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How maps and photographs can bring your family history to life

Watch this video to learn how maps and photographs can bring your family history to life
These are two maps of an area in Govan. This is a map here and what’s really interesting about it, if your ancestors lived in an area like this, it shows you what surrounds them. Is it an industrial area, is it an area with a lot of parts? This one happens to be a shipbuilding area with a lot of industry, but also a lot of other things here. So, if you see, we’ve got the dock area here, the Prince’s Dock, which is in Glasgow. And there are sources for that dock there that would tell you all about that. And a lot of people living here would actually be working in Prince’s Dock.
It shows you the town hall here, and it also shows you a brass foundry. So a lot of industrial works here, you can see it’s a very industrialised area. It also shows you a church here, so we know this is an Episcopal church. If your ancestor was Episcopalian, you would actually say, well, that’s the church they might have attended, so we’re going to be looking for the church records there. It shows you the school records, and it shows you the school. If I can just find the school– give me a wee second. There’s the school there. It shows you the school, so we’ve got a school here.
So that’s really interesting if you want find out about school records, which you can very easily discover. That actually tells you the name… gives you the name of the school. And actually, would give you a plan of the school, as well. And we know we’ve got a U.F. church here, and we’ve got a Roman Catholic church here. So it will give you all those clues that you want to see about your family history. We know now it’s a very highly industrialised area. We know which churches and which schools are there. We can guess where your ancestors might have worked, because they’re living in that area. People very often worked in the locality rather than travelled.
So this is a really vital, kind of visual clue about the context your ancestors lived in. The other really great source for family history is photographs, and I’m going to look at a number of photographs. I don’t want to say a lot about them because I think they tell their own story. But the photographs, some of them are documentary. What they’re actually doing is..they are.. the authorities are actually recording conditions in a particular period, maybe recording changes in conditions so that they can say they have made improvements, recording people’s occupations.
So I’m going to show photographs of actual street scenes so that you can understand, people will understand what it’s like for your ancestors to have walked those streets at that time, to see the social conditions, to look at other things that tell you about what the lives were like. This is a really major source for actually bringing your family history to life. This is part of a wonderful series of three of four volumes of photographs taken in 1914. It is of the city of Glasgow, but you’ll see these photographs, again for cities across the world. The photographs have actually been taken to show how crowded Glasgow is, because they actually wanted to have a new tramway system.
And if you look at these, they are absolutely wonderful and actually evoke what city life was like in that period, just before the first World War. I’m going to show you some other photographs, actually, you might be really interested in terms of your family history. We have here records of criminals, you know. So, if you’re interested, if you find that your ancestor might have been a criminal, there’s a lot of records that you may want to find, you may want to see– but photographs are really, really– they’re really interesting. I have to say, of all the photographs we pull out, the ones that have most interest are the criminal photographs. Everybody absolutely loves them.
They all want to have a criminal ancestor, so that’s really, really interesting. If I could just– I’ll just pull some of these out for you.
OK, this tells you the name of the person, the criminal, here, although I suppose I should say the alleged criminal. And if you look at that, they’re actually showing their hands so they can count their digits. And actually, it’s very interesting in terms of that individual, but it’s also very interesting in terms of what’s going on, in terms of life in a big city, about what the offences are in a city that has a lot of poverty and a lot of issues. And so this is telling you his name. It tells you what his charge– he was charged with embezzlement. He came from Belfast, which is really interesting, again.
That kind of link to Ireland is a very interesting part of this. He’s aged 19. He’s 5 foot 4”. He’s a canvasser. His complexion is fresh, I suppose, that would please your ancestor, when you find your ancestor. He’s blue–he’s got blue eyes. He’s got dark hair. So it’s really an interesting piece of information there. So we’ve now looked at photographs of the criminals. I’ll just look at photographs of school children, and women, and other people going around their lives, just to show the social conditions and what was like to be going to school and living in a place like Glasgow. I want to show you those now.
These are two photographs of schools in Glasgow in 1914– sorry, 1916, I should say. These are photographs of two schools in Glasgow in 1916. They’re really interesting. We’ve got a lot of school records that actually would back these up. But you actually see what it was like to be attending the school. What’s interesting, I always think is the number of children in the classroom, which I’m sure would create horror nowadays, but also they’re actually using bricks and they’ve got a lot of visual aids.
But actually, if your ancestor went to school at this period, it would give you a little feel, that kind of pictorial feel, what it was like to be a school child in an area like this at that period. I want to show you some of the other photographs that just tell you about what society was like and what the photograph, what the condition, living conditions were. This is two photographs here– of people in their houses. I always think she looks really downtrodden and he looks as if he’s got a good life here, but you can see the absolute poverty that exists at that period.
And what’s really interesting about these photographs that tell you why we have archives and why they’ve been created, they’ve been created to show the conditions in the city. They’re actually documentary photographs and we’ve got a large number of these, so people– we actually know what it was like. And that was the authorities actually wanting to record that so they could make improvements. And if you just look at a couple of others here, this is a woman with her child, with a district nurse, and it’s quite interesting. the photographer, what they have done is.. they’ve made one looking in, interviewing the woman, but the other one the other way around– and with the baby.
But it’s not all about poverty, so I’ve just pulled out some from the other half of the– pulled some for people who are much better off, and this is actually Ibroxhill House, and it’s the Smiths of Jordanhill, who owned that. And it’s a can see the woman are actually playing croquet, probably just about the same, not much earlier, than these same women. So it actually shows you the kind of divisions in a city or in an area, and shows you those divisions. And it depends which area your ancestor comes from, whether what you get is these or what you get is these.
I always like to make the point when you’re doing your family history, you never know where they come from. You never know what they are. They might be poor now but have come from money a long time ago. They might be rich now but come from something else. It is a journey and it’s a journey not everyone– you may not always like the results, but you can see from this that there are big divides and you can see different areas. What’s interesting about these photographs here, rich people will always get their photographs taken. In terms of poor people, they’re getting their photographs taken for a particular purpose. It’s their lives being detailed and documented.
So in fact, it’s very unusual to have these photographs and to be able to actually access them and see them. And even if it’s not about your ancestor, it’s about somebody else’s ancestor and their life’s maybe been pretty similar to the person you’re looking for.

Dr Irene O’Brien, Senior Archivist at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland shares some examples of maps and photographs from their collection and discusses how these sources can bring your family history to life.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information or useful links to sources on the topic.

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