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
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 ( mhms.org.uk) 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
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