Write: Census

Re-create a sense of time and place

We’ve all done it; in the excitement of pursuing an ancestor, we gallop through the census returns, from one decade back to the next, without giving them more than a cursory look. Yet census returns can tell us so much – they represent a dovetailing of person, time and place.

If the family home is still standing, then make a site visit or take a ‘street view’ on Google maps. Whether or not it has been demolished, use old maps and trade directories to build a picture of the surrounding streets; with a bit of imagination, you can still walk in the footsteps of your ancestors.

Let’s face it, the facts we know about our ancestral homes can be sparse, so we might need to rely on dashes of local and social history to shape a story. Archive images, wills and inventories, and newspaper listings can all add to the picture.

1871 George and Martin Collis at Spinney Hill Tavern LEIRG10_3268_3271-0478

Take a look at these brief stories inspired by census returns:

Martin Collis at the Spinney Hill Tavern (1871)

Now try this: Start with your family household, and then radiate out along the street or through the neighbourhood. Consider the style of architecture, the topography of the landscape, the mix of local residents. Use your senses: can you hear children playing, is that a malty smell from the brewery nearby?


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