When people want to find out the history of their house the two most popular lines of enquiry are; who lived there and how old is it? But before you can start to discover the occupants of a house, the date of construction is fundamental to understanding its past.
Finding out the age of a building can take you down many paths. The most obvious clue is if there is a date on the building. But don’t let that fool you. Last year I researched a house with 1566 displayed prominently above the front door. But in fact, that date marked the year the house had been extended. The building’s origins went back to 1450.
When working out the date of construction, start by looking at the building itself. What is the style? Does it ooze Victorian Gothic or display Georgian symmetrical restraint? How big are the windows? The smaller the panes of glass the chances are the building is earlier rather than later. I also strongly recommend the book “Period House Fixtures & Fittings 1300-1900” by Linda Hall (published by Countryside Books). It is a fantastic reference source for dating architectural features inside and out! But the features themselves don’t tell the whole story. A building can be altered / adapted many times over the centuries.
So to continue your search, you should also speak to the local history society who would know more than anyone in the area how long the building has been standing. A local historian may have also written about the street or area in which you live.
When I am researching buildings I always combine a site inspection with documentary evidence to support what I have seen. If you have a hunch that your building is late 19th or early 20th century, go and have a look at the census returns that are available through your local archive. These could tell you not only if the building existed at all at the ten year intervals between 1841 and 1911, but also if it was occupied or even under construction. Local archives also hold collections of photographs that may include your house, narrowing down the possible date even more.
You can check other general records like poor rate books or parish records for reference to your house or street. However, one of the most useful tools for determining the age of your house has to be maps. Maps prior to 1800 can involve a little artistic licence, but they are good indicators and certainly from the beginning of the 19th century with the influence of the Ordnance Survey, maps of many styles and types can work as a guide to locating and confirming, if not the year, a narrower time frame in which your house was built.
Of course, if your house is obviously older than 1800; if the timber frame and king post in the roof suggests 16th or even 15th century then it is possible that manorial records can shed some light on its origins. The older your house the more alterations and additions it would have undergone. I recently researched a building with structural elements surviving from the 15th century, but with extensions and alterations in every century, right up to the 21st. It can be a complicated process but documentary evidence can shed light on these changes.
If your house is listed, check the date in the listing description. A word of warning though; these descriptions are merely a guide and cannot be seen as 100 per cent reliable. Two listed buildings I recently researched were woefully wrong. In one case it was wrong by nearly 200 years! You could also check the title deeds of your house. However, unless you manage to locate the early version, modern day Land Registry records rarely go back further than 50 years.
The method of dating, like all other research into the history of a building, always requires a mixture of examining the bricks and mortar (or wattle and daub) and documentary evidence. One supports the other; and if you combine all these methods and sources, you should be successful in finding out how old your house is.
Ellen Leslie BA (Hons) Dip Cons (AA) is an historian who researches and assesses buildings for building conservation and property professionals as well as private home owners. She studied at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture and attained the Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Historic Buildings. Ellen had previously graduated with honours from Birkbeck College in Politics, Philosophy and History. She is an Affiliate Member of the IHBC. Ellen also blogs about her work.
This is an article from Projectbook which provides a wide range of information for the conservation, restoration, care and repair of period and listed buildings. Ellen Leslie is a member of the Heritage Register which contains over 500 vetted craftsmen, contractors and consultants from all over the UK. Updated daily with new content, the website features the heritage register, a products directory, informative articles, current news, events and more. For more information, visit www.projectbook.co.uk.