Have you ever wondered just where your ancestors lived, and what their homes looked like? This is one of the questions that inevitably will arise in a genealogical search, but it also comes into play in getting better acquainted with parents and grandparents, and discovering what their surroundings were like when they were growing up. Understanding their particular circumstances, in the greater social and historical context, can provide a great deal of insight into their background and how they functioned within their society. It also can provide a basis for the genesis of attitudes and outlooks on life which may have been passed down through a number of generations.
My parents both were children of Ontario pioneers, who helped open up the northern part of the province in the early 1900s. Carving out a living in the forested lands was not easy, and led to the development of a strong work ethic in my parents and their siblings. My father’s childhood home is still standing, as is his father’s. I remember visiting both farms as a child, although at the time, the significance of my great-grandparents’ farmhouse and homestead (at that time inhabited by my aunt and her husband), as the place where the family settled in Canada, were lost on me. That property has been in the family since before 1899, when my great-grandparents, recently arrived from England, purchased it from my great-grandmother’s cousin, who was moving west to homestead.
On my mother’s side, my maternal grandmother’s parental home still exists in southern Ontario, and until fairly recently, was still owned by a descendant. My maternal grandfather came to Canada in the late 1800s with his mother and stepfather. The family home was on an island, which I have not yet visited, as it is accessible only by boat.
I am quite disappointed that the family home in which my mother grew up no longer exists, although there are a number of photographs, and a painting or two, of the old home, which was the site of so many of the stories I heard as a child. My husband and I recently visited the site, at the top of a hill overlooking the village in the valley below. We drove in via what clearly was once a lane, but the only evidence we could see of past human habitation was a large patch of rhubarb growing amid the weeds and scrub. It is such a sad, deserted, desolate place now, where a large family of happy, lively, mischievous children once did their chores, played on the rocks and in the barn, explored in the forest, and walked along the road to the schoolhouse in the village! The contrast reminds me of the James Lumbers paintings, with ghostly images of past times superimposed on images of the present.
In 2005, I decided to visit England and take a look at the villages where some of my ancestors had lived. One of my cousins, also a genealogy buff, happened to be in England at the same time with his wife. We arranged to visit the family home of an ancestor in Yorkshire. A seventh cousin lives in what used to be the farmworkers’ quarters, and he showed us around the lovely property and other family holdings in the area, some having been in the family since the 1300s. I remember standing in the back yard of the main home looking out over the rolling hills, and being struck with the realization that an ancestor some 500 years before had lived on this property, and had looked out over those same hills! It was quite an emotional moment – somewhat eerie, somewhat humbling, and definitely elating and exciting, all at the same time. In the short time I had been in England, I had noted a strong sense of history in general, with its many buildings dating back a thousand years or more; but this was personal – a connection with my own forebears, going back hundreds of years, which I had not felt before.
In a more recent quest, my mother-in-law indicated that she was travelling to Norfolk, England, from where both she and a number of my paternal forebears had originated. She offered to go to the village where my great-grandfather and three generations before him had lived, and to take photos of the homes in which they had lived, if I could determine from the census or other documents which houses they were. (My husband and I had visited the village in 2005, but, with the limited time available, took only a few photos in the town before moving on). At first, I thought that would be an easy task. However, I soon discovered that the earlier census documents listed no street numbers or names; all streets, other than the main road which ran along the edge of the village green, were identified as “Back Street”. The more recent census documents did identify a few street names, but other than the one or two that can still be seen on a map today, the other street names had changed.
After several hours pouring over old maps of the village which I found on the internet, looking for “landmarks” in the census documents (such as churches and pubs) which might still be in the same location today, and attempting to determine the route which the census enumerators had taken in each census, I gave her reference points in relation to the three non-conformist churches in the town. However, with the passing of time, many of the older houses have been knocked down to make way for much larger, more modern homes, and it is difficult to determine how many dwellings were removed in the process. It therefore appears to be unlikely that the actual houses in which they lived can be pinpointed with any degree of certainty.
My mother-in-law later reported that someone in the village had told her that there were no names on the streets, or house numbers, until the 1960s. (Hence the English custom of naming a home, to distinguish it from all the others.) She came away with a treasure-trove of photographs of the village, along with some possibilities for the houses in which my ancestors had lived, based on the census documents, but it appears that it may be impossible to identify them with any degree of certainty. The village green, however, still contains virtually all of the same buildings that were there in my ancestors’ time, and the Anglican church and yard, where many of them were christened, married, and buried, still stands on the hill overlooking the town. The manor house of their day is now a “care home”. The school which my greatgrandfather briefly attended is still there, and is now a private home. While the exact houses in which they lived may not be readily identifiable, there still are significant landmarks and buildings which I know were part of my ancestors’ everyday lives.
Finding ancestral homes or visiting the villages they lived in has added a new dimension to my genealogical research, and has made dry statistics of births, marriages, and deaths come alive, rendering them more meaningful. These are places where people whose blood runs through my veins once lived and worked. Next stops: Scotland and Wales!