• 52 Ancestors 2022, week 6: Maps
GIF: A scene from Miranda. "I bloody love crisps!"

I bloody love maps, don't you?

For me, they're not just a navigational tool, they're little snapshots in time that help you visualise the past. They can reveal how modern-day areas got their name, when houses were built - or demolished, or give you a better understanding of just what life was like for your ancestors.

They're also a work of beauty with intricate details and artistic flourishes.

I think my interest in maps started with the lunchbox I had in primary school. My dad still has that one at home, but I found an identical one in a charity shop to satisfy my own nostalgic need. The two-tone Tupperware lunchbox was the gateway to maps because of the road sign designs moulded into its underneath. 

I'd compare the pictograms with those in my dad's road atlas, matching them up with their meanings. Being an atlas, I'd look at all the roads, places and additional icons that appear on maps, the contour lines and more.

The lunchbox that started it all!

Where do you find old maps of the UK? Scotland.

A great resource for old maps of the UK is the National Library of Scotland, who have published a whole treasure trove of Ordnance Survey maps under a Creative Commons licence for non-commercial use.

As well as being able to browse the UK maps sheet-by-sheet, they also have a nifty side-by-side tool to compare your selected map. As an example, here's my hometown of Reading with OS 6 inch to the mile maps from 1888-1913 on the left, and the current OpenStreetMap view on the right. View the original on the NLS website.

A side-by-side map view of Reading. Left: OS 6 inch to the mile map from between 1888-1913. Right: OpenStreetMap (© OpenStreetMap contributors).

If you're looking for something a little more stark, here's a bit of south Reading and a few surrounding villages (original):

A side-by-side map view of south Reading, and surrounding villages. Left: OS 1 inch 7th series map. Right: OpenStreetMap (© OpenStreetMap contributors).

The original map is obviously before the M4 motorway was built, skirting around the southern tip of Whitley and, until the 1990s, keeping the housing sprawl from Reading up to this border. In the current OSM view, you can see the build-up in Whitley, Lower Earley, Shinfield, Three Mile Cross, and Ryeish Green.

A lot of the development in Shinfield is on land previously owned by the University of Reading and the National Institute of Research in Dairying where my grandfather, grandmother, and great-aunt used to work. I know that seeing this development happen was severely heartbreaking for my mum, and she would later refuse to go down Church Lane (the yellow road above the word Shinfield on the left) unless she really had to visit the village church. More recently, her childhood home at School Green has been demolished to make way for a housing development access road.

Anyway, enough of that, let's find a few more locations from my family history in the NLS' map archive.

I've already shown maps from the NLS archive in my articles about James Whipp in Marylebone, and William and Emma Hearn in Whitchurch-on-Thames, so take a look at those if you'd like. 

So, where are my ancestors from?

Isn't that the eternal question for genealogists?

When I first saw the topic of maps come up, I exported the list of locations I've used in Family Historian into Excel, geocoded them, and then imported into Google Earth to see what the location data looked like visually. Just to note, these are locations used in any context - birth, marriage, death, residence, employment.

A Google Earth screenshot showing locations in the UK from my family history file.

I don't really know what I was expecting - being as I grew up in Berkshire, it makes sense that a large chunk of my and my ancestors' locations will be around southern England.

There are some international locations, too, including:

  • Ballarat in Victoria, Australia, where my 3x great-uncle Robert moved, quite possibly for the Ballarat Gold Rush of the 1850s.
  • Jalandhar in the Indian state of Punjab, birthplace of my 3x great-grandmother, Laura.
  • Shelburn in Nova Scotia, Canada, birthplace of Laura's mother, Sarah.
  • and various places in South America - including Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Argentina - where my 2x great-grandmother Catherine travelled regularly with her family. Her first husband, David, was apparently killed in a boiler explosion in South America. Their son, my great grandfather, also David, was born in Argentina. After David snr's death in January 1909, the family returned to the UK before spending 4 years in Canada.


Potterston Farm, Dalrymple, Ayrshire

The good thing about having lots of farmers in the family is that farms tend to be named on old OS maps!

Potterston Farm, also known as Patterston, was home to my 4x great-grandfather, David Brown. Born in Kilwinning in 1787, he ended up as owning the farm just over a mile northeast of Dalrymple. He died at the farm in 1858 and is buried in the village.

The NLS have a beautifully detailed 25 inch to the mile OS map, published in the year David died, but surveyed two years previous. Here's a closeup (view the original here):

A closeup of Potterston Farm, Dalrymple on the 1858 OS map.

When you compare that with how the farm looks today, you'll see the overall shape of the buildings are the same, it just looks like they've been extended to join them up:

An aerial view of Potterston Farm, Dalrymple from Google Earth, 2018.

Middleton and King's Lynn, Norfolk

Another couple of farmers, this time in Norfolk and my Hearn line. John Hearn was my 4x great-grandfather, born 1773 in Pentney, Norfolk, just outside King's Lynn. By the time he married his wife Lydia, he'd moved about 5 miles northwest to Middleton. 

John Jr ended up in King's Lynn itself, where most of his family then stayed.

Middleton in 1884, OS 6 inches to a mile


OS 1 inch to the mile map of King's Lynn, 1898

Stanbury Lodge, Spencers Wood

Finally, a location that puzzled me for a little while. A family group in my extended family lived at Stanbury Lodge, Spencers Wood. Being local to the area I'd heard the name Stanbury, but couldn't quite place it. A map to my rescue!

The Stanbury estate originally covered 150 acres and was one of the two large estates in the area, the other being Highlands. According to the Spencers Wood Local History Group, the 17-bedroom mansion house at Stanbury was built in the 1860s and was taken over by the government for use during the second world war. It sadly burned down in 1960 and a new private housing estate was built on its place.

Where does a map come into this? Well, the 1887 6 inch to a mile map clearly labels the Lodge at the gateway to the estate. That is where my relatives lived, and it still stands today.

OS 6 inch to the mile map showing the Stanbury estate - and the Lodge.


All map images used on this page reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland, unless otherwise stated. Search and view the maps in their amazing collection at maps.nls.uk.