Becoming a House Detective

Since I started my guest blog for Country Life over a year ago, I have often been asked to write more about how I research the history of houses, or more precisely, how on earth do I uncover the stories and information! I recently also posted a brief overview on my own blog The House Historian and was asked many times for more. So, due to popular demand, this post is a brief introduction to some of the key places to start your own research into your home.

Researching the history of house doesn’t always follow the same route; every house will be different, depending on available sources, location and the type of house. However, there are few key sources that will start to give you a picture of the story of your house – here are just a few hints to get you started.

Local history
To start my research, I always read up on the local area to get an idea of its development and how the house fits into the history. Was the town or village based around a manor or did it develop because a thriving industry or the building of the railways? This information will help to guide you on where your house fits in the history of the area, as well as give you clues of what possible documents you may need to refer to – i.e. manorial records or ecclesiastical records. Two key sources are: The Survey of London (English Heritage), which has been in production since 1894; as well as The Victoria County History series (also produced since 1899 and named after Queen Victoria).

Watch out
When researching the history of a house, you may come across gaps or missing documents or unclear information. It is important to make sure you don’t end up researching the wrong house, so I always work backwards from more recent history, where the information is certain. One of the biggest challenges can be changing numbers or even no number or no name. House numbering only began in the 18th century, and for many houses in rural communities they weren’t named of numbered officially until the 20th century. This can take a bit of time, but if you work back following the information, you’ll be able to identify the right house.

One of the best tools in researching the history of a house are maps; being able to clearly identify your house and its place in the local area over time. The Ordnance Survey maps are a great place to start. They were produced across the country at periodic intervals since the 1860s. You can also refer to local parish or county maps; private estate maps; bomb damage maps; and the Charles Booth poverty maps. Tithe maps are also a vital tool. The Tithe maps and accompanying apportionment records were produced during the 1830s and 40s when a survey was undertaken across most parts of the country to establish the value of lands to determine tithe payments. They allow you to locate the property and find reference to the owner and possibly occupant of the house at this time.

Census records can offer fabulous information about the former occupants of your house, giving details of all the residents in the home, including all children and servants, as well as personal information such as ages, birth place and whether the person had any disabilities. The census has been undertaken every ten years since 1801, but it is only since 1841 that the census gives specific personal information. The 1911 census was the latest census to be made available. However, for some rural areas the house may not be clearly identified – a whole village may simply be recorded under the name of the village rather than any street or house details. This may mean some real detective work is in order to work out the specific house you’re researching.

There are many more sources to refer to, but for now, this is a short introduction to some key documents and sources that will help you on the journey of uncovering the story of your own house.

For more insight and inspiration you can look at earlier house stories in the property blog or view my blog – The House Historian