It’s a good week for anyone interested in the history of houses; a new series of A House Through Time begins, and the paperback edition of the book of the same name is out. If you’re inspired to delve into house history to find out more about the building you live in, or you’re a genealogist, a local or social historian, or just curious about how people lived in the past, there are some key sources you’ll need to consult, as the book’s co-author, Melanie Backe-Hansen, explains.
Years ago, someone compared me to a young Miss Marple; but instead of detecting murderers, I turn detective to dig out the stories in the history of a house.
I have now been researching the history of houses for over 15 years and in every house, no matter how big or small, there will always be a story. So much of our lives are spent in our homes and by delving into the history of past owners and occupants, it is possible to discover a wealth of stories as each occupant has come and gone in the life of a house.
As you might have seen in the BBC series A House Through Time, for which I was research consultant, there are all manner of extraordinary stories to discover.
Like any historical research, there are many sources involved in piecing together the history of a house, but there are also the challenges of grappling with an absence of material. However, there are a few key sources which will build a profile of a house and kick-start the journey of piecing together the history.
Firstly, there are a few key points to remember. House names and numbers change (sometimes several times). In many cases, particularly for older houses, there may not be any clear identification at all. It becomes necessary to track the house by following the trail backwards in time and by tracking the names of owners and occupants instead. Much like an archaeologist will dig down through the layers, so too does the house historian, to make sure you are tracking the right house.
It is also important to remember that for much of our history, most people rented. It has only been since the 20th century that we have become more of a nation of owner occupiers. Prior to the First World War, only around 10–12% of people owned their own home. This means the people living in the house were less likely to be the owners and the research journey will be different for each one.
The availability and access to records online is always improving, but, in many cases, it is still necessary to visit archives and libraries. Most house history material is held in the local borough or city archives or the County Record Office for the location of the house.
One of the key sources for house histories are maps, particularly the Ordnance Survey maps, produced in detail from the mid- to late-19th century. Depending on the location and age of the house there will be others, including town and parish maps, as well as tithe maps, produced when the payment of tithes changed in the 1840s, plus enclosure maps, produced for the enclosure of lands during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Local history is also important, gaining an understanding of the history around the house. Was it part of a manor or landed estate; what type of industry took place in the area; was the house built as development around the railways or later as part of post-war development? The local history also provides clues as to where to find sources as they are often catalogued by parish.
One of the best sources to provide personal history for those in the house are the census returns. They are available with personal details from 1841 to 1911 (the latest release), and, although only taken every ten years, you get a glimpse of everyone in the house on that night.
This not only includes the head of the house, but children, servants, visitors, and lodgers. It also provides details such as occupation, age, marital status, and place of birth. The 1921 census is due for release in early 2022.
The 1939 Register is a fantastic source that provides a glimpse of the occupants of the house in September 1939, in the first month of the Second World War. It lists names, dates of birth, and occupation, but it can also provide details of wartime service, such as ambulance drivers and air raid precaution (ARP) wardens.
Other sources, particularly for the late 19th into the 20th century, include electoral registers (remembering that prior to 1928 not everyone was eligible to vote), as well as trade or street directories.
Newspapers are also a wonderful source, with advertisements for when a house was for sale or available to rent, but also notices related to owners and occupants. This could include announcements of births, weddings, and funerals, but also court cases, crimes, and all manner of events connected to the house and the former owners and occupants.
They might not sound very thrilling, but tax records are also key for house history research. There are several types, including land tax and rate books (like today’s council tax). Another is the Valuation Office Survey, taken in 1910-1915, in preparation for a new tax (which did not eventuate) and involved a survey of almost all property, and which includes a map, along with a corresponding valuation and description.
Like any historical research there is a broad range of others to consult, including deeds, documents attached to a former manor or landed estate, as well as plans and insurance records. There are also sales particulars, auction catalogues, photographs, wills, and probate records.
Many of the sources listed will provide names and dates attached to the house, but in order to dig into the personal stories of the people, it is necessary to dive into the breadth of genealogical sources, such as parish registers and civil registration, as well as military records, church records, and more.
Delving into the history of a house reveals a wealth of wonderful stories. Some may involve scandal, intrigue, and drama, while others might reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary, as the lives of former owners and occupants come to life. It is possible to get lost in the many stories found in our houses through time.
Melanie is a house historian working with private and corporate clients, as well as a television consultant and on-screen expert, speaker, and author. Along with A House Through Time, co-authored with David Olusoga, she is the author of House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door and Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep.
Series 4 of A House Through Time begins on BBC Two at 9pm on 7 September, 2021.
- High Street, Lavenham, Suffolk: photo by Spencer Means via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Still from series 4 of A House Through Time: BBC Pictures
- Montage: map of Dolgoy, Ceredigion, OS Six Inch 1888–1913, National Library of Scotland, tithe map and apportionment of Dolgoy, Welsh Tithe Maps and
- 1841 census showing Dolgoy and
- Sale notice in the South Wales Daily News, 23 June, 1874 and
- Marriage notice in the Cardigan Observer, 31 August, 1889: from personal research by Frances Owen