Having always lived inside a number (5, 8, 189, 3…), I find houses with names intriguing. As kids, my sister and I were fascinated by an unremarkable terraced house we passed every day on our way to primary school in very (very!) inland Watford that rejoiced in the name of Sea View – after seven years, our conclusion was that the owner must have had a really, really powerful telescope in the loft. What we understood intuitively back then, and I’ve been thinking about again recently, is that the names people choose for their homes might have a personal significance, but they also have a public face that somehow mediates that intimate meaning to the outside world. And sometimes we know how to read it, and sometimes we don’t. But when the name is cast in stone or slate or granite, inscribed above a door or on a gatepost, that public face remains long after the personal significance has been forgotten.
This all came back to me in 2004 when I moved to Liverpool and rented a flat in the elegant suburb of Sefton Park. During my walks around the sweeping drives and avenues that ringed the Park, I found myself drawn to the sandstone gateposts that hinted at the neighbourhood’s past, with their peculiar mixture of mercantile cosmopolitanism and middle-class rus-in-urbism. Although the grand houses are now often demolished, altered, or divided into flats, through their gateposts, we can glimpse traces of the people who once owned them, and the networks they moved in. Three in particular – Belem Tower, Olinda, and Villa Maria – drew my attention for their Hispanic or Lusophone connections, although I didn’t think much more about them at the time.
Fast forward a few years, and as I became more and more interested in Liverpool’s forgotten Luso-Hispanic history, I found myself thinking again about those gateposts. So I went back and photographed them, and began digging into their stories. And then I began wondering about all the other houses whose names were ephemeral or altered or demolished and now are visible only through fleeting glimpses in newspaper advertisements or ordnance survey maps or records of probate. Sometimes a house only had a name for as long as its owner stayed; others went through multiple names over the course of a few years as tenants came and went. But, I thought, if we can uncover them, those names promise a way into a more intimate history of British connections with the wider world.
So of course, one thing led to another and the project didn’t stop with Liverpool or with house names, but expanded to cover house, street and place names across the UK. And this week, when the database hit 1000 objects, I decided to bite the bullet and dive into Google Fusion Tables, to test out ways of mapping the data and getting it to tell us its stories. Now, I’m still figuring out the best way to present the main database, but you can get an idea of what it might eventually look like from this pilot of a cluster of villas in Liverpool’s Sefton Park (nothing so vulgar as a house number in 1890s-era Aigburth Drive!).
The map is a screenshot for now (click to embiggen), since WordPress can’t embed Fusion maps – but you can click here for access to the live map, where you can see the basic details of all these villas. It was a pretty straightforward process, taking contextual and location data from my Excel spreadsheet, uploading it to Fusion, and then playing with the formatting to get the right info in the box (and to make it look pretty!). The hard bit was getting the data together in the first place, especially for the houses that no longer exist, or whose precise location is unknown. In those cases, the British Newspaper Archive and Digimap (both subscription services) were invaluable sources, the first for throwing up information about how long a name was in use and the second for figuring out where it might have been.
I’ll be talking more about this project in future posts, with more detail about the processes I followed, the decisions I took, and – of course! – the stories I’ve found. But in the meantime, here’s a snapshot of the Liverpool villas I’ve found so far. Know of any more? I’d love to hear about them!
|Belem Tower||Landmark in Lisbon, Portugal||1 Aigburth Drive|
|Bilbao Villa||City in Vizcaya, Northern Spain||181 Lodge Lane|
|Boa Vista||‘Fine view’ (Portuguese)||9 Livingston Drive North|
|Buena Ventura||‘Good fortune’ (Spanish)||Greenbank Road|
|Douro Lodge||River in Northern Portugal||28 Ullet Road|
|Olinda||City in North-East Brazil||14 Aigburth Drive|
|Quinta||‘Country house’ (Spanish)||Greenheys Road|
|Teneriffe||Canary Island||Crompton Lane|
|Terceira House||Island in the Azores||28 Aigburth Drive|
|Valparaiso House||City in Chile||23 Aigburth Drive|
|Villa Maria||Woman’s name||23 Alexandra Drive|