Finding locations for old houses

If your ancestors lived rurally, it is possible that the house they lived in is no longer occupied, or even standing. This is certainly the case for many of the houses mentioned on census in Unst, where the old croft houses are “vod”, that is unoccupied, as Rhoda wrote about here. If you see a house name on a census, how can you find where it is now?

Let’s look at an example, Ed Johnson and his family living in Watquoy – here from the 1881 census (ED2 Page 11).

1881 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
as to
[last birthday]
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Watquoy Edward Johnson Head Unm 43 Stone Mason, Crofter
Janet Do Sister Do 47 Stocking Knitter
Joan Do Do Do 45 Spinner of Wool
Sinney Do Do Do 33 Invalid
Andrina Sinclair Serv. Do 51 General Serv.

First thing to do is take note of the house names that neighbour the house you are looking for – to give you a few more names to find on a map. Watquoy has neighbours “Stove” and “Watquoy Brake”.

Each parish was broken down into enumeration districts to ensure that they covered an area that could be enumerated in a single day. The parish of Unst was broken into 5 enumeration districts (ED) in 1851 – 1911 (1841 it had 9 EDs). You can read the description of the ED from the header page of the census return booklet. Access to this page in Scotland’s People is free as described here.

The description for Enumeration District 2 in 1881 is as follows:-

So much of the Parish of Unst as lies between Houston and North-Dale, between North-Dale and Burrafirth, thernce southward to Houland, then to Petister. Comprehending – Houston, Gardie of Haroldswick, Houl, Roadside, Bothen, Mullapund, North Dale, North Fael, Supton, Ungerstae, Budigarth, Westergarth, Stove, Watquoy, Quoyhouse, Budabrake, Sandfield, School-house, Sotland or East Burrafirth, Biggershoul, West Burrafirth, including Lighthouse, Petister, Cathoul, Gardie of Baliasta, Houland.

With this information we can see that we are looking at the north-western end of the island. Now we get the maps out. I’ve written about the NLS Maps before, and we’re going to look at them again now.

Unst Graphic Index North

Unst Graphic Index (North of island)

Using the graphic index I zoom in on the north end of Unst, and identify that I need to look at the sheets II.12, II.13, II.15 and 11.16. Each of these sheets can be selected from the Ordnance Survey Maps – 25 inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1855-1882.

I open each sheet in turn looking for the house names that I noted earlier, “Stove”, “Watquoy” itself, and “Watquoy Brake”. I spot “Watquoy Brake” on sheet II.12 near the south of the sheet, so I suspect the other two houses will be nearby and decide to open sheet II.15 next because it is south of sheet II.12 and sure enough there they both are.

Map of Watquoy and Stove on Unst

Map showing the houses of Watquoy and Stove. Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

Now we need to align that map with a modern day Google Map to get it’s geographic coordinates. This is the fiddly part. There may be tools out there that help, but the way I do it is to find the approximate area in Google Maps Satellite view, and then in my favourite layered paint program, take a screen grab of each map, lay one on top of the other and make the top one 50% transparent so that I can see through it. Then I resize and move the map until it lines up with the features that are on both maps. In this example there is a small quarry and various field boundaries that are clearly visible to line things up. Hopefully the animated gif below of my two layers will show what I mean.

Watquoy animated gif

Animated gif of two layers to find Watquoy

Now I know, by joining the two maps with transparent layers, exactly which building on the Google Maps Satellite view, is in the same location as the house on the old map. I go back to Google Maps and single click on that point in the map. Google will place a ‘pin’ on that location and at the bottom of the screen pop up a little banner that shows the longitude and latitude of that pin.

Watquoy Located

Place a pin and Google Maps will give you the longitude and latitude.

And that’s how I find the location of old houses on a map.


Adding place names on Ancestry

I have a fairly big tree now (see Complete Unst Tree – How’s it going?) and I’ve recently been having problems with the Ancrestry website when I add fact to someone with a area rather than a specific place name. For example when I add their occupation, I tend to just record it as “Unst, Shetland, Scotland” even though they lived in “Little Ham, Muness, Unst, Shetland, Scotland”, because I don’t really know the exact location of their work.

Ancestry Location entry field

Ancestry shows you all the locations which CONTAIN the letters you type into the location field

Recently Ancestry’s interface changed so that if you put in the first few letters of the place name you wanted to insert, say “Unst, S” instead of popping up a list with all the places you have previously used that BEGIN with those letters, it’s shows all the places you have previously used that CONTAIN those letters. For me this is a VERY long list, with the one I want at the bottom of the list! It also appears that this list is not scroll-able past the point it disappears off the bottom of your browser window. This was a pain.

Well totally by accident today, I discovered a way round this. If you put 2 spaces in front of the characters you type in, the list only seems to show you things that start with the letters you want, rather than all those which contain them. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ll take it!!

Working with 1841 Census Returns

If you’ve been using the census returns to follow your family tree back through the years, you may have noticed that the 1841 census returns don’t often show up as hints (a term used on the Ancestry website for showing possible records that may match a person in your tree).

The 1841 census is a bit different to all the subsequent census returns; recorded ages are rounded down to the nearest 5 years for anyone over 15 years of age; birthplaces were recorded as being in the county, rather than giving parish details as in later census; and it does not record the relationships between people in the same household. So for my Complete Unst Family Tree project all those people who were born on the island of Unst (marked on the map below) are recorded as being born in “Orkney and Shetland”, i.e. the full area covered by the map below! Just a slight difference.

There is however, a certain pattern that can be recognised in an 1841 census return which is useful, especially when you already know a lot about the members of the household from subsequent census returns. You can spot the parents and children from the ages; parents will be listed first and then the children in age descending order – sometimes with the male children listed first followed by the female children. The hard part comes at the end of the record for each household where a random selection of others may be listed; servants – usually identifiable as such from an occupation of “FS” (female servant) or “MS” (male servant); unmarried aunts; aged parents, and other random relations. Your only hope with these is that, if they are staying with the family in 1841, that it won’t be the only time. So it really pays to fully understand the family and it’s close relations, before trying to apply an 1841 census return to them.

They are worth searching for though (and you will most likely have to search explicitly for them due to the age and birthplace differences) as often they will provide details of older children that have moved out and got married by the next census, which is invaluable with linking together these early records, especially when Old Parish Marriage Records don’t record parents of the marrying parties.

My advice? Leave the 1841 census till last, but don’t ignore it completely.

Hints when merging people in an online family tree

I am currently developing my family tree on-line, after deciding to get it into a more manageable format than the old crinkly sheets of paper I found when back home. The website I use is Ancestry.

When working through census records I quite often find that the women “disappear” at around the age of 25. Of course, they don’t actually disappear, it’s just that they have got married and I don’t yet know their married name because I haven’t looked up their marriage details yet. Later when I do get to looking up their marriage details, I discover that they are already in my tree elsewhere under their married name. So now I have to merge them. Until a month ago, I was doing this manually, but Ancestry have just added an excellent new feature allowing you to merge two people in the same tree. I’ve already used this feature a number of times and it is so much easier than manual merging. I have some hints when using it which are described in this post.

Single entry facts

Before doing the merge of two people that you have decided are actually the same person, edit them manually to ensure the following facts are identical

  • Name: For example, you have the maiden surname in one and the married surname in the other.
  • Birth: For example, you have “abt 1850” in one and the exact birthdate in the other
  • Birth place
  • Death
  • Death place

The reason for doing this first is because, when the facts differ, Ancestry will add both in, one (which you choose) as the primary fact and the other as an alternative fact. I personally don’t like alternative facts, especially in the above cases where they are easily resolved, and find it less time consuming to deal with them before the merge rather than afterwards. It also has the benefit of making it much easier for Ancestry to present you with the correct person to merge with since the names and birth dates are identical! You know you’ve got it correct when the merge window shows that these facts are the same.

Ancestry Merge Duplicate

When everything matches, this is indicated by the tag “same”

Left over hints

When you have two people that need to be merged, it is almost certain that the hints you have applied to each will differ (or you would have noticed the need to merge them sooner). When merging two people, the hints that are remaining will be carried over. This means that you will end up with a person who has an “Unreviewed hint” that is actually already applied. You can reduce the number of these hints that you have by carefully selecting which of the two people you are merging to actually run the merge option from.

Merge Menu

Running the merge operation from the “more options” menu for one person

I have found that running the merge option from the person with the most remaining hints leaves you with the least tidying up to do. or in other words, the hints that are carried over even though they are already applied to the combined person, come from the person that you selected to match with, rather than the one you ran the merge option from.

N.B. I have reported the issue to Ancestry and it has been passed on to their developers.

More hints to come later.