Monday, 15 June 2015

Finding vanished houses

How often have you spent time looking at old maps and documents, tracking down places your ancestors lived in... but which don’t exist any more? Recently I’ve been doing a lot of that. So this month I’m going to share some of my ancestor-mapping with you.

Because the people and places I’ve been hunting for have been in London, I’ve been very lucky to be time-travelling in a place which has been regularly mapped over centuries.

Many members of the Worldwide Genealogy community will be much more experienced at this kind of research. Perhaps you’re part of a one place study? I’d love to read your comments and suggestions.

Reading Mercury report of the murder of Celestina Christmas
The houses I was looking for were 16 and 17 Murray Street, near the New North Road in the Finsbury/Islington/Hoxton area of north London in 1856. Confession time: the people who lived there weren’t ancestors, but they were part of the story of a horrible child murder which dragged my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington, into the newspapers - and of another child murder at the house next door to where the victim's aunt lived. You can read about them here.

At first, I couldn’t find a Murray Street in the right area. So either it had changed its name since the 1850s or it didn’t exist any more. The next step could’ve been a lot of searching, but luckily there are two useful sources for older London street names: the Survey of London and Pubs History.

The Survey of London was published in the 1890s and is now easily available through British History Online, which is a wonderful resource for anyone researching 19th century Britain. Pubs History is surprisingly helpful because it lists old and new names for streets in England. I’d come across it while writing about one of my criminal ancestors, who was transported to New South Wales for stealing a pub till. And Pubs History came up trumps: Murray Street was renamed as Murray Grove some time after 1938.

Leeds Intelligencer report of the McNeil murders
Now to find numbers 16 and 17. The newspaper report described them as ‘adjoining’, or next to each other. Usually odd and even numbers are on opposite sides of a street, but a quick session on Google Streetview showed that in Murray Grove the numbers run 1,2,3, not 1,3,5. Another problem solved. So where were 16 and 17? Streetview also showed me that none of the buildings in Murray Grove looked as if they dated back to the 1850s. And very few of them had house numbers. Luckily a search came up with a flat for sale in a tower block, no 13, which gave me a reference point to calculate roughly where 16 and 17 might be.

It was time to hit the old maps. There are so many online now, and London’s especially well documented at Mapco, a wonderful site (which also has a lot of historical Australian images). I’ve often found that the place I’m looking for is right on the edge of two different maps, and Murray Grove is no different. But I found some great ones for the right period.

Cross's 1861 map, with 16 Murray Street in green and 17 in red
Kelly's map of 1867, showing nos 16 and 17
Weller's map of 1868, the most detailed of the three maps

The part of the street where 16 and 17 used to be is unrecognisable now. Instead of houses and small streets behind them there’s a block of housing set back from the road. I've posted about what the houses might have looked like here.

I wondered why this area had changed so much. Had it been bombed during the Second World War? Again, there’s a brilliant website to go to: Bomb Sight, which maps the London Blitz of 1940-1941. And it shows that a bomb had dropped in roughly the same place as my two houses once stood.

Bomb Sight map. The two blue spots show nos 13 and 24 Murray Grove

I wanted to get a feeling of Murray Grove on the ground. I was in the area a few days ago and that gave me the chance to get an idea of real space, which even the best maps can’t give you. I even found another numbered tower block, no 24, so I had better co-ordinates to work out where 16 and 17 might’ve been – though after the bombing, there’d be less need to keep to the older layout of the street. Still, I pinned 16 and 17 down to a short stretch, just past the area where the orange-topped bins are now.

Murray Grove in 2015. The block at no 13 is at the extreme left of the photo. © Frances Owen 2015

Back at home I went back to the maps. I’d been puzzled by not finding nos 16 and 17 in the 1861 and 1871 censuses (had they been pulled down?), but they were there in the 1881 census. Phew. I headed for another website which had often come up with great results, the National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced map images, where you can see old Ordnance Survey maps overlaid on modern maps or satellite images. Counting the houses from the end of the southern side of the street, I thought I’d miscalculated by two. Nos 16 and 17 seemed to be a bit further on.

Murray Street, OS 25 inch, 1890s-1920s
But then I looked at a slightly newer, post-war map. The first two houses were marked 1a and 2a, then the numbers started again at 1 and 2. Who’d have guessed? And even handier, the two tower blocks I’d used for reference were built on the sites of two pubs, which were clearly marked. I’ve shown them with blue spots on the maps here. So my hunch had been about right, and I’d got 16 and 17 Murray Street.

Murray Grove, London/TQ, 1:1,250/1:2,500 1947-1964
I don’t know if this kind of research throws any huge light on the historical facts, but it gives me a bigger picture of the world these people lived in over 150 years ago. It brings genealogy to life. And though it was hard work, I do enjoy tracking down the places where my ancestors and their families and neighbours were. Do you?

Maps I used for this project:

Kelly’s Post Office Directory 1857:
Cross’s New Plan 1861:

Newspaper reports: via


  1. I have looked for ancestor homes and found most of them gone, parking lots and vacant lots. Very sad. Sometimes there will be a house surviving in the block that I think might have looked like, but usually the whole block is gone.

  2. A very interesting example of how family history can take us in so many diverse directions such as mapping and house history.

    Family History Fun

  3. I have had such a great time doing this with a few of the ancestors I research. Fascinating study.


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