House history research
Investigating the history of a property and finding out about the people who lived there can be an exciting and rewarding pursuit. However, knowing where to begin often proves to be a difficult and time-consuming affair. We have compiled this page to give you the basic guidance necessary to research your house history.
Before you start
Before you begin you should try to decide whether you want to know the age of your house or its history. The exact age of a house can be quite difficult to discover, while its history can be considerably easier, as it tends to trace the people who owned and occupied the property. The older your property, the more archival sources there may be available for you to search through, but remember that house names change, and that a building on your site may be entirely different to the one that was there originally.
Generally speaking the method of research will vary according to the type of house, its location, date and the survival of relevant records. However, one of the most important first steps for the aspiring house detective is to sketch out a provisional research plan. What follows below is a three-step guide on how to do this.
As with most types of research it is important to start with the known facts and then work backwards in time, step by step. One of the best ways to do this is to visit your local library or record office and do some preliminary research. The best place to start is with printed books such as parish histories or the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (RCHM). After which, you may begin your research by asking yourself the following questions:
How old is the building?
Look closely at the building for clues about its age. Make a note of its materials, the size and shape of the windows, doors, roof and also of any date stones, inscriptions and fire insurance plaques.
Is the building listed?
Many buildings over 150 years old are recorded on the Department of the Environment list of buildings worthy of protection due to their historical or architectural importance. You can obtain the full details of the listing by contacting Historic England.
Where is it located?
Place your house in the locality by finding out what parish, manor or administrative unit in which it once lay. Make a note of any change of name or boundary.
What do the Title Deeds tell me?
Your bank, building society or solicitor will probably hold these. Title deeds can sometimes tell you a great deal about previous owners and occupiers, and occasionally about any important changes to the house or house-plot.
Who were the previous inhabitants?
Ask your neighbours or local residents for information about your house. You may find someone who has first hand knowledge of the house, previous work done on it or its previous owners and occupiers.
Structuring your research
After you have carried out your preliminary research you are now ready to create a framework, which will act as a support for your findings. This should provide you with the names of the previous owners and occupiers and give some general information on the property. It will also act as a base from which you can carry out further research. The documents listed below mainly cover the period from 1840 to 1940.
1910 Valuation Survey
Under the 1910 Finance Act, a valuation was made of all properties in England and Wales. The revenue books give a brief description of each property, the names of its owner and occupier and a note of its value.
Tithe maps and apportionments
Tithe maps were drawn up around 1840, for each tithe district (usually a parish) in England and Wales along with accompanying apportionments. The maps and apportionments record the owner, occupier, name, usage of each piece of land in the district.
Census returns list the names and occupations of those present in a particular building or institution on census night.
Enclosure awards are large-scale plans, which give details of land ownership, highways, footpaths and boundaries. They do not exist for all parishes and may not cover the whole parish.
Following up leads
Once you have exhausted the sources mentioned above you can use your list of owners and occupiers to access records relating to these individuals and, in this way, collect indirect references to the property.
Overall these records should enable you to find the approximate construction date and discover some of the social history associated with the property. Of course, it is never quite that simple in practice and you will find that you will have to employ some lateral thinking and educated guesses in your research. We hold some of the following records in our collections:
- Maps and building plans
- Manorial records
- Estate records
- Title deeds
- Sales particulars
- Electoral registers
- Trade directories
- Land tax records
- Local newspapers
- Quarter sessions records for specialised buildings
- Diocesan and parish records for specialised buildings
Don't forget that you may have to visit other record offices too.
- Austin, D., M. Dowdy and J. Miller, Be Your Own House Detective, BBC Books, 1997
- Barratt, H. Tracing the History of your House, Public Record Office, 2001
- Bailey, M.W. The English Farmhouse and Cottage, Sutton, 1987
- Bushell, P. Tracing the History of Your House, Pavillion Books, 1989
- Cornwall, J. How to read old title deeds, Birmingham University, 1964
- Cunnington, Pamela, How Old is your House? Alpha Books, 1980
- Currier-Briggs, N. Debrett's Guide to Your House, Headline, 1993
- Dibben, A.A. Title deeds. Historical Association,1968
- Harvey, J.H. Sources for the history of houses. Archives and the user, no 3. British Records Association, 1974
- Iredale, D. and J. Barrett, Discovering your old House. Shire Publications, 4th edition 2001
- Pevsner, N., et al. Penguin Buildings of England Series. 2nd ed. Penguin, 1971
- Wood, M. The English Medieval House, Ferndale 1981