How To Uncover Your Ancestors’ Secrets Using Just Their Address

There are around 262,300 miles of paved roads in England. That’s a lot of pavement to pound, and a lot of potential clues about your ancestors lives. What can your ancestors addresses tell you about their lives?

Even the type of street your ancestor lived on can give you big hints to investigate. Let’s take one of my client’s ancestors, the Finnemore family. They make an excellent example.

The Victorian Finnemore’s were Londoners. They worked as wheelwrights or coach-smiths and lived in London. Each census showed them residing either on or very near mews streets.

According to Wikipedia a mews is;

“Arow of stables, usually with carriage houses below and living quarters above, built around a paved yard or court, or along a street, behind large city houses…The word may also refer to the lane, alley or back street onto which such stables open” (Mews, Wikipedia).

With this definition in mind, it’s no wonder that wheelwrights tried to base themselves near horses. Horses, meant coaches and carts. Coaches and carts meant wheels that needed making or fixing. Your wheelwright ancestors lived in homes with duel purposes. They functioned both as living accommodation and as workshops. Wheelwrights were usually self-employed or running small businesses. They offered their services to local businesses, working on both formal and informal contracts. Living on a mews ensured that the wheelwrights were “on call” as much as possible.

So, just the very type of street that the Finnemore family lived in provides some clues about their lives. They were living where they were working. What would that have been like? Constantly on hand, wheeling (pun intended!) and dealing to make ends meet. But also living right next to demanding customers. You can imagine it being a double edged sword.

Doughty Mews London WC1 by Julia Osley
Doughty Mews London WC1 Photo © Julian Osley (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Googling your ancestors address can provide even further information. I searched for each of the Finnemore’s different addresses (as found in the census records). Within 5 minutes I’d uncovered this little gem of a website – Ever Changing Mews. This lovely site shares photos, and snippets of history, about London mews. It’s a property site but an excellent source. Photos of the Finnemore’s addresses; Alfred, Stephen and Williams Mews were all found at the website.

warren_mews_london
By Philafrenzy (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Images really help to fire our imagination. Look at the above mews. It’s easy to imagine the road 200 years ago. Personally I imagine the smell of horses, and stables and manure. Dust from sanded wood and smoke from coal burning fires clogging the air. People everywhere. Women, whose long skirts trailed through the muck. An orchestra of noises. Hammers hitting iron, men shouting, coach wheels clacking on the cobbles. Women and children chattering as they attended the laundry in the yard. Can you imagine the bustle? Horses, tradesmen, artisans, and residents all coming and going from this tiny street. Adding this sort of texture to your writing helps bring your ancestors to life!

Google produced more than images though. I found mention of my client’s ancestors addresses at the UCL Bloomsbury Project. From this history project I found the below quote describing Little Pancras Street in 1866:

“a small thoroughfare near a mews, paved with large round stones slanting down to a gutter in the middle of the street, and well adapted for accumulating rain and sundry fluids ejected from the houses. One of the houses here, No. 7, stands prominent in the black books as a fever den…Six cases of typhus have been sent from this house to the Fever Hospital, and one of those patients died in the Hospital last week but one” (Medical Times and Gazette, 3 February 1866)…Revelopment [sic] of the Mortimer Market area means no trace of it remains”

UCL Bloomsbury Project

This description tells me so much about the Finnemore’s fortunes. At one point they lived on this road, and clearly it was part of a slum area. One rife with disease.

Searching old newspapers for your ancestors addresses can yield fantastic results. For example, I found this tiny advert placed by the Finnemore’s in the Morning Advertiser dated 1st April 1851.

morning-advertiser-1-april-1851

It’s only tiny but it tells us that the Finnemore’s had fallen on hard times. Clearly living on a mews did not guarantee a sufficient income. I can’t imagine selling a business and a mangle at the same time nowadays! It suggests to me that the business wasn’t worth very much. Perhaps less than a mangle, after all the mangle was mentioned before the business.

All these address searches had given me a compendium of information on the Finnemore family. Now I had to put them together to uncover the Finnemore’s story. Unfortunately it was a riches (well, making-ends-meet) to rags type of tale. Let’s take each source in turn:

Earlier census had shown the Finnemore’s at mews addresses. They proved that Finnemore’s worked as wheelwrights and they seemed to be thriving. One census noted that the Finnemore’s employed 4 men. They were living where they were working and for now it was paying off. Fast forward 10 years and newspapers revealed that they were selling their business, alongside their mangle. The census gave me more addresses to research and the UCL Bloomsbury’s Project website gave me evidence of the poverty within which the family were living. Lastly a property website gave me beautiful pictures of these mews streets – and I was able to visualise their lives.

To understand our ancestors lives, we need to understand their living conditions. To do this we have to combine info from a variety of sources.

What have you found out about the roads your ancestors lived in? Were they poor, full of habitual criminals, or brimming with artisan workers? Were your ancestors ‘out of place’ or did they fit right in with the neighbours? How did this change over time and what can that tell you? Why might they have chosen to live on that particular street? What were the local industries? What were the transport links like? What can their home tell you about their lives?

Further Reading

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