Heritage from your Armchair - Searching for the Past with Online Resources (Part 1)

This blog post is going to be different to the previous explorations of on-line museum collections. This time it is going to focus on some excellent internet resources that are available to do your own research. It’s also going to be more personal as I’m going to share a process that helped me connect with my family’s past, where I am from and get to the bottom of a mystery I have been trying to work out for over a decade.  I will share how I have used maps and some other historical and geographical information online to do a little bit of my own family history in the hope that it will help you see how these resources work and tempt you to explore them. I believe heritage is about connecting us to our past, our places and our communities. The resources I have highlighted below have helped me do that and I hope others might find they help them make those connections too.

There are two hard-to-get-to-know men at the heart of this story. The first was my grandfather who passed away around 18 months ago. Physically he didn’t have a whole lot to give though was always generous with what he did have. He was also from a generation of men who played their cards close to their chest. The snippets of information he passed to me about his family and where they were from were the most precious gifts he gave to me. He once told me a story about how, although we didn’t have much as a working class family from east Belfast, if you went further back in time our family was once well off and well thought of (how it was all lost is a story for another time). For years my grandparents had moved back and forwards between Newtownards and east Belfast. Following the route their ancestors had taken with a notion that there was a familial connection with the County Down market town. This was my jumping off point to explore the Rea family from Newtownards.

 My Grandfather in his younger days in east Belfast.

For the second character in my story we go back further in history to the first half of the 1800s to meet James Rea of Russell Place, Newtownards.  I first came across some information on James around 12 years ago on a family history research website compiled by Ros Davies. Over the years I was able to make the genealogical connections through GRONI and Irishgenaolgy.ie to confirm that James was my four times great grandfather. I moved to Newtownards from east Belfast a few years ago and this heightened my own connection with the place that my ancestors were from and I managed to find James’s gravestone for myself. He was one of those people that genealogists and taphophiles (people who love graveyards) salivate over, because good old James arranged to have his autobiography written on his gravestone.  It was seeing the stone and being immersed in the local geography that I began to try and unpick the details to find where he had actually lived and worked in the town. This was when the mystery of Russell Place started to niggle at me. I knew the town but I couldn’t pinpoint where it was.

 James Rea's grave on the right. Movilla Cemetery, Newtownards.

To try and find out more about his living conditions and where Russell Place might be, I turned to Griffith’s Valuation. This was a household survey carried out between 1848 and 1864. If you were a landlord or a paying tenant you were likely to be named here. The survey for County Down (which includes all of Belfast south of the Lagan in case you are interested), was completed in 1864. Luckily, this is bang on James’s time period and don’t forget, we know his address from his very useful gravestone! Here it explains that James was a tenant of the Marquis of Londonderry and sub-let thirteen other properties in Russell Place. Griffith’s Valuation also seems to say that Russell Place is somehow connected to Charles Street. As Russell Place doesn’t exist anymore, I hoped this would be a clue to where it might be, unfortunately Charles Street doesn’t exist anymore either… which leads us to some more on-line resources we can use to pin-point places.

 A snippet of Griffth's Valuation

When searching on Griffith’s Valuation, it has map references attached to each entry, however the site that hosts it is a bit glitchy and no matter what computer or programme I use to try and open it, it never works for me. I have seen it thanks to a kind friend who screen shot it for me, but before I was able to access that I used a few other online tools to narrow the search for Russell Place. I should mention, I also asked as many people I could think of that might know and called into a land registry business in the town that had been going for over 100 years, but nobody seemed to have heard of it. So thank goodness for PRONI’s historic map viewers!

I searched the list of other streets nearby in Griffith’s Valuation to find one that I recognised. Zion Place was listed as being near-by so I began my search on the map in the east end of the town. My gut was also telling me this was the right end of the town because the family’s marriages and baptisms were recorded in two churches in the area. So once I had a rough location in mind I was able to use PRONI’s maps. I find it easiest to use the viewer by selecting the location on the current map and then clicking the layer icon in the top right of the screen, it then gives you a list of different Ordnance Survey maps to select by year and once it is chosen, the historic map overlays the modern map to give a sense of the place as it was.


I got a good view of the area in different years. 1832 map didn’t have any street names on the area but the next map the 1842-1862, did. It had Charles Street clearly named but no Russell Place. At least I knew I was roughly in the right area. I scoured the shape of the building to see if there was another street or lane not marked, but it didn’t yield any results. From street directories like those found compiled on the Lennon Wylie site and from marriage records I knew he was a Publican and there is a pub on this stretch of road that looks like it could be from the era, but it is very clearly in Zion Place and that street still exists. I wondered if there might have been two pubs in close proximity but I had hit a dead end for the time being and left the search alone for a year or so….

Come back and visit us to find out what steps I took when I restarted my search for Russell Place. In the meantime why not visit some of the resources who's links are provided here and explore some of your neighbourhood or family in the past.

Lisa Rea Currie

Heritage Officer

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