Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Monday, 26 September 2016

Snoop......... checking out your ancestors' neighbours.....

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Keeping Up With the Joneses: What Your Ancestors’ Neighbours Can Tell You About Them

If you have reached a brick wall searching backwards in time for your nearest and dearest, why not turn your attention instead to those who lived behind the brick walls all around your family home! There’s a lot to be learned by stepping imaginatively int your ancestor’s community. And certainly, there is no quicker way to achieve this than by taking a look in the records at the people who lived next door.

The neighbours were not a mere backdrop to your ancestors’ lives. They were the people who contributed to its overall flavour and occasionally, they may even have taken an active part in your family’s developing history. The neighbours are the people to whom your family would have spoken most frequently on a daily basis, the ones would have informally minded their children, sat with their sick and helped to lay out their dead. In times when shops closed early and telephones didn’t exist, it was to the neighbours that your ancestors would go if they ran out of food, or needed physial or emotional assistance of any kind.  Your ancestors will have shared many experiences with their neighbours – from disease and unemployment to weekend pastimes, holidays and festivals. Neighbours are also the people next to whom your ancestors probably sat in church, and with whom they drank, and played sport at local clubs and pubs. And it’s beside the neighbours too that your ancestors would probably be buried.

All in all, the lives of the people next door may have been more similar to your ancestors’ own than that of their actual kin. So, it’s worth taking a peek behind the net curtains (metaphorically speaking) to find out more.

Neighbours in the Records.

Many kinds of record can tell you more about your ancestors’ neighbours:

  • Nineteenth- and early twentieth century- censuses are probably the most useful documents for this purpose. (1841 to 1911 are now available online). To discover more about relevant neighbours, scroll down the page and visit the pages before and after the entries for your ancestors’ family.

  • Birth marriage and death certificates may reveal that the people next door were the informants or witnesses at major events in your family’s history.

  • Trade directories (many of which are searchable online at will give you the names of people running businesses adjacent to those run by your family. Such directories tend to be organised in several different ways (alphabetically, under type of business and – crucially for the study of neighbours – as building by building indexes of streets).

  • A wealth of other records including: court records, membership books of working-men’s clubs, records of scout groups, the account books of local friendly societies and sick clubs, passenger lists may unexpectedly reveal the names and addresses of those who lived near to your ancestors and who shared aspects of their lives with them.

Ten Things to Consider

1. Family On the Doorstep

With people in the past settling away from home less often than they do today, it was common for siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins to live in neighbouring streets, if not in neighbouring houses. It is always worth scrolling down through census pages immediately before and after those on which your ancestors appear just to see whether the same surname (or any other family surname) turns up. But be careful, identical surnames do not necessarily indicate a family connection.

2. The House Next Door

From 1861 onwards, the censuses for England and Wales asked whether houses were inhabited or uninhabited. In theory, then, you should be able to get a feel for exactly how populated your ancestors’ street or area was. But take care with this information: in fact, many buildings in city centres which may have been full of life during the daytime, would have been uninhabited on the night of the census because they were workshops and not living quarters.

From 1891, the census asked how many rooms in a house were occupied (if fewer than five) and Scottish censuses from 1861 also asked how many rooms in each residence had windows  (a question generated by the general mid-nineteenth century concern about the lack of ventilation in overcrowded homes). By looking at these figures for your ancestors and their neighbours, you should be able to work out how your ancestors’ houses compared in size (and light!) to those in their immediate vicinity.

3. Making a Living

Comparing the employment of your ancestor with those of his immediate neighbours (as recorded on the census and in trade directories) can be an illuminating exercise. Were the neighbours in the same basic income bracket as your ancestors or not? Was it common it that area to take in lodgers? Were your ancestors in some sort of working relationship with the neighbours? Perhaps they occupied a lodge house on a large estate? Maybe the two families shared a workshop?

My great-grandfather, William Symes (living in 1891 at number 29 Llanfair Street, Ancoats) was a ‘carter’, sometimes described as a ‘townsman’. His neighbour, Mr Hoyle (at number 23) was a ‘railway warehouseman’, another, Mr Lewis (No 27) was an iron ‘turner’. Mr Dean (at number 31) was an ‘iron moulder’ (and his mother with whom he shared a house was a charwoman). Mr Dore (round the corner at 2, Waugh Street) was a ‘sewing machine mechanic’. The offspring of these men were ‘carter’s assistants,’ ‘general labourers’, ‘lurrymen,’ and ‘coal dealers’. In this sense, the Symes family were entirely typical of their neighbourhood being employed in the lower (but not the lowest) end of industrial-related work.

4. Places of Origin

Censuses asked for the place of birth of everyone living in a house. It is interesting to compare birthplaces of all the inhabitants of a street. In late nineteenth century Manchester – a city to which thousands migrated - it is hardly surprising to find that the adult inhabitants of a single street were all born elsewhere in places such as Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. My family, unusually, had come from much further afield. William Symes was born in Martock, Somersetshire and his wife Elizabeth (nee Terrell), in Henstridge, Somersetshire. I have often wondered whether they were considered a bit strange or different because of their south-western accents? Did they have different habits and customs, different ways of dressing and different tastes in food from their northwesterly neighbours?

By contrast, you may find that your ancestors’ neighbours all hail from a similar area. Many inhabitants of particular Irish villages, for instance, came and settled in England’s big industrial cities and it was natural that they would want to live close to those who had been neighbours at home.

5. Chatting across the garden fence

It’s pleasant to think of our ancestors gossiping with their neighbours across hedges and fences. But remember that, especially in the growing industrial cities, many languages would have been spoken within a small geographical area. Manchester, for example, had an influx of Russian Jews, German and Italians, amongst many other nationalities. Scottish censuses asked whether or not residents could speak Gaelic. It is interesting to compare neighbours in this respect. Residents who could not speak the language of the rest of their community may have been very isolated.

6.  Families Large and Small?

It is easy to imagine that the number of children your family had was entirely a matter of personal choice, but research has proved otherwise. The size of your family will actually probably have reflected that of other families around them in their neighbourhood. In some communities, such as those where heavy industries were the main source of work, families tended to be large in every generation right up to the end of the nineteenth century. For them, it was useful to have many children who could ultimately bring in a wage. In other areas, however, such as mill towns like Bolton, Lancashire, where there were many women in the labour force, fertility rates among the working classes were generally low.

7. Present at the Death

Neighbours sometimes entered into our family histories at crucial moments. If a neighbour witnessed a birth or a death or a marriage, his or her name might be recorded on the corresponding certificates.

My great-great-great grandfather, also William Symes, was a farm labourer, who died in Martock, Somerset of typhoid fever in 1864. The informant of his death was a woman named Sarah Margery who is described as being ‘ in attendance.’ This suggests that she was nursing him through his final illness. I searched for Sarah Margery in the Martock census and discovered that she was a neighbour of William’s. In the census of 1881, she appears as a ‘washerwoman’ and in 1891 as a ‘sick nurse’ lodging in the house of an elderly local lady. This local do-gooder is still recorded as living in Martock in the census of 1901.

  1. Neighbours from Hell

Court records reveal that many legal disputes in the past – just as now - were between close neighbours. Neighbours may have disputed boundaries and entitlements, for example, and there is always the possibility that your ancestors suffered from the types of crime, such as assault and affray, that often occur between people living in close proximity. The records of serious crimes which resulted in cases at the Old Bailey and the Assize Courts are kept at the National Archives ( Those for smaller crimes, which were dealt with in Magistrates’ courts and Quarter Sesssions, are likely to be held in local archives (but can be searched via the same website). The addresses of the plaintiffs and the accused will alert you to those cases in which neighbours were involved.

9. Communities on the Move

The neighbours may have been even more actively engaged in joint enterprise with your ancestors. When I was researching the history of my great-great uncle, Lancashire miner, Rueben Wilkinson, I began by assuming that he had travelled to America in 1907 as a lone adventurer seeking to make his fortune. As I scrolled down through the relevant passenger lists at (http//, however, I realised (by looking at their recorded addresses) that many of the other passengers were from the same part of Lancashire (from Leigh, Westhougton and  Wigan). They were all going to work as miners in the town of Roslyn, Washington State. Far from being a man on a lonely mission, Rueben was one of a group of many neighbours. His trip was a community affair.

10. Till Death Us Do Part

If you are researching ancestors who fought in the First World War, it is worth scrolling down through the 1911 census as well as looking at military records. Many neighbours and friends joined up together – a phenomenon actively encouraged by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, in the early days of the conflict. Kitchener believed that more men would join the army if they thought that they would be fighting alongside friends, neighbours and work colleagues (‘Pals’) rather than being allocated to regular army regiments.

All this goes to show that if you are dipping into census and other material simply to find details about your own ancestors, you are missing a trick. Taking a look at the   circumstances of ‘them next-door’, can put you in the picture of your own family’s lives in a way no photograph or book ever can. 

Useful Websites  Site listing many searchable trade directories online Gives some general information about some of the norms of Victorian employment, income, family size etc. On the accommodation and facilities in Victorian homes of all classes.

Useful Books

Benson. John, The Working-Class in Britain, 1850-1939, I. B. Tauris, 2003

Davies. Andrew and Fielding, Steven, eds, Workers' Worlds: Cultures and Communities in Manchester and Salford, 1880-1939, (MUP, 1992).

Garrett, E. et al, Changing Family Size in England and Wales, 1891 –1911, CUP, 2006

Laybourn. Keith, ed. Social Conditions, Status and Community, 1860-c.1920:
Sutton, 1997.

Turner. William, Pals: the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington), East Lancashire Regiment, Pen and Sword Books, 1993.

#familytree #ancestors #ancestry #neighbours #neighbors #certifiates #neighbourhoods  #neighborhoods #genealogy

Austerity and the taking in of lodgers

Mystery Guests in the Family

Ruth A. Symes

Recent austerity has forced many of us to consider innovative ways to increase the amount of cash in our pockets.  Liquidating the capital in our homes by re-mortgaging is a popular, if chancy method, but property has proved to be a valuable cash cow in other ways as well. Across the country, garages and attics have been cleaned out and rented as storage space or offices, for example, and many families in straightened circumstances have dusted down their spare rooms and rented them out, for months, weeks and even a night at a time. Likewise young people with no property to their names have found lodging to be a cost effective way of making the move to a new city for work.

Lodging and its more casual sidekick, so- called ‘sofa-surfing,’- might seem like a relatively cool and modern phenomenon, but  turning domestic space into hard cash is actually an age-old practice with its heyday in the Victorian period. And it should come as no surprise to family historians to find that many of their ancestors spent time as a landlord or a lodger, or even both, at moments in their lives when money was short.

Mystery guests pop up in homes all the time on the decennial censuses taken between 1841 and 1911 (and now easily available online at websites such as and The young man making a furtive appearance in one small Manchester terrace in 1891, for example, was 22 year-old Thomas Metcalf. After a bit of delving and with a better understanding of the times, his situation became clear. Thomas’s birthplace was Farndon in Cheshire, but his employment was as a carter on the railway in central Manchester (an employment he shared with his landlord). With bicycles, trams, cars and buses not yet invented, and train lines limited, the best option for Thomas would have been to find lodgings and walk to work.  

Young women were not considered safe in homes that took in lodgersAdd caption

Like Thomas, the vast majority of lodgers in the Victorian period were young men who may have moved to the industrial centres from rural areas, or indeed from other urban areas. They included navvies and builders who were gradually constructing the great Victorian cities. Many also came from the aspiring lower-middle and professional classes and included shop assistants, clerks, accountants, and trainee clerics. Workers may have lodged on a weekly basis returning home at the weekends, or may have lodged seasonally, moving on when their contracts finished.

In 1901, the same terraced house put a roof over the head of another paying guest, 55 year-old Hannah Perkinson, described on the census as ‘a weaver in a cotton factory.’  Contrary to popular belief a fair number of nineteenth-century females in trades such as dressmaking lodged in towns far from the places where they had been born and where the rest of their families remained. Unlike Thomas who was described as a lodger, Hannah was a ‘boarder.’ Her hosts, it seems had wised up. Boarders paid more since they took their meals with the family.

In the Victorian period, those who took in lodgers tended to fall into well-defined categories: widows and other unsupported women especially those who had previously worked as domestic servants; poverty-stricken and child-free couples in late middle age or early retirement; and poor young families where children were small and could easily be bundled into the same room as their parents thus freeing up space for newcomers. Whoever they were, the Victorian press turned up its nose up at those desperate enough to have to rent out parts their homes. Today, thankfully, the stigma is gone. Taking in lodgers is a practice undertaken by all manner of folk at all stages of their lives.

Modern landlords have it pretty easy compared to their Victorian counterparts. Our ancestors’ lodgers – though they might have had to bring their own ‘effects’ (i.e. furniture) with them -   expected their landlord or landlady to provide ‘attendance, light and firing.’ Attendance meant carrying water for the lodger, emptying his slops such as waste waters and chamber-pots, making his fire, running errands for him and cleaning his boots. ‘Light’ and ‘firing’ referred to the supply of candles and coal, a Victorian equivalent perhaps of access to electricity and WIFI today.  Rather than popping something in the communal microwave, nineteenth- century lodgers might have made meals on the fires within their own rooms, or might have bought their own food and paid a small sum for it to be cooked by the landlady.

Combatting austerity isn’t easy. Niggles about cleaning the bathroom, respecting private space and guarding property are all commonly cited as areas of conflict in the landlord-lodger arrangement. And so it was in the nineteenth century when the press relished describing the supposed uncleanliness and immorality of houses that were partly rented out. Male lodgers, it was frequently suggested, might defile their female hosts on the backstairs; female lodgers, on the other hand, were characterised as leading ‘loose’ lives away from the watchful eye of their parents. And then there were the many tales of neglectful lodgers who left candles or fires burning in their rooms which could potentially be a danger to property and people.

But let’s not forget the bonuses of the lodging arrangement. Many landlords now and in the past have achieved a better standard of life because of the money brought in by their lodgers, and the lodgers themselves, (able to live affordably near their work ), have, in turn, been able to support their own families back home.  

My new book, Unearthing Family Tree Mysteries, looks at a number of topical issues from our family histories such as lodging, emigration for work, fertility issues, and women’s career aspirations. Based on case studies which investigate 12 family history mysteries, this book gives practical tips on how to make best use of many kinds of historical record (including census material, birth, marriage and death certificates, recipe books, diaries, and passports), and how to set your ancestors’ stories in their correct historical context.


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#familytree #genealogy #familytree #ancestors #lodgers #austerity #landlords #victorian