Following in their footsteps

Following in their footsteps

Exploring where our ancestors lived can illuminate their lives. Kim Fleet offers some useful guidance on how to track them down

Header Image: Postcards and stamps can be a simple way to determine where ancestors lived and when

Dr Kim Fleet, Writer and genealogist

Dr Kim Fleet

Writer and genealogist

When researching our family tree, it’s tempting to concentrate on who lived when, and trace our lineage back as far as possible. Yet looking at where our ancestors lived can reveal much about their social mobility and their living conditions.

Start with the censuses from 1911 back to 1841, as these will be the building blocks of your research. Each census will give you the approximate ages of your ancestors, their address, the number of people living in the household, and their occupations. Note how many generations are living together: there may be grandparents living with the family. In times before social welfare, households often comprised aged parents, unmarried sisters and children from other branches of the family. The occupations listed will indicate how well-to-do your ancestors were. Are there any servants living in the house? It was common for even modest homes to have a ‘maid of all work’, but a cook, housemaid or nursery maid would suggest the family was more prosperous. Check how many households occupied the same house: if there are several it may be a boarding house, or a house in multiple occupation. During the 19th century, even back-to-back houses may have housed two families. These details will help you to build a picture of what it was like living there at that time: how affluent, crowded or noisy the house might have been.

Many of our ancestors in cities such as Manchester lived in back-to-back housing, where houses typically shared three walls with other buildings, with only a small courtyard for fresh air

Note next what is listed for neighbouring houses on the census, and see whether they have similar occupations, and similar numbers of occupants. If the neighbours were a solicitor with three servants, your ancestors probably lived in a middle-class area. Tailors, cabmen and shop assistants suggest a working-class neighbourhood. Considering the place of birth listed for your ancestors and their neighbours might furnish clues about the development of the area. The 1851 census shows my great-great-grandparents, Samuel and Elisabeth Fleet, living in Liverpool, but they were born in Orkney and Newfoundland. Their neighbours had also been born in other areas and evidently migrated to Liverpool. Research into Liverpool’s social history shows a huge growth in the city at that time, suggesting that my ancestors and their neighbours were part of this migration seeking jobs in the developing city.

1851 CensusDiana KiddStamp
Clockwise: The 1851 census shows Samuel and Elisabeth Fleet in Liverpool – they were born in Orkney and Newfoundland respectively, Diana Kidd – A Scottish ancestor of the author, born 1943. A photographer’s stamp at the bottom shows the image was taken in Liverpool, which could provide a clue to her movements, Even a franking on a stamp could provide a vital clue to an ancestor’s location

Street and trade directories such as Kelly’s will help you to find out where your ancestors lived between the censuses. Numerous directories were compiled, some dating back to the 1700s, describing towns, villages and parishes, and listing inhabitants’ addresses and occupations. Gore’s directories list all the tradespeople in Liverpool. Using them I was able to track one of my ancestors as he moved year by year. This search also revealed he and another ancestor were neighbours for a short time – information I wouldn’t have known from the census alone.

Trade directories
Trade directories are useful for confirming what an ancestor did for a living and where they were based

Checking the directory listing for everyone who lived in the same street may reveal some unusual trades and offer a vivid picture of life in the past. My ancestors shared a street with policemen, a lamplighter (the person who lit the gas lamps in the street) and bakers. At a time when few working class homes had an oven, many took pies and meat for roasting to the bakers: did my ancestors carry their Sunday roast to their neighbour’s bakery? Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City (see box, ‘Early to rise’) portrays the daily bustle, as various occupations started early, and tradespeople called at houses to take the meat, bread and grocery orders. Draw on the trades listed in directories to imagine what it was like to live in that street in the past. Consider the impact of businesses carried on nearby: the smell from a tannery or brewery, the sparks and noise of a metal works, the thrum of a cotton mill.

Obtain a map of the area, dating as close to the time you’re researching as possible, and plot the different places where your ancestors lived. If they moved house, how far did they go? They may have stayed within one area of the city, perhaps within the same parish. If they moved city or country, consider how this reflects social mobility of the time. Many Irish people emigrated to North America during the potato famine; during the Industrial Revolution, industry in the cities attracted workers there. A social history of the area where your ancestors lived will explain the development of the area, and suggest why they moved there and how they prospered.

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Plotting the locations of all members of the family for a given year will show whether they chose to stay close to each other, or whether one branch experienced different social mobility. Did one sibling go to university and take up employment elsewhere? Or did they all follow similar trades and live near each other? See if this pattern changed over time and research what other social changes occurred that might explain it – for example, improved transport, development of suburbs, women’s independence and employment.

Compare the map of where your ancestors lived with a contemporary one, and see which streets still exist. Bombing during the war, post-war slum clearance, and urban redevelopment may have transformed the landscape. There was extensive rebuilding during the 1950s and 60s: many working class houses didn’t have bathrooms, and families moved to better housing with modern conveniences. If the street has gone, the ghost of it may exist in the line of a new street in its place. One of my ancestors lived in Everton Terrace in Liverpool. The street is gone, but a footpath across the park follows the same line.

Asking a relative what they can remember can yield clues to bring you closer to your ancestors. They may remember visiting grandparents, and be able to describe what the house was like. Details such as a piano in the parlour, a photograph of a son who died in World War One, and a fringed mantelpiece all help to conjure up what life was like at the time. Your relative may also recall local landmarks such as a church, school or gas works. These are invaluable for building a picture of where your family lived. The local records office will provide you with old photographs of the area, and local landmarks will help you to orientate your way round them. You’re more likely to find a history of the music hall, factories or cinemas in the area than a history of a particular street, and these details will help you to reconstruct your ancestors’ lives. Look at the photos: that’s where your ancestors walked every day.

A history of the parish or district may be available, which includes photos of the area and analysis of the lives of its inhabitants. Such a history may be a simple photocopied booklet, brimming with details and local anecdotes. Try the parish church and local library for a copy. Check also whether the area was surveyed by one of the Victorian social reformers: social surveys were carried out in many cities and record living conditions, numbers of inhabitants per house, the diseases suffered and life expectancy. People may have moved into the town for work in manufacturing, yet find themselves living in crowded conditions and at risk of diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis.

Oral history projects may also be fruitful in helping you understand your ancestors’ lives. The local records office may be aware of projects which encompass the area where your ancestors lived. Regional BBC studios have also recorded numerous invaluable reminiscences. An internet search for local landmarks or facilities you identified on early maps or in directories is a good place to start, as people tend to mention these when they reminisce, or you could try searching for street names. Add ‘UK’ to your search terms to narrow the hits.

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If the street where your ancestors lived still exists, use Google Street View ( is a simple to use way to view Google’s images – just type in the street name and town) to see what it looks like today. Look out for landmarks such as churches, which may have survived redevelopment. Move down the street and see if your ancestors’ house remains. If the houses look contemporary with your ancestors, try querying online estate agents (for example or – both give access to Street View) for houses for sale in the street that might have the same dimensions as your ancestors’ house. With this information, and the details from the census of how many people occupied the house, you can assess how crowded it was. If there were several children in a two-bedroomed house, how many of them were crammed into one room, possibly sleeping ‘top to tail’ in one bed? Try to work out also whether the house had an indoor bathroom, a larger garden that has subsequently been built on, a washhouse, or a coal cellar. All of these will help you to imagine what it was like living in that house in the past.

We often assume our ancestors stayed in the same place all their lives, but this isn’t necessarily true. By considering where our ancestors lived, and researching more about the area and the social and economic forces that affected them, we can paint a vivid picture of how they lived, and why they lived where they did.

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