-road' locations such Wicken Fen Nature Reserve and Stonehenge.

The service remains controversial due to privacy concerns, but it’s hard not to be impressed – even if you’re just looking for your house! I’ve also spent many hours using Street View during my family history research, trying to see whether my ancestors' addresses still exist. However, the further you go back in time, the more you find the landscape has changed. There's a point when the whole process becomes almost impossible.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I first heard that the Ordnance Survey’s highly detailed five-foot to the mile map of London, 1893-1896, had been added to the National Library of Scotland website.

As well as being free, what is particularly impressive about the resource is that it overlays the old map directly on top of a modern Google satellite image. You can then alter the transparency of the old map layer with a slider at the top of the page, effectively creating a ‘ghost’ image of the city as it was during the late Victorian period.

While the main arteries of the capital remain in place, it is remarkable to see how much of London has been lost – a combination of industrial decline, demolition of slum housing and wartime bombing, I suspect.

After getting used to the technology, I decided to see if I could find where my great great grandfather, Thomas George Bauckham, lived with his family in Lambeth. Although I had garnered addresses from the 1891 and 1901 censuses, consulting electoral registers revealed that they would have been living at Norfolk Place when the maps were created, which I found directly opposite Lambeth Palace.

Despite the grandeur of the palace across the road, I could see that Norfolk Place would have been a particularly noisy (and smelly) place to live, sandwiched between a candle factory and a distillery. Zooming back out, I noticed that it would have also been in the shadows of a huge pottery works on the bank of the Thames, which is almost certainly where Thomas’s stepbrother – Matthew Primett – was employed as an apprentice.

Norfolk Place has long since disappeared, and in instead there is a rather nondescript hotel, backing on to a shiny new office block. However, when hopping back over to Google Street View to get a closer look, I noticed that part of the pub on the corner of the next street has actually survived (looking rather out of place among the concrete).

Could this have been where my ancestors drank away their worries after work? We may never know the answer, but it’s amazing how much hidden history a map can reveal.

What are your favourite map websites? Share them by posting in the comments box below, or logging in to the Who Do You Think You Are? Forum.

 

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