There are thousands of sites that provide access to digitised historic maps, many of them free.
Once you’ve found the region, town, village or street where a relation lived, you can follow the trail back through county, Ordnance Survey (OS), valuation or estate maps.
These can reveal land use and ownership. The most detailed give you the footprint of buildings, small structures and even trees, wells and paths.
Many county archives have digitised their tithe maps, while others have reproduced estate collections.
The dated but still functioning Enclosure in Berkshire shows Berkshire enclosure maps. National collections include the British Library and the Bodleian Library’s Map Room. British History Online has maps of London and the six-inches-to-the-mile OS series, while The National Archives has a helpful research guide.
There are many more great websites for finding old maps to help with family and local history research:
1. National Library of Scotland
The GB1900 Historical Gazetteer is available via the National Library of Scotland’s wonderful maps portal. Volunteers created it by extracting all of the textual information from the 1900 six-inch OS maps. It holds about 2.6 million place names from not only towns and villages, but farms, fields, woods, wells, footpaths and windmills.
Meanwhile the wider NLS site has all kinds of maps covering Scotland, the UK and the world, including town plans, county maps, coastal charts, military maps and estate maps. A boundaries viewer helps you check parishes. You can browse the collection by map-maker or place, or view them overlaid on modern maps.
2. Old Maps Online
This portal grew out of a 2013 project by Swiss company Klokan Technologies and the University of Portsmouth’s Great Britain Historical Geographical Information System. The result is this easy-to-use search engine and interactive map that boasts historic digitised maps drawn from collections from all over the world. UK partners include the British Library and the University of Manchester’s map collections. The free Old Maps Online app lets you search for an area and view the different maps available.
3. David Rumsey/ Google Maps
David Rumsey’s site has maps and charts covering the UK as well as North America. The parent website gives details about the collection’s coverage, recent additions and the various websites and apps through which you can explore the material.
If you locate London and select BR Davies’ 1843 map, you can change its transparency with a slider, revealing the modern landscape below. It’s a great way to explore how streets have developed and buildings come and gone.
4. Griffith’s Valuation
A comprehensive valuation of property in Ireland was overseen by Dublin geologist Richard Griffith between 1847 and 1864, listing landholders and householders. This free website is pretty long in the tooth, and there are other places online where you can find the data, but it still has lots going for it.
From the list of results after searching for a surname (you can include a forename too, and specify an area including a Poor Law Union), you can read a transcript of the information, view a scan of the original page, or launch a map view. This opens up an external Google Maps layer, where you can use a transparency slider to switch between 19th and 21st century Ireland.
5. Bomb Sight
This complete ‘bomb census’ of the London Blitz has been around for several years now, but certainly warrants a revisit.
You can explore the data in a number of ways, although perhaps the most chilling is simply to zoom out and watch as hundreds then thousands of the little red dots, each one representing a detonation, gradually fill the screen. Click on a dot and more information appears – the type of explosive, the estimated date and the present address.
You can explore contemporary images of the area, or read wartime memories that are drawn from the BBC’s oral history project People’s War.
6. Expert’s choice: Places of Wales
Chosen by Anthony Adolph, genealogist and author of 10 books including In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors:
“The tithe was a 10th of a landholder’s produce, which was payable to the parish, and was originally paid in kind; crops, wool, stock and so on. The Enclosure Acts of the 17th and 18th century converted these payments in some parishes from produce to money.
“In 1836 the Tithe Act extended this to all of England and Wales. Commissioners were dispatched to each parish to establish the value of land, and therefore how much cash was due to the Church of England.
“The practical upshot of all this for family historians is accurate, large-scale tithe maps and accompanying apportionment information, which lists owners, land use and even tenants.
“The records are found in county archives and The National Archives. They used to be difficult to search, but are increasingly appearing online.
“The National Library of Wales ‘Places’ website is the pick of the bunch. Here you can explore approximately 1,200 digitised tithe maps, covering more than 95 per cent of the Principality.
“There are about 300,000 data entries drawn from the maps and accompanying documents. You can search the apportionments by parish, occupier, landowner, farm name or field name, or simply select a county, town or village and explore the material that way.
“All of this was powered by the crowdsourced Cynefin Project, which ran between 2013 and 2017 and involved 1,354 volunteers. It’s really rather good!”
7. Cheshire Tithes
This free site for tithe maps and apportionments is a bit dated, but its design showing multiple windows on one screen still works a treat.
This site maps English parish boundaries as well as Poor Law Unions, enabling you to see jurisdictions and neighbouring parishes.
The subscription site is gradually adding to its collection of maps from the Lloyd George Domesday Survey of 1910.
10. Know Your Place
Explore a wide range of historic maps from across the South-West from Devon up to Gloucestershire with this interactive website.
11. Map History
This history of maps is maintained by Tony Campbell, former map librarian at the British Library, and has advice for family historians.
12. Norfolk E-Maps
Here you can search approximately 700 tithe maps covering about 85 per cent of the county, alongside enclosure maps, Ordnance Survey charts and aerial photographs.
All sorts of maps and plans are available here, which you can search by place name or postcode or just by clicking the map.
14. Vision of Britain
This site also allows you to explore the output from the GB1900 project, and get to grips with various maps going back to 1805.