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.

31 Days of Family History Fitness – Week 4

I only came across the blog post 31 Days of Family History Fitness at the very end of January so I decided to do it in February instead. I’ll update you with my progress on a weekly basis.

Day 25: Set up a research log to help you keep track of your research. You can find sample logs on our website. Be sure to include when and what you researched, plus what you found and where you found it. If you already have a research log, make sure it’s up to date and backed up.

I’m really not sure about this one. I can understand the need for a research log when you are working on behalf of someone else, and to some extent that’s how the referenced sample log looks as well. So I don’t really know what to do here. I wouldn’t use the data in the log, so why keep it? Perhaps some of you that do keep research logs can tell me what the point of it is?

Day 26: Find genealogy blogs or Facebook groups that cover your ancestry. In addition to having resources for various ethnic groups and research roadblocks, these groups will also allow you to collaborate with like-minded genealogists. Check out Family Tree Magazine’s list of blogs or the Geneabloggers’ Blog Roll.

Back when I first started this blog, I took an online blogging course run by WordPress, and one piece of advice from that course was to find other blogs that interested you and follow them too. I found a number of the blogs I follow now back then, and have added to it gradually as I find others through various social media posts. I created a blog roll (which you can see on the right hand area of my blog if you are reading this post online) back then, but I haven’t updated it since. So, prompted by the task for today, I have updated my blog roll.

Day 27: Review your privacy settings, and lock down your data as appropriate. Most online family trees will make any people who don’t have death dates private, but make sure that you know who can see what of your family’s information. Consider editing privacy settings to be more restrictive, using encryption to lock down your data, or changing your password to prevent hacking or unauthorized access to your account.

My tree on ancestry is completely private, so for now I don’t have concerns. When I complete my work to the point where I choose to put it online, then I will have to ensure living people’s data is protected. Helpfully this comes built into TNG which is the model I intend to use to get it all on line.

Day 28: Search the free Social Security Death Index on Check for any 20th-century US relatives who lack death dates.

There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent collection for the UK. I expect to find the death dates I need from the statutory records.

Day 29: Pick a problem that you’re having in your research (tracing slave ancestors, finding ancestors before birth records began, etc.) and search the web or your local library for potential solutions. Resources like the FamilySearch Wiki or books or downloads from may be able to help.

My biggest problem at the moment is not having enough hours in the day to process all the data I already have. Once I get through all that then I will step back and look for incomplete people that I will then focus on.

Day 30: Perform a quick Google search for the hometown of one of your ancestors. Learning about the places your ancestors lived (as well as how those communities have changed over time) can give you insight into your ancestors’ lives in ways other records can’t. Be sure to check out city directories and other place-specific resources to learn more.

I know Unst fairly well, although, as I noted in the post about Old Maps, I am still discovering where some house names are on the maps. Going through the census page by page helps hugely with that because the houses are recorded by district and area, and in a fairly logical progression, i.e. if you come across an unknown house, it is likely somewhere close to the previous and next houses on the census. There are a number of areas that crop up again and again where Unst people moved to, such as Leith in Edinburgh, and Toxteth Park in Liverpool. Both are areas with docks which no doubt would be attractive to men who had grown up with fishing as a livelihood. These two areas are good candidates for me to dig into further.

Day 31: Now that you’ve got your research in order, find some ways to share it! Look for project ideas on Pinterest, and other websites to get started.

I’ve enjoyed quite a few of these prompts that got me doing things that I knew I should be doing but wasn’t. While some aspects of my research was already in good shape, now other aspects are in better shape too. However, it is by no means finished, and so I’m not yet at a point where I’ll be putting it up online yet. That’s something I am looking forward to in the future though.

Orange Street

I’ve written before about difficulties in reading the handwriting on old documents. I had another example again today when trying to read a street name. This was for someone who had moved from Unst, Shetland to South Shields, County Durham, so it was in an area I don’t know well. The street name looked like “Orange Street” but I could have also believed it to say “Osange Street” so, since I didn’t know the area, and one should get to know the area you are working in, I decided to look it up.

Searching on Google Maps I could find no sign of either name. I recalled a previous time when I had been searching for a street and it turned out to no longer be there. So I thought it likely that the same had occurred with Orange Street.

Normally I’m used to looking at old Scottish Maps, but now I needed the same facility for English Maps. I found such a facility at Old

In these old maps, I found that, sure enough, Orange Street and it’s neighbour Raglan Street that I had found by paging forward in the census both no longer existed. I found nearby streets Frederick Street, Green Street and Brunswick Street, all coming off Laygate to allow me to line up the old and new maps together to see where the old streets previously were.

Orange Street Map 1858

Map from 1858 showing Orange Street in South Shields

Orange Street no longer there

Area in South Shields where Orange Street used to be.

Orange Street and it’s neighbours were redeveloped in the 1950s. I found a book South Shields in the 1950s: Ten Years that Changed a Town which says this:

.. the St Marks’s redevelopment scheme, at Laygate. On 3 July 1950 a notice had been placed in the South Shields Gazette giving notice, that the council of the Borough of South Shields … had made an order .. to compulsorily purchase the land and dwelling houses. Part one of the clearance area meant the demolition of Dixon Street, Raglan Street, Orange Street, Hardwick Street, Bedford Street – and part of Maxwell Street.

There is a little stub of a road coming off what is now Bedford Avenue which appears to be the remnants of where Orange Street once was. If you look at in on Street View it’s a parking area leading to some garages.

The Southtyneside images website has this photo of Orange Street (and the corner of Princes Street).

Orange Street and Princes Street, South Shields

When initially searching for Orange Street, I found various people asking for its location, so I will post links to this blog post as answers to their questions.

Presentation at Genealogy Group

I joined a local genealogy group, and today I gave a small presentation about James Moar, the man who turned to knitting when he do no other task to support himself. I’ve written about him in a number of blog posts before.

I created the presentation from the material I had in the above blog posts, using some of the photographs as illustrations as I talked. I also used old maps to show where they lived, and showed the various census records and birth and death records that I had discovered when researching James’ life. I also talked about getting his Death record updated so that he was finally recorded correctly, which seemed to be met with great approval.

Aberdeen Show Newspaper Cutting

Aberdeen Show Newspaper Cutting, from Dundee Courier, Wednesday, July 25th 1894

I had one new piece of information in the presentation that is not in any of the previous blog posts. As you’ll know if you’ve read the others, James turned to knitting when he was invalided, and while he had a slow start, he did clearly get better. In the 1901 and 1911 census he is listed as a Shetland Lace Knitter, which shows a certain skill as that is a complex and delicate knitting style. Well he, must have been quite good because he won first prize in the Aberdeen Highland show (held on Tuesday, July 24th 1894) for a Fine White Shetland Shawl, beating another lady from the same village, Uyeasound, into second place.

I brought along my copy of the Unst Heritage Lace book for the group members to look at as well, since James is also mentioned in there.

I think the presentation was well received, and I hope to maybe do another subject at a future meeting.

Unst houses

In the 1960s June Owers did a splendid job of identifying, drawing and listing inhabitants in some of the old empty croft houses in Unst or “vod” houses as they are called here.

vod (adj) unoccupied, as a house.

From John J Graham’s Shetland Dictionary

Sheet 001 50pc

Example of the sheets in the Unst Heritage Centre for each house June Owers worked on

These are available to view at the Unst Heritage Centre. Those folk who come back to Unst to trace their family history find these invaluable.

I have been  thinking for a while now that we need to update this information by adding more houses to it. Even houses that are still lived in should be included with details of their history and the people who used to live in them in previous generations.

Walking at the Westing recently, I looked at the old disused School and then at the two houses nearby, one apparently called Murrasko.

I had found its name from this old map.

Murrasko Map

Map of Westing showing Murrasko and the School.
Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website.
This view is spread across two maps, click on the LHS or RHS to go to the full view of the appropriate map.

LHS of Map RHS of Map

Later, putting it on a local social media group, various people came up with lots of information including names of folk who lived in the house.

I decided that it would be good to ask people to help the Unst Heritage Centre to build on the existing material, including photos of houses and any information about who used to live there, and hopefully we can find out more, using family history resources, old maps etc.


Springpark, Baltasound, Unst
photo from John MacMechin

This is Springpark, the house I grew up in. So far I have found out that Charles Arthur, a retired school teacher who taught in Burrafirth School, lived there in 1891. Earlier there seems to be no reference to the house so I think it was built at that time or even perhaps built for Charles Arthur for his retirement.

My Grandmother, Marjorie Gray, came to the house after her husband died, having previously lived in Hoyvilla, a tied house linked to his work. She lived in Springpark from the 1920s.

My parents John and Mary Gray continued to live there.

I would really like Unst folk to let us have photos and information of houses they know or have family links to. This would be a tremendous addition to the family history section of Unst Heritage Centre.

We have a variety of maps and other documents at the Centre, as well as on line sites to check, so could help with the process.

This could take some considerable time, but looks to be an interesting project!

Deciphering addresses

As I’ve written before (in Old Maps and Why is local knowledge important?) it is good to get to know the area where you are researching people.

Vesuvius Street Examples

Plenty of examples of this indecipherable street name – still didn’t help

I like to look up the street names I come across on census returns that are outside Unst, partly to get a feel for where they are (since they are in areas I don’t know) and partly to double check the transcription. It varies on the Ancestry website whether they transcribe the street address for you or whether you have to work it out for yourself from the image.

This afternoon I was scratching my head over one such example in the 1871 census for the Parish of Kirkdale in Liverpool, that I had to figure out myself. When the street name is indecipherable on one page my strategy is to page back through the other pages that cover that street to see if there is a better example of the same word. This time though, that didn’t work – all the example were are bad as each other – I couldn’t even guess at what it was, to even try to use a search engine to check my guess.

So what to do then? Well, keep paging through the census return to find the neighbouring streets so that you can at least find the location of the street on the map, then maybe you can find it that way. Going earlier in census, the next street seemed to be called Pluto Street (obviously not named after the planet as it was only discovered in 1930); going later, the next street looked like Sterling Street.

I started by searching for Pluto Street since it felt more unusual. I found Pluto Street, in Kirkdale, on a website showing an A-Z of Liverpool streets from 1901. In the same section of streets there is a Sterling Street and a Vesuvius Street. So that’s what it says! It’s obvious now that you see it! Ahem!

Pluto Street no longer exists (and neither do some of the other streets near it), but Vesuvius Street does. Compare these two maps to see the area in 1901 versus how it looks today.

Vesuvius Street Map 1901Vesuvius Street Map 2015

So when you find indecipherable writing in census returns (and there are plenty of examples of that!!), don’t give up, you can look around the area, and home in on the street in question. Just remember that sometimes you have to look for older maps than those on Google Maps, since streets do change, and disapppear.

Walk Where Your People Walked

I read a blog post with this tagline on Cindy Freed’s Genealogy Circle – “Yep, I do have the chance and I’m gonna to do it” and this is my response to Cindy’s question, “Can you walk where your people walked?”

As Cindy is, I am very lucky to be able to walk where my people walked. I don’t currently live in Unst, but I lived there for many years of my life and I visit my parents who still live there on regular (“Not regularly enough” – Mum) occasions.

On one of my recent visits, my mum and I walked out to a pair of derelict croft houses at Clugan, where her great-grandmother lived as a little girl before the family were evicted to make space for larger sheep farms. It is a beautiful spot on a fine weather day with a sea view (well pretty much all of Shetland has a sea view – you can’t get more than three miles from the sea anywhere in Shetland) and the tiny island of Huney just across from the beach below the houses. I’m sure it is also a pretty wild place to be in bad weather, and as with many croft houses, fairly isolated.

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Map of Clugan and Huney

Map showing Clugan crofts and Huney island. Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on NLS the website

The above is a map surveyed in 1878, but the croft houses can also be seen on satellite images that make up the modern Google Maps.

If any of my readers can also walk where their ancestors walked, I’m sure Cindy would love to hear about it on her blog too.

Why is local knowledge important?

When digging into your family history it is important to get to know the area where your family lived. The more you know about it the better off you will be at tracking down those elusive members that just don’t seem to show up for 20 years – they must be on a census somewhere.

This is not just about knowing that the transcription of house name “Saft” is actually “Taft” or that there is more than one house on Unst called “Garden” so you can look for detail about which one it is. It is also going to help you spot the relatives you’re after when you’re looking further afield.

Let me give an example. When you’re looking at people in a census return who were born where they live now, their birthplace will generally be recorded correctly, for example, “Unst, Shetland”, possibly in part, because the enumerator is also from the same place and therefore knows how to record that place. When they live further afield, the enumerator will not necessarily know the place they were born and so will have to record whatever they tell him. I’ve seen a number of examples of this during my research, here’s the most recent one which prompted me to write this post. In this example without the local knowledge of, in this case, Unst, you might not realise they were the same people.

Man Symbol
James White
b. 28 May 1870 Parish School House, Unst, Shetland.
Found in Unst census 1871 and 1881.
Found in Lancashire census 1901 and 1911.

1891 Census

and No. or NAME of
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
Males Females
17 Bellevue Cres Jas White Lodger 20 Baltasound, Shetland

With local knowledge I know that Baltasound is in Unst, and that this is therefore my missing James White. Without that knowledge I might have skipped over this record assuming it was somewhere that wasn’t Unst.

So get some maps out and start familiarising yourself with the area. Perhaps even make a visit there to see the places for yourself. If you’re researching Scottish areas, you might find the Old Maps I blogged about before useful for this.

Old Maps

Although I lived on Unst from birth and through my teenage years, and although my father and his father before him were postmen on Unst, I don’t recognise all the house names that I find when working through the old census records. Helpfully, the houses are recorded in areas so the neighbouring houses are next to each other on the census returns.

I found a great site on the web which provides online, zoom-able maps from way back. The specific ones I’ve been using are the
Ordnance Survey Maps – 25 inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1855-1882. Easiest way to start is to use the graphic index to work out what page you want and then open it from the list directly.

This a photo of the area that the map below shows. It shows the house I grew up in, in the foreground. I’ve tried to indicate the direction in which the photo was taken on the map. Click on the map to go straight to the zoom-able version on the NLS website.

A view of Uyeasound, Unst

A view of Uyeasound with Clivocast croft house in the foreground.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

Map of Clivocast, Uyeasound, Unst

Map showing the direction the above photo was taken in. Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

Beware, these old maps are addictive, you can lose hours scrolling around looking at places you recognise!