Walking in my ancestors’ footsteps

In London yesterday for a meeting, I found myself with half an hour to spare, so I took the opportunity to visit some of the West End streets where my ancestors lived. It was the first time I’d been in the area since I started investigating my family’s history.

I started in Trafalgar Square, where I tried to imagine my 3 x great grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb and his family arriving from Scotland via Yorkshire in the early decades of the 19th century, and finding lodgings in Charing Cross. This required something of an imaginative leap, since Trafalgar Square would not have been built, or would still have been under construction, when they arrived. I then walked up past the newly reopened church of St. Martin in the Fields, where Charles’ wife, Margaret (born Margaret Ricketts Monteith) was buried in 1843.

Walking a little further northwards up Charing Cross Road, I turned into Lisle Street and plunged into the streets of Soho. I’d forgotten what a tightly-knit web of narrow streets this area is composed of: it made it easier to imagine how my ancestors could have moved from one address to another in this quite confined area. And though the construction of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue inevitably reshaped the area, it’s surprising how much of the original pattern of streets remain, and how easy it is to imagine what it was like here 150 years ago.

I walked past Gerrard Street, now the heart of Chinatown, where two of my 2 x great grandfather William Robb’s daughters were staying with their Seager relations in 1851, while William was living in nearby Queen Street. Then I crossed Shaftesbury Avenue, which runs roughly where the Richmond Street home of the Ellis family would have been, and continued up what is now Wardour Street, passing St. Anne’s Church, where my great grandfather’s sister, Kezia Eliza Roe, was married in 1873. I also passed by the end of Old Compton Street, where another great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, was born in 1851.

Turning left into Brewer Street, I walked along to Great Windmill Street, home to the Roe family and the street where my great grandfather, Joseph Priestley Roe, was born in 1862. It was quite something to find myself actually standing in Ham Yard, where the Blanch family had a coachbuilding works, and which still retains the shape that it must have had in Georgian and Victorian times.  A little further along Brewer Street I came across Sherwood Street, leading down to Piccadilly, where Kezia Roe was living in 1881. The last time I was here was to visit the Piccadilly Theatre, but I hadn’t made the link with the name of the street.

Turning northwards again, I crossed the oasis of Golden Square, the heart of the district, before winding through Beak Street and Marshall Street into what is now Broadwick Street, but was once Broad Street, where the orphaned Roe children lived with their grandmother, Kezia Blanch, in the early 1870s. I turned briefly into Dufours Place, and thought about my 2 x great grandmother, Mary Ann Roe (nee Blanch), who died here in 1870.

Then it was back on to Wardour Street and up to Oxford Street to catch the bus. I hope to have a chance to return to the area in a couple of weeks, perhaps with a camera, and maybe try to find some of the actual addresses where my Robb, Roe and Blanch ancestors lived.

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