It is all very well to sit at one’s computer and look at the census documents online or to pour over maps of the area, but there is often more to be gained by taking a look at the physical location where our ancestors lived, worked and played.
Many of my readers will know that my paternal line is from Dartmouth in Devon and I have a 2x great-grandfather that spent 40 years of his working life on the river Dart as the steersman and then Captain of the railway ferry that crosses from Kingswear to Dartmouth.Â Today it is the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company that runs the heritage railway from Paignton to Kingswear, but in my great-great-grandfather’s time it was the South Devon Railway Company from 1866 until it amalgamated with the Great Western Railway in 1876.
I decided that this time I’d arrive by train and then cross the river on the modern equivalent of my 2 x great-grandfather’s ferry. Not exactly walking in his footsteps but traveling in his wake, perhaps? With me I had the print outs of the various census data, a map and also some of the birth, death and marriage certificates. My aim was not only to see the roads, where they lived, but also to find the houses they occupied and to visit the churches where they married, baptised their children and were buried. I have come back with many photographs to flesh out the family history story and have touched the ancient font in which some would have been christened.
Many people make the mistake of reading the first column of the census as being the house number, when it is actually the schedule number. It is in the next column that the name or number of the house is written but in some cases, including for my Dartmouth family, the enumerator did not give numbers to the various houses in the street. I have a census page in which only the name of the street is written and then duplicated for each separate household without any means of telling which building they occupied.
For 2 x great-grandfather Henry Thorne the census gave me the name of a road which climbs up the hill from the town, but no number. His last will gave me the name of a road, that runs parallel to the one named in the census but again with no number! His Death Certificate gave the name of a house, but no street and so I was flummoxed as to where exactly he had lived until, on my recent visit, I walked the length of the road.
As luck would have it, in a development of Victorian terraced houses, with bay windows looking out over the road named in the will – but in a walk way continuing up from the road named in the census – I found a likely house. Letters painted in the window light above its front door matched the name on the death certificate. It is almost certainly his house and so I took my photograph and went in search of where his parents’ (my 3x great-grandparents) lived down in the town.
It is not always possible to visit the home town of one’s ancestors, as I have been fortunate enough to do and so the next best thing is to use the technology that Google Maps provides us with in its very useful Street View facility. With this service you can walk the roads in virtual cyberspace looking from left to right and up and down by using the navigation control on the left top of the window.
Has anyone got similar stories? Leave a comment below.
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