Walking in your Ancestors Footsteps

Spending a few days in Edinburgh has given me the opportunity to walk around some of the locations where, according to the 1851 census, ancestors once resided.  My walk took me along parts of the Royal Mile and down some of the “Closes” which run from the Royal Mile down towards Princes Street Gardens and the railway line which runs alongside the gardens.

Prior to my walk, I spent a little time investigating some of the old maps of the city, and reading about the history of what is known as the “Old Town”. A wonderful resource for family and social historians is the collection of maps available on line via the National Library of Scotland : http://maps.nls.uk/. This is an amazing collection of digitised maps covering not only Scotland but the whole of the UK. If you have never looked at the site I can recommend it highly. Of particular interest was the collection of town plans of Edinburgh, as I was aware that during the 19th century, significant areas of the Old Town had been redeveloped and improved to get rid of the insanitary conditions which had been rife in the area, and which could well explain the derivation of the name for Edinburgh of “Auld Reekie”.

When we search census records, we are obviously looking for a name and when we find the name, there is an address, or location which helps us to “place” the household during the year in question. The pages we view on line form part of the enumerators book and list all the households he (and it was usually a he) visited, in order to gather the census data.  Whilst the address where your ancestors lived may still exist, it may not necessarily be identical to the address where, more than 100 years ago the family resided. Not least, streets could have been renumbered, redeveloped or even renamed.  This is why it is important to check any maps, and also to look at the description of the enumeration area which is written at the front of the enumerators book.  By comparing the enumerators description with a contemporaneous map , you can then compare the evidence with a modern map to assess what of todays location resembles that of yesteryear.

The first thing I noticed was that Cockburn Street, which curls down from the Royal Mile towards Market Street, was not present on the 1850s town plan. I subsequently found reference to it having been created about 15 years after the 1851 census in a book entitled Lost Edinburgh by Hamish Coghill published in 2005. This meant that at least some of the area I intended to walk, would not be entirely recognisable to the ancestors.

These two maps show how the streets changed between 1851  http://maps.nls.uk/view/74400081 and 1866 http://maps.nls.uk/view/117745491 and cover the area where I took my walk at the weekend. They give a great example of how the topography of an area can change in a short period.

Another useful resource for genealogists and historians are the maps, produced by Alan Godfrey. There is a comprehensive list of old maps available to buy at reasonable price on their website. http://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk/

So if you are planning to walk in the footsteps of your ancestors, it is well worth doing some preliminary research into your proposed route, checking the enumeration district description and comparing the information with local plans or maps before setting out to explore.


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