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Street Histories

Have you ever stopped to think about the history of your street and your home? When was your street built, and why? Who lived there in the past? How has it changed over time?

How to do it

There are so many ways to learn about the history of your street or your building. Studying old maps can be a fascinating start. You might find maps of your area online. You can take it even further by reading census returns. How many people were living in your building 100 years ago? If it wasn't built yet, what was there before? What jobs were local people doing, and where had they come from?

History isn’t just about the distant past but also more recent times. Is there anything significant that has happened on your street recently that you can find out more about? You don't need to go online or go to the archives to find this out. You might learn something just by talking to neighbours. If you're a child, be sure to take a grownup with you, and ask some neighbours to share a story or a memory. Try to figure out who has lived on your street the longest. Do they have any stories they can tell you? This is what we call oral history.

Oral history can bring past events to life. It is also a great excuse to meet some new people that you probably see out and about every day.

See our tips and resources below, for lots more information.

This activity gives you the chance to:

  • Connect with the people on your street

  • Reflect on where you live and what might have happened in the past

  • Learn about other people’s daily lives

  • Make new memories

  • Share with others.

Tips and Resources

Here are some tips and resources for doing street history in Bristol. If you're living somewhere else, take inspiration from these ideas, and try speaking with archives in the local area. Maybe they have similar resources?

Maps

One great place to begin is with historical maps. In Bristol we are lucky to have an amazing collection of historical maps on the Know Your Place website. These maps also have pictures, information and all kinds of resources that members of the public have added. Find where you live on the map. Then try clicking on different 'Information layers' to see different kinds of resources. You can also work back in time, by clicking on the ‘Basemaps’ tab. The maps go from 2019 to 1828 and, in some cases, even back a little earlier.

You might want to see what other streets were built around the same time in Bristol. You can do this by zooming out on Know Your Place, or you could look here where you’ll find a timeline and series of maps (pp. 12-13) showing the growth of our city.

Walk along your street and have a good look at the houses. Do some of them look like they might have been a shop or business in the past? To find out if they were, look at one of the old trade directories for Bristol. Special Collections at the University of Leicester has digitised trade directories from across Britain. To find ones for Bristol, you’ll need to go to here and search under Gloucestershire. Or you could take a look at the paper copies in the Bristol Central Library. Were there any businesses on your street? What do you think it would have been like living and working there?

Census returns

If you want to get inside the houses on your street and find out who lived there in the past, then you’ll need to take a look at old censuses. These give a fascinating insight into what life was like here in earlier days. Who lived in your home long ago? To access census returns go to Bristol Library.

Because these contain personal information, you can only look at the actual census returns from at least a hundred years ago so this will only work if your street was built before 1911.

What jobs did people on your street do and where did they work? How many people lived in each house? Where were they born and how old were they? How has your street and the people who live there changed in the last century?

Visit the archives

Bristol Archives have put together a fantastic guide for studying street history. It is full of great tips and resources.

Exploring further

Once you’ve done this for your street, why not have a go trying to find out something about the history of another street in a part of the city you don’t know as well. How are the histories of the two streets similar and different?

Think about creating your own temporary ‘blue plaque’ to remember one of the previous inhabitants of your house, or even have your whole street do this. Read about one street in Totterdown that did just that!

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