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Exploring maps for researching the past

Use maps to discover your UK ancestors

Finding our ancestors in the records so that we can include them in our family tree and bring their past to life in a family history story is really satisfying. Maps are also an essential tool for researching local history, and can illuminate broader studies of social history by revealing important details of land ownership, occupation and use. Maps are also an essential resource for anyone researching the history of their house.

Often a record will provide us with an address – just think about what we can take away from the UK census returns, the 1939 Register, and old trade, residential or telephone directories. An address is only the start, however, as we then need to be able to see where our forebears lived and for that we need to turn to a map. Maps from the time when our ancestors lived are a most fascinating resource to use in our family history research.

Maps allow us to step back in time, to see the landscape as it had been at the time that the cartographer had surveyed the locality and drawn his plan of the town or area. A map can allow us to see the environment in which our forebears had lived and to understand why they had lived there. It can show us roads, rivers and railways that can explain where they moved on to or where they had come from. We may be able to determine employment opportunities on a map that had attracted our ancestors to live in a particular place. Maps can tells us who the landowners were, show us businesses that ancestors may have worked for and much more.

With a historical map we can often work out the nearest church or nonconformist chapel to where our ancestors lived and so this can be helpful to determine where to look for their baptisms, marriages and burials.

A tithe map of Warwick 1848

What maps can I use to research my family story?

There have been many maps drawn up over time. Some of these maps are more useful to us than others for researching our family history, although there can be occasions we need to consult a more specialist map such as when doing a house history.

Many of these maps can be found in your local county record office though quite a few, but not all, are becoming available online. Use the menu at the top or the list at the right here to explore the many different types of historic maps.