Do you wonder what secrets your house hides? Every home has a story to tell. It’s just there — waiting for you to unravel it. Are you curious and have a passion for vintage? This guide to researching the history of your house is for you.
You will learn how to decipher the secrets of your home. I promise it will give you talking points. And you’ll see your house with different eyes.
Let’s head into my beginner’s guide to discovering the fascinating tales of your home. Whether you live in a Georgian manor, Victorian terrace, Edwardian semi or country cottage.
Period properties come with a long list of issues: damp, rot, subsidence, etc. You name it! But sometimes you have to stop for a moment and realise, “Hang on. This house has been here for over a century! And it will still be here when I’m gone.”
You can discover many surprising facts about your home, and the people who lived in it. You may have been told who the previous inhabitants were. But who were the people who lived there several generations ago?
You appreciate your home more when you find out its past. Researching forms a connection between you and your house. And that enthusiasm shows every time you refer to it. You’ll end up loving it!
It may not be your forever home. Still, think about when it’s time to sell. A period home with a colourful history is memorable, and it will appeal to more potential buyers The best part is you don’t have to spend a penny.
But if you rather spend a penny or two, you can renovate your home sympathetically. Why not restore it to its former glory? Learning about the original architectural features of the home will help you. It’s always advisable to respect the period elements — and then let your style shine with the decor!
Sometimes it’s tricky to know where to start. Here are five handy questions that can define your research. From the material you already have, to your main aim.
1. Do you know the precise year your house was built?
This one can be problematic. House surveys and mortgage valuations include an estimate in their report. Surveyors are not 100% exact. They got the date of my house wrong by twenty-three years! It is a valuable starting point to explore, anyway.
2. Do you have any old house documents around (deeds, plans, letters, etc)?
The current house deeds are likely to be kept by your mortgage provider. At least until you finish repaying. What about the old ones? Your solicitor should give you those after the house purchase. It can take several months (six in my case). The wait is worth it.
3. Do you know who the previous owners were?
If you can approach the previous owners — do it. There is no harm in asking if they know anything about the history of your house. And if they have no idea, perhaps they know somebody who can help. An older neighbour or local shopkeeper.
4. Has the name of your street/town/county changed over the years?
Knowing this piece of information can prevent a few headaches. Most cities spread out and merged with adjoining villages and hamlets. Which eventually became suburbs. The boundaries and names of the counties have evolved a fair bit.
5. What is your main goal?
Think about what you would wish to discover with your research. You may be interested in the people who lived in the house. Some are keen on the architecture. Or the local urban development over time — that’s me!
I’ve rounded up the available resources you need to start your quest. These are the sites and tools I use for my own research. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a useful one to keep!
Government census and survey records are split into different sites. This how-to page from the National Archives summarises all the content. You can access most of them without paying. Did you know your council has a local archive? And very likely a searchable online database too.
If you’re looking for maps, there are plenty sites around. Some of the largest are Old Maps and British History Online. The latter offers a tonne of info, not just maps. Their catalogue is impressive. The Registration District maps from the 1871 census are available from Cassini. And Valuation Office maps range from 1910 to 1915.
I find sites such as Join me in the 1900s incredibly valuable. A quick Google search can show local photo archives, and small history blogs you never heard of. A little tip: the mobile app Nextdoor can be a great way to find like-minded neighbours.
You must visit your local archives. If you can’t find a specific detail — it’s probably there. Or at least they can help you. Here you can ask to see the documents you searched on the online database. Be organised, though. I keep a spreadsheet with all the document reference numbers and descriptions. This is important because you can only access one record at a time. Once you’ve done with it, you can request another one.
Don’t forget local history groups. They are hyper-local. So, go to your public library and find out when they meet. I enjoy reading books about the city and its communities. They’re packed with facts, dates and names. Finally, ask people around your neighbourhood. Mention your research and start a conversation.
My essential piece of advice is to concentrate on one aspect of your research at a time. People/genealogy, house itself or local history. Once you know what to work on, the fun times begin! These are five tips to make your study easier.
1. Start with what you know
Start with the material you have right now whether it is an old deed or letter. Take your time to read it. The writing can be elaborate, and difficult to understand. Then, extract all the significant names and dates. Add them to your list and continue your search. As you dig deeper your list of clues will grow bigger!
2. Work backwards
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the census reports. There’s a better way to do it. Go backwards from present times until there are no records or mentions of your address. This could be a sign that you have reached the beginning (before your house was built). The information in the census is often incomplete, and they are only available every 10 years over the last century.
3. It’s OK to guess
So, you know who lived in your house in the past. That’s great, but you need more details. Why not guess their relationship based on surnames? You can also use dates of birth to establish a link. At least until you obtain accurate records. If several unrelated families lived in the same house, you need to dig deeper.
4. Know your maps
This is my favourite. Check the relevant online maps over the years and focus on your street/neighbourhood. They can give you an idea of the age or period of a house — but it’s not precise. Are you any good at Photoshop? Download the maps as image files and use semi-transparent layers to compare them. Watch the scale to avoid inconsistencies.
5. Document everything
Next time you go to your local council archive, take your laptop and camera. Use your own laptop to take notes and browse the archives, instead of their computers. You need your files with you at all times. Don’t forget to ask about their photography policy. Most let you take non-flash photographs of the papers. Otherwise, you should be able to photocopy small documents for a small fee.
Let’s say you’ve found everything you wanted, and completed the history of your house. Hurray! Now what? What do you do with all the stuff you’ve accumulated in that pen drive?
If you’re research focused on the people who lived in your house. You can create a genealogy tree of the family, or families, that lived in the house. Easier said than done as there were more inhabitants per house back in the day. Be warned — it can get messy!
You can go with a different approach if your main goal was the house itself. The best way is to create a visual timeline of the house from planning permission to present times. Including everything you come across in-between.
Once you have information to start with — go deeper. Investigate the architect or the developer and see where it takes you. Why not find out about the history of your community? Or the life of an important person born in the area?
The more you research the history of your house, the more resources — and questions — you will find. This project is never finished. It’s a never-ending story. But well worth the journey!
Have you discovered an interesting anecdote with your research? Or a curious fact about your house? Do you have a great tip to find records? I’d love to know about it! Please, share it in the comments section below or drop me a line.
Want more like this?
Thank you for reading! You can get even more design and well-being tips in my popular email newsletter. Every month I share an exclusive new article. Hundreds of people subscribe and look forward to reading my emails. Click here to join the community — it's free.