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6 Apr 2014

Making work for the postman

Of the 14 letters I finally sealed up today, 10 were to new cousins.

They were scattered around the edges of England with a disproportionate number (33%) in what was once Lancashire.

Few of the addresses were in the phone book - but luckily was on-hand to help me locate them.  After learning the postcode area (for example DH7), I've taken to using a house price website called Proviser (example pages are from Bradford), to capture the full list of streets within that postcode area.

I also consult Google maps to see if there are other clues - relatives living nearby, or a geographical feature that would make one part or other of the area more likely.  Within Proviser I note down the names of village settlements, for example within Blackburn there is Mellor.  I double-check that the address I need doesn't include a village name.

Now I can whip through the list of streets in Proviser - including or excluding the villages as found by my earlier checking - and quickly narrow the field to the correct street.  Possibly the longest search was for a relative in Walks Avenue (Manchester).  It's a big old postcode area, couldn't easily be split up and W is right at the end of the alphabet.

Sometimes it makes sense to do a visual.  When looking for an address by the Lakes, there just seemed to be a tonne of possible addresses - so I picked out some likely streets from looking at the map, and was proven correct.

If you are unlikely and your relative lives on a densely populated Old London Road (which tend to be rather long) there could be a lot of houses to the one postcode.  Or worse, finding a relative lived in a tower block in Plymouth - there were at least 10 floors and in the order of 90 different properties all occupying the same thousand square foot.

It's useful if somebody on the property is in the phone book (not necessarily the person you expect) and if somebody's ever held a directorship.  One trick I used in Liverpool at a down-at-heel neighbourhood, once very grand, was looking in the 1984 phone book to see if the address was given there.  It was.

On the whole, it needn't take that long to search a postcode.  The bulkiest areas can be divided into villages - and postcodes for central urban districts might only cover a few dozen streets.  The worst area I searched was BB2 - 10 pages of addresses mostly all in Blackburn itself, so few could be eliminated (or focussed on) by determining if the address was/ was not in a surrounding village.

It can be embarrassing when you've spent ages pinning down your postcode and got the address only to find that the person was in the phone book all along.  I was looking for a Richards family member in Romford and missing a possible entry in the phone book was understandable as it was just such a common name.

Another trick is to know the combination of names of a couple.  I mentioned here how knowing that John B Jones had a wife Ann E enabled me to focus-in on the only couple in the country who shared this name-combo.  (Name slightly changed to keep them anonymous.)  For this highly mobile couple who'd lost contact with relatives 30 years ago, and had left their Midlands address 20 years ago, I needed a miracle to pin them down.

The site to use for comparing addresses with postcodes and vice versa is the Royal Mail's Postcode Finder.  It used to offer only a measly 10 searches a day - which got you nowhere, particularly if you're still struggling to understand its search boxes.  It's considerably more relaxed now, particularly since it's been sold out of our hands to the lowest bidder!

Once you've found your address, you still need to write the letter, prepare and include copies of documents, keep a photographic record of what you've sent and muster up sufficient envelopes, pens, stamps, paper, printer ink, and power cables to get the show on the road.  In fact I recommend writing the address on the envelope as the very first thing you do - then at least the myriad documents can be filed in the correct place as you prepare for dispatch.  I would certainly recommend sending a stamped-addressed envelope, unless you strongly suspect you'll be getting an email response.

As for writing the letter itself, some tips on this business can be found a few pages up.

It's now slightly more work than it used to be when I got all my addresses from wills, and later in the brief periods when electoral roll full results were easy to come-by.  But I'd rather have all the information relatively easily than just a portion of the information ridiculously easily, which is how I'd describe family history 20 years ago...  (Plus you never used to know until too late, just who was hiding behind those terse phone book entries.)

For today - some folk I've been hunting nearly 20 years, others turned up yesterday when I took a detour down a branch I'd not known existed.  We will have to see what comes back.

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