Jan 062011

To mark the start of the new year we are delighted to bring you a guest post by Celia Heritage. Celia is a professional genealogist and lecturer in Family History and, yes, her surname really is Heritage. Celia offers professional research service, online research advice and Family History Courses. She is currently working on putting her popular 5-week beginners’ and refreshers’ course “Building Your Family Tree” online and has  several talks on using maps in family history coming up in her talk schedule over the next few months.

Using Maps for Family History Research

As family historians we often become set in our ways in the types of records we study. Records of birth and marriage tell us about our ancestors in relationship to other people, while census records provide us with a glimpse into the lives of our families once every ten years, showing us where they lived and what they did for a living. If you hope to really get to know your ancestors however, it’s time you turned to other sources and two of the sources we regularly underuse are maps and directories. We are very lucky to live in the world of digitisation! Digitisation has revolutionised family history, taking records that were previously only available in isolation on the bookshelf and, not only making them accessible at home via the Internet, but evolving them in order to achieve a far greater depth of meaning.

Whereas maps tell us what sort of environment our ancestors lived in, giving an indication of local facilities from railway stations, public houses, factories and public baths, directories give us specific information about the people who actually lived in that environment: where they lived and often their occupation. Directories are excellent sources for fleshing out your  family tree. I traced two of my own relatives Joseph Hemus and his wife Martha in the post office and trade directories for Birmingham between 1880 and the 1920s. From the directories I discovered that although Joseph ran a draper and hosiery business, his wife had her own business as the proprietor of a domestic service agency, initially from the same address as her husband and later at a separate address. The directories also showed that Joseph and Martha had originally lived in and run his draper’s business from one premises but, presumably as his business prospered, he was able to rent separate premises for the business a few streets away from the family home. In his later years a study of the directories once again shows that he moved the business back home and guess he must have downsized the business in his later years.

The beauty of the AddressingHistory project is that it marries these two concepts, producing as it does the results of a surname search in the directories plotted on a map of the environment in which they lived. This means that not only is it easy to pinpoint exactly which part of the city an ancestor  lived in at that time, but that you can simultaneously locate other family members with the same surname living in Edinburgh.  The Edinburgh directory of 1784 predates the first national census that was of any use by some 57 years while both the 1865 and 1905 directories are useful stop gaps in between the decennial census returns. And while we are here – the other great thing about this project is that with the selection of three  maps many years apart it makes  a superb tool for watching the city of Edinburgh develop through the years before your very eyes!

Guest Blog Post: Putting Street Directories on the Map

 Guest Posts  Comments Off on Guest Blog Post: Putting Street Directories on the Map
Sep 212010

This week we are delighted to bring you a guest blog post from Chris Fleet, Senior Map Curator at the National Library of Scotland. Chris shares his perspective on the history of mapping, and particularly urban mapping, and how the historical post office directors fit into this history. Chris also looks at how the AddressingHistory tool will enable a new perspective on these valuable historical resources.

Putting Street Directories on the Map

Towns like Edinburgh are well mapped these days – in electronic and paper forms – but it was not always like this.

Flickr Map Showing an Image of the National Library of Scotland Maps Building

Flickr Map Showing an Image of the National Library of Scotland Maps Building

These days, in addition to ubiquitous electronic maps and satellite images from Google, Bing, or Yahoo, a fresh handful of new paper maps are published every year by mainstream publishers such as the Automobile Association, Collins, Geographers A-Z, or Philips, as well as smaller specialist cartographers. This is without even considering the much larger number of publications including maps within them.

So its easy to forget that this modern abundance of urban mapping doesn’t extend back in time much before the 19th century for Edinburgh. The relatively limited earlier mapping of the burgh from the 16th century onwards for small and specialist audiences, dominated by military concerns, was replaced in the later 18th century by a diverse and steadily expanding civilian urban market. Maps appeared in a range of new publications – almanacs, directories, newspapers, travel accounts, books on history and geography, and publications of learned societies – for new literate audiences.  In addition, the steady replacement of copper-plate engraving by lithography during the 19th century allowed maps to be produced and updated much more cheaply.

Lithographic stone by edinburghcityofprint (the Edinburgh City of Print initiative)

Lithographic stone by edinburghcityofprint (the Edinburgh City of Print initiative)

Maps for Post Office Directories grew both in frequency and in the towns they covered as the century progressed, but they were always driven by these commercial and technological constraints. Only Aberdeen, Dundee,  Edinburgh, and Glasgow were regularly mapped before 1850 in Directories. After Ordnance Survey mapped Scotland’s towns at large scales from 1855-1880, many smaller towns – Ayr, Banff, Dumfries, Greenock and Perth – were mapped for Directories, whilst for the larger towns there were fresh new maps every year. Map publishers such as W & AK Johnston and Bartholomew – both based in Edinburgh too – rose to the fore to dominate production. Although plain and utilitarian, Post Office Directory maps are a key information source. Their value in illustrating the dramatic urban expansion and change at this time is heightened when we put them into a longer historical cartographic context. Ordnance Survey may have mapped these towns in more detail, but far less frequently, so that the Directory maps allow a much more precise record of the changing townscape.

Screen capture of the Bartholomew Post Office Plan of Edinburgh and Leith, 1893-4

Part of the Bartholomew Post Office Plan of Edinburgh and Leith, 1893-4 (click the image to view the map on the NLS website)

For me, whilst Post Office Directory maps on paper have always been fascinating and useful for urban history, digitising, geo-referencing and integrating them with the textual content of the Directory brings out a whole new dimension to their value. Geo-referencing the maps allows them to be readily overlaid and compared to later and present day maps – the Visualising Urban Geographies project allows the advantages of this to be appreciated for maps of Edinburgh from 1765 to 1940. Geo-referencing the written content of the Directory, and creating dynamic spatial distributions of people or professions at the touch of a button, opens up a whole new graphical way of visualising the Directory content. By linking the results to a map of the same time period, the distributions can also be understood and appreciated much more readily. The AddressingHistory tool illustrates this new and powerful way of interrogating the Directories cartographically and geographically, and allows an important, but often neglected genre of urban mapping to be given a new relevance today.

Jul 142010

Hello – and welcome to my first post!

I’d like to let everyone know how things are progressing with the software side of AddressingHistory.  I’ve been working on all aspects of AddressingHistory, from the database (at the back-end), storing information from the Post Office Directories, to the public-facing webpages at the front-end.

A large part of the challenge so far has been to take raw text from the Post Office Directories and turn it in to useful, structured data. This is necessary before you, our future users, can search through it – and add your own data!  I’ve created software that parses the Post Office Directory text, extracts the useful information and loads it in to a spatial database (a database with special features to manage geography). For those who are interested, all the software I’ve written is made with Java, using Spring MCV, runs on Apache Tomcat and the database is PostgreSQL with PostGIS extensions.

I’ve written software which allows easy access to the organised, structured information from the Post Office Directories. It’s known as middleware, or an API.

There is a development version of the API available here, where you can change the parameters to search for your own surname, or address:



You can also search for addressess (using an ‘address=’ parameter) and perform spatial searches on specific areas.  Results are returned in plain-text (comma separated format) or, by default, in JavaScript Object Notation (JSON).

I’ve also been experimenting with Google’s Geocoding API, with some success!  After extracting the address text from each entry in the directories, I send a query to Google’s mapping service in much the same way as you’re probably used to using Google Maps.  It looks as though we can get accurate locations (a process known as ‘geocoding’) for the majority of entries in the Post Office directories.  That will mean we will be asking you to help us locate the small percentage of addresses we cannot automatically geocode, and to help us make sure what we have coded automatically is in the right place. Once we have the coordinates of each entry, they can be shown on a map – and be used to search for results.

So combining the data loaded in the database, the web service to request entries using specific search terms – and the newly geocoded data, we’re able to make some quite interesting maps. For example, this map (unfortunately shown on a modern map of the city for now) is a quick look at the location of some of the bakers, yes, bakers, in Edinburgh, in 1905.


And here, are all the people with a surname of ‘Alexander’…


Thanks for reading – there’ll be more soon!

– Joe.