Tracing your home’s history
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Do you ever think about the people who loved your period house when the bricks were fresh from the kiln and the floorboards barely settled?
While it can be exciting to find out that a famous poet or musician created masterpieces in your living room, be prepared for some shocks. “Digging up the past can occasionally backfire,” says estate agent Andrew Rome, of Knight Frank. “For instance we’ve recently sold some beautiful little cottages in what was once a notorious red-light district of the town. Buyers might not have been so keen if they’d known their proposed homes had been part of a brothel! But as a rule a house history can add provenance to a home, enhancing its value. We’ve certainly sold houses on the strength of their link with famous people.”
Your aims are to establish when the property was first built, how it has been altered over time, and the names and details of former occupiers. It is vital to tap into general local history, since your home would originally have been part of a wider picture, perhaps in a village community, or built on what was once a manorial estate. Do not imagine it’s primarily a tape-measure-and-wellies task: the bulk of the work is tugging scraps of information from archives and fashioning these into a chronological paper trail of dates, maps and names. The title deeds contain masses of useful information (see glossary), and yours may be lodged with your bank, building society, solicitor or at the County Record Office (CRO).
The building itself
First, assess the general architectural style(s). Telltale signs of latter additions are changes in the shape, colour, size or bonding pattern of bricks or stone, or oddly positioned windows. Look at external doors and their furniture, and style of any porch or verandah if present. Draw the roof style and measure its pitch. Take photographs, or even make a video, so you can make instant comparisons with illustrations in architectural reference books. Look at the rear and sides particularly for evidence of extensions. A building investigator, such as Robert Demaus, can use special non-invasive techniques to establish the presence of historically significant timbers embedded in walls or blocked-up windows and doorways, and an archaeologist can also delineate additions to the building.
Interior features that can indicate dates are the staircase, doors, architraves, floorboards, cornices, dado rails, ceiling roses, skirtings, fireplaces and wall coverings. Look for differences in floor levels. The timbers in roof spaces can be especially informative.
“Look at the gardens and check out the location of any boundary,” advises house historian Penny Olsen, “ and try to get a general feel of the place, for instance where the house stands in relation to local landmarks, such as the village green or the church.”
The Ordnance Survey (OS) maps give shape of the ancient landscape, old boundaries and plots granted by the lord of the manor, with the later, larger-scale ones being the best. Estate maps, relevant if your home used to be part of a large estate, can be wonderfully informative.
Find all the maps you can relating to your property and compare these with an up-to-date map to detect changes. Next, look at the 19th century tithe map, that is split into numbered units. Search for your home’s number in the matching tithe apportionment document, and this should give you a name of the tenant and owner.
These are grouped according to parishes. For a parish with a population of more than 40,000 look at Table of Street Indexes, London Street indexes, or County Street Indexes. Smaller communities have a Place Name Index. Listed for each address is the number of people residents, with their ages and occupations. Look at all the available censuses (10-yearly, from 1841 - 1901) . “Sometimes a village would just have a list, without house names, numbers or even streets,” Penny says. “But, if you know the geographical location of you house in relation to, say, the church, you can work backwards to deduce which is the relevant entry.”
Local history/vernacular architecture
The local history department of your library will have documents and books relating to 18th and 19th century history, national examples being the Victoria County History (211 volumes), which gives county-by-county compendiums of local history. Local events, such as the activities of prominent county families and freak weather conditions, may be relevant to your house. The VCH can also tell you if your house was built on land once owned by a manor or religious order.
Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’ series of books, describes individual buildings and vernacular architecture of all counties; not all notable buildings are included, so do not be disheartened if your house isn’t mentioned. Constantly being revised, these give vernacular architectural history in detail. The Vernacular Architecture Group and the amenity societies can also give you excellent architectural information. Talk to neighbours and local historians, who may have specific relevant knowledge.
The Register of Births, Marriages and deaths, has countrywide lists since 1837. A birth certificate gives you place and date of birth, sex and names of the child, name and occupation of father, plus name and maiden name of the mother. Marriage certificate lists the place and date of the marriage, names, ages, occupations addresses and marital status of bridegroom, and names and occupations of the bride and bridegroom’s fathers. Before 1837 details of these events were noted in local parish registers as far back as the 17th century.
The Principal Registry of the Family Division has copies of wills since 1858. For earlier dates than this look in the CRO or Diocesan Registry (you need a name and date of death). As well as people’s financial status, you can get an inventory of individual items of furniture, some of which originate in the 15th century.
Further sources of social history are old newspapers, and books such as ‘Who Was Who’, Burke’s peerage, and the Dictionary of National Biography. You may find more information about your home’s past occupiers in directories, rate books, land tax assessments and electoral registers.
In theory anyone can trace their own home’s history, but a professional has the knack of avoiding false trails, and following up leads that are barely perceptible to the untrained eye. The cost is around £5000 for comprehensive professional research and the preparation of a book. You’ll get a result in a reasonable timescale, when an amateur might take years.
“Be slow and methodical, don’t rush,” advises Penny. “Take copies of everything, and always record every scrap of information you can, even if it doesn’t initially seem to implicate your own property. People in a village are often related, so the same surname doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got the correct house.”
“Take great care,” adds architectural historian Josephine Cormier. “I once nearly became a building’s resident ghost when I almost fell down a void beside a chimney that nobody knew was there!”