Every house, regardless of its age, has a story to tell. To me, this is the most exciting aspect of tracing the history of your home - you never know what you will discover. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a post-war terraced house, or an idyllic rural cottage with darkened, twisted Tudor beams – you can step back in time to find out who built your house, and explore the life and times of previous inhabitants. In doing so you will begin to understand more about the community in which you have chosen to live, whether it is a bustling inner city or a quiet country village.
Nevertheless it’s important to begin your investigations with realistic expectations about the outcome. Programmes on television make research seem easy, and speed the process of discovery up whilst masking the fact that a team of researchers worked away on the project for weeks on end! Reality is never that simple. As with any piece of research, there will be dead ends and disappointments, so don’t give up; if one line of enquiry comes to a halt, retrace your steps to known facts and start again – every house will have a different history that requires a unique research trail.
Start by ‘reading’ the architecture of your house, both internal and external. You can usually narrow down the period in which it was constructed, or pinpoint periods of reconstruction or refurbishment. You should also look at neighbouring houses for comparable architectural styles. If your house is markedly different, ask yourself why – the reason might lie in the construction date. Check to see how close your house is to the centre of the village or town - older houses tend to be nearer the middle. There are various volumes on the architectural side of house history to help you with this process, such as R. Brunskill’s History of Vernacular Architecture or B.Breckon and J.Parker’s Tracing the History of Houses.
You should also try to get as much background information about the property as possible. House history can be a very sociable activity - talk to previous owners, estate agents or local newspapers, as they all might have pictures, stories or clues about your house. Find out what parish it falls in and what manor it was once part of, as this information will be crucial in locating documentary source material. Wander into your local study or history centre in the nearest library and see how much is on your own doorstep.
As with all good detective stories, the trick is finding clues, and using them to look elsewhere. You will soon progress from the local study centre to the nearest county or local record office, where you will encounter primary material for the first time. Usually this will then lead you to national institutions such as the National Archives, which in turn holds material compiled by the National Register of Archives that you can use to locate relevant local or specialist archives. There are many resources online; Access to Archives allows you to search by keyword for specific documents across hundreds of participating archives, whilst Archives Hub provides a means of searching academic archival collections. Don’t forget that what you discover during your visit to one archive might take you back to one you have already visited to look at a different set of sources.
It is important to sound a note of realism at this stage, as you may encounter difficulties when starting work in archives, especially if you are looking at unfamiliar source material. This is true even for the most experienced researchers. Each archive will employ different cataloguing techniques; a large proportion of documents before 1733 will be in Latin; and even those in English can be difficult to read, as paleography changes over time. Don’t panic though - most archives stock findings aids, leaflets, dictionaries and paleographical aids to help you, and all have friendly staff to assist with your enquiries.
It is therefore important to begin with material that is easier to interpret, maps and land surveys are a good place to begin. The best resources can be found at The National Archives, particularly the Valuation Survey of 1910, which assessed all properties, urban and rural, for tax purposes; and the tithe surveys of the 1840s, which survive for a large number of parishes and give details of ownership and occupancy. These surveys provide a snapshot covering nearly 100 years, which can be filled with information from the census returns at the Family Records Centre, Islington, they are available from 1841-1901 in ten year intervals.
Title deeds are another obvious source of information - where they exist. There are no obvious places for looking; you should try previous owners, mortgage providers and solicitors, who have been known to squirrel title deeds away in old dusty cupboards. The deed package itself is made up from a variety of legal documents that record the transfer of title from one individual to the next. They can be complicated, as they are written in legal terms that are not always easy to follow, but they will provide a full history of the ownership and often the occupancy of your home, and the names that you obtain will be important in other lines of enquiry. More often than not though, property was passed within families, with details contained in wills; when disputed, the resulting court case can provide some spectacular information about the lives of past occupants. Another good continuous source is manorial records, as most property before the twentieth century formed part of a manor and accordingly left a trace in court rolls, tenancy rentals, surveys and estate papers. Tax records, such as hearth, window or land tax returns, can also provide names in long sequences. However be warned – documentary sources may hide the fact that you are tracing an earlier house that stood on the site of your current property, so handle the material with care and remember to use the architectural evidence as well.
Modern houses are not excluded from this detective process. During World War Two the British landscape radically altered, especially in cities, and the Public Record Office has a large number of files on post-war estate construction and urban regeneration. Before the war, people often used dwellings as a place of business, so searching trade directories can yield surprising results; many included numbered street directories or lists of private residents as well as local business addresses.
These are just a very small sample of the range of sources at local and national level that can help you trace the history of your house. However, don’t just stop with dating your property. You should be investigating who lived there, and how the house would have been furnished. Probate inventories, diaries, insurance records, even officially registered designs can be a rich source of information about the way previous occupants lived, and you will probably need to look through private papers of estate owners relating to plans for decorating, building or renovation. Not all of these will be in the public domain, but county record offices are a good place to start your search. These people thought of your house as their home too, and therefore form an integral part of the story.