By Yvonne Higgins


Family History research involves the study of a variety of written or pictorial sources. There are many sources and each one has it’s own merits. One source perhaps not immediately considered and therefore possibly underused is that of maps. These are worthy of investigation because they can show a wealth of information useful to the family historian. If we seek to discover not only who our ancestors were, but also maybe even more importantly how they lived, then the interpretation of maps is a valid exercise to undertake. A myriad of different maps have been produced, and studying them gives an insight into how a particular area has developed either from within, or through economic or social changes of the era. Maps represent a window through time back to a bygone age. They have been in existence thousands of years. The earliest maps date back to the Ancient Egyptians.


A short examination of the different types of maps sets the scene for more detailed observations. By taking a study of the maps of a particular area we can attempt to ‘map out’ how an area has altered to meet the needs of its people.


In medieval times the gentry owned much of the land and any maps were crudely drawn and rather imprecise. Estate plans were sometimes commissioned by landowners to ensure effective rent fixing and collection, or to be used as evidence in a dispute on boundaries.


Increased agricultural demand led to the enclosing of land previously used as common land or by the re-arranging and consolidation of strips of land into one area of ownership. Some 6 million acres were enclosed between 1700 and 1845. Enclosure Maps produced at this time ranged from detailed maps of whole parishes to outline sketches showing only property boundaries. At the time of enclosure some villages ceased to exist and proof exists by studying maps over this period.


Tithe maps came into existence following the requirement of payments in kind to each vicar or rector. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 required each owner of property to pay over an amount of money, a tithe ie a tenth. This necessitated a detailed map of the parish to be drawn up and the tithes were not purely based on land but included houses and gardens. The maps therefore tended to be large in scale so that each house could be separately numbered. Most maps were drawn between 1838 and 1854. They are very useful because they show the boundaries of the ancient parishes the ecclesiastical parish, rather than the civil parish. Like the enclosure maps they have awards attached to them giving details of the names of the owners and tenants of the land, names of the fields and show how each piece of land is cultivated. A valuable source for the family historian.


County maps are another source. Because they covered a wider area they only give details of a general nature. John Speed was a well-known mapmaker of his day and compiled many maps see Appendix A illustrating a section of Warwickshire in 1610. Although spellings have altered many of the places can still be identified today.


Ordinance survey maps are perhaps the most well known in modern times and these have been around since 1801. These maps can be analysed to show the development an area has undergone from rural beginnings to a built up urban environment.

Maps were also compiled for military purposes, to show lines of communication, to indicate drainage and to describe the geography of an area. Each map has its own inherent use and would have been specially commissioned. The more recent maps because of modern methods can be relied on more for their accuracy than the older maps.


Today libraries and record offices hold copies of maps, so that they are easily accessible for the family historian and are in most cases quite legible. Books of maps have also been published usually concentrating on a specific area eg Harvey and Thorpe’s The Printed Maps of Warwickshire, 1576-1900 (1959). More general books have also been published eg J Booth’s Antique Maps of Wales (1979).


Family history research as a starting point begins with a surname but it also starts with an area in which that person is resident. It is therefore useful to gain some background information on that local area. If the family have lived in the same area for generations then the use of maps becomes even more interesting. By looking at maps through different centuries and even in the last 50 years we are able to trace a development and see whether the area has changed much. If the area is not local then the acquisition of maps will bring it more to life if the researcher is unable to visit the area personally.


Certain clues can lead the researcher on to investigating other resources. Going back only a hundred years, for example, the country was far more rural. There would have been no cars and the pace of life would have been vastly different to what it is now. A young child of that time would have walked to school and the village school may be shown on a map, as would the local church. These 2 places could be checked to see if they are still in existence and then contact could be made to see if they have any records. The Census will provide details of the occupation of adults being researched, and investigation of local maps can then be made to see where factory or farms were situated. Did they have far to travel to work, church or school?


Boldmere is an area within the boundaries of Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands. In 1997 it is a community comprising of a main street of shops and a development of council and private housing. It is located close to Sutton Park, and is served by bus and train to the local towns and to the city of Birmingham, which is some 7 miles away. But how, when and why did it develop into what it is now?


In John Speed’s map of 1610 there is no mention of Boldmere, The area in which it is included was under the name of Cofield Wast, an apt name for the area was ‘an open, wild and windy expanse, covered with gorse.’ K J Williams A History of Boldmere (1994).


In 1856 a Valuation Map (see Appendix B) was compiled for this district and it is shown under the name of The Coldfield. The purpose of this map was to establish the parish of St Michael’s Boldmere (this is the name of the local church although strangely it was not actually built until a year later). From looking at the map we can see that there were 2 roads Boldmere Road and Jockey Road which are still the main 2 roads in Boldmere today, although of course many others have been added. Each plot is allocated a number and a value would have been placed on every field and house. There are houses shown down one side of Boldmere Road, which today are a row of shops. There is mention of a National School that the local children would have attended.


An Ordnance Survey map of around the same period (see Appendix C) shows the area known as the Coldfield in its relation to Birmingham and surrounding districts. The area is still predominantly rural with only a forge giving any clue to any form of industry undertaken there. If the 1841 census is used in conjunction with the map it indicates that there were a small number of people involved including John Willets aged 25 forgeman, John Page aged 35 spade maker, and John Harris aged 50 sawmaker. A clue to the future growth and development of Boldmere is there, in the presence of a railway link from Sutton Coldfield to Birmingham, which runs through the area known then as the Coldfield.


By 1906 we can see from the Ordnance Survey map (see Appendix D) that further development has taken place. There is mention of Stonehouse Farm and Mill, and today Stonehouse Road runs along the same path. St Michael’s church has been built and also a Roman Catholic chapel. There is a post office and schools but the area to the west is still fields. Gibbet Hill is an interesting reference and leads the reader on to wondering how it got its name. Research shows that a John Johnson, a silk dyer from London was murdered on 28th March 1729. Edward Allport was found guilty of his murder. He was hung on a gibbet and his body was left there for some considerable time as a warning to others. Hence the name that was given of ‘Gibbet Hill’. The area has ceased to be known as this and a development of houses stands there with the owners presumably quite oblivious to it’s murky past!

A 1937 map (See appendix E) shows the startling development that Boldmere has undergone in a quarter of a century. New roads have been built, new houses have been erected and the main Boldmere Road has shops on both sides to meet the needs of a growing community. There are public houses, a bowling green, tennis courts and a club to provide for the leisure requirements of its residents. This club was actually later to become the Boldmere Methodist Church!


Post war further housing was provided and the area to the east of the shops was included in this development. On a 1 inch to the mile map of 1967 (see Appendix F) Boldmere is clearly shown as a built up area far different from a mere hundred years before.


To summarise, the use of maps has a valuable contribution to make to the investigation of a particular area when studying family history. It should be used in conjunction with other sources for maximum benefit.



Sources used:

‘A History of Boldmere’ by K J Williams 1994 Westwood Press Publications


‘Local History for Beginners’ by R Dunning 1980 Phillimore and Co Ltd


‘Maps & Plans for the local historian and collector’ by D Smith 1988 BT Batsford Ltd


Primary Sources - copies of various maps


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Copyright 1997 Yvonne Higgins