Jackie Din­nis wanted to dis­cover more about the life of her Vic­to­rian fam­ily in be­tween cen­suses. As Gail Dixon ex­plains, old street maps un­locked a wealth of in­for­ma­tion

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Jackie Din­nis used street di­rec­to­ries to find her an­ces­tors in Brighton

How long have you been re­search­ing your fam­ily his­tory?

I be­gan in 2011 af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to this com­pelling pas­time by my cousin. I didn’t think there would be much of in­ter­est to find. How wrong I was! It’s amaz­ing what can be dis­cov­ered with a lit­tle per­se­ver­ance and hard work. The only start­ing points I had from my par­ents were some pho­to­graphs and Army records.

What had you un­cov­ered be­fore hit­ting your brick wall?

I was a begin­ner, so I joined be­liev­ing it was the only way to start build­ing my fam­ily tree. I have an an­noy­ing habit of not read­ing in­struc­tions be­fore start­ing any­thing, so un­know­ingly I made my tree pub­lic straight away. How­ever, this was per­haps the best de­ci­sion I ‘made’. I also ticked the box to al­low any­one to con­tact me.


What was stop­ping you from pro­gress­ing your re­search?

Census re­turns for Eng­land were my start­ing point. I also searched birth, mar­riage and death records, but didn’t know where else to look.

I found my great great grand­fa­ther, John Din­nis, who was born in Bal­dock, Hert­ford­shire, in 1816 and moved to Brighton around 1835. I have lived in Brighton all my life and re­ally wanted to dis­cover more about his day-to-day world as well as the his­tory of Brighton. The cen­suses tell us where our an­ces­tors are on one day in a 10-year pe­riod, but I wanted to fill in the de­tails be­tween th­ese years.

In 1841, the Din­nis fam­ily were liv­ing at num­ber 9 Middle Street, which is one street west of Ship Street, lead­ing off Brighton’s seafront. John was aged 26 and worked as a cook. His wife Char­lotte was aged 30 and their first child Cather­ine Ann was four years old. By the 1851 census they had moved to Ship Street and had four more chil­dren, al­though at that point they hadn’t had my great grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge. I didn’t know where else to look to fill in the 10-year gap.

How had you tried to solve the prob­lem pre­vi­ously?

I read lots of fam­ily his­tory mag­a­zines, went on­line to dis­cover more about ge­neal­ogy and spent hours in the lo­cal li­brary re­search­ing Brighton’s his­tory.

I be­gan writ­ing a blog on the in­ter­net called ‘Meet­ing my fam­ily’, to main­tain or­der amid the chaos.

Cre­at­ing blog posts, tag­ging and cat­e­goris­ing names and places en­sured that noth­ing got lost and helped or­der all the in­for­ma­tion I was find­ing. It also meant that other peo­ple search­ing for the same names and places could get in touch.

This was so help­ful and kept my in­ter­est alive dur­ing the times when I was get­ting nowhere. More and more pho­to­graphs were turn­ing up from fam­ily mem­bers who I’d met on­line. How­ever, I was still frus­trated at the lack of def­i­nite de­tails about the life of John Din­nis.

All I knew was that he had lived in Middle Street, Ship Street and the Old Steine, a cen­tral thor­ough­fare near the Theatre Royal.

I wanted to know where he worked as a cook. Could it have been in one of the grand ho­tels or his­toric inns of Vic­to­rian Brighton? Also, what kind of cook was he? I re­ally wanted to put ‘meat on the bones’ of my kin.

What’s your ‘eureka mo­ment’?

I read an ar­ti­cle in my lo­cal news­pa­per about an on­line data­base of Brighton street di­rec­to­ries and thought I must give it a try. It’s called MyHouseMyStreet ( and con­tains records that date back to 1784. Sure enough, the direc­tory of streets that the Din­nis fam­ily were listed in matched those of the census re­turns.

My eureka mo­ment came when I was look­ing at Tay­lor’s street direc­tory for 1854. I was thrilled to find John Din­nis at the Old Ship Shades in Old Ship Yard. This was a bar con­nected to The Old Ship Ho­tel, which is one of the most his­toric build­ings on Brighton’s seafront. I knew ex­actly where it

Who Do You Think You Are? Septem­ber 2015

Un­know­ingly, mak­ing my tree pub­lic was the best de­ci­sion that I ever made

was and that it was still stand­ing. The name ‘Shades’ crops up reg­u­larly in hostel­ries along the South Coast. It was given to wine and beer vaults where there was a bar at street level or un­der­ground that was shel­tered by an ar­cade. Some were con­nected to ho­tels, as was the case for the Old Ship Shades.

The Old Ship Ho­tel dates back to 1559 and over the cen­turies it has been a favoured desti­na­tion for artists, writ­ers, mu­si­cians and roy­alty. One of its own­ers, Cap­tain Ni­cholas Tat­ter­sall, is said to have bought the ho­tel af­ter as­sist­ing Charles II es­cape to France dur­ing the Civil War. John must have seen some ex­cit­ing and glam­orous peo­ple come and go dur­ing his time there. Bars like the Old Ship Shades at­tracted all kinds of char­ac­ters. Some were fre­quented by smug­glers and pros­ti­tutes, but they are as much a part of Brighton’s his­tory as any­one else.

How did it solve the prob­lem?

My dis­cov­ery helped place John and his fam­ily in the years in be­tween cen­suses. It also took me off on an­other tan­gent in­ves­ti­gat­ing what day-to-day life was like in Vic­to­rian Brighton.

I like the area around The Old Ship Ho­tel, and it now gives me even greater plea­sure to walk around those charm­ing streets know­ing that my an­ces­tor John Din­nis worked there. I be­gan blog­ging about my find­ings, and it made me bolder about post­ing on­line.

I was be­ing con­tacted reg­u­larly by fam­ily mem­bers who were want­ing to find out more about our shared her­itage. A rel­a­tive sent me a pho­to­graph of my great grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge Din­nis (1853-1906) and I have since been con­tacted by de­scen­dants of two of Ge­orge’s sis­ters.

How did you feel when you dis­cov­ered the so­lu­tion?

I felt in­vig­o­rated and ex­cited. It has given me a new lease of life. I was very in­ter­ested to find out more about the Old Ship Ho­tel. There are tours once a month, and it was an ex­cit­ing mo­ment to step in­side the old part of the ho­tel and ex­plore the at­mo­spheric cel­lars and bars where John Din­nis worked.

Did you dis­cover any­thing else in­ter­est­ing along the way?

Fill­ing in the gaps be­tween census re­turns al­lowed me to dis­cover an an­ces­tor I didn’t know about pre­vi­ously. My great grand­fa­ther Ge­orge Din­nis had a twin sis­ter called Cora who died aged three at the Old Ship Ho­tel. She lived be­tween 1853 and 1856, so had slipped through the gap be­tween cen­suses. I found her by join­ing the Sus­sex Fam­ily His­tory Group and search­ing its records.

I also dis­cov­ered that John Din­nis was made bank­rupt in 1862 while work­ing as a pub­li­can and cook at an­other Brighton pub, the Queens Head. This popped up in the

Lon­don Gazette, dur­ing a news­pa­per search.

What’s your ad­vice to other fam­ily his­to­ri­ans who hit an ob­sta­cle on their fam­ily tree?

If you hit a brick wall, put it away for a while and come back to it later. Don’t be­come ob­sessed with ex­actly what you want to find out. Be will­ing to un­cover what is ac­tu­ally there. Find­ing the his­tory of a house can lead to its oc­cu­pants, so try the street di­rec­to­ries. Go side­ways – look at peo­ple who mar­ried into your fam­ily, as some­times they have a great story and can help you un­der­stand your an­ces­tors. I dis­cov­ered that John Din­nis’s daugh­ter Fanny (1846-1930) em­i­grated to the United States in 1900, and didn’t just dis­ap­pear be­tween the 1891 and 1901 Eng­land cen­suses. Her de­scen­dents con­tacted me af­ter read­ing my blog and have be­come my ‘new cousins’.

Ge­orge Din­nis Snr – the great grand­fa­ther of reader Jackie Din­nis – pho­tographed in 1890

Jackie Din­nis

The Old Ship Ho­tel in Brighton – Jackie’s an­ces­tor John Din­nis worked in a bar linked to the ho­tel

The Lon­don Gazette’s re­port of the bank­ruptcy case of John Din­nis on 30 De­cem­ber 1862

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