We reveal the best ways to delve into the past of your house, says Sue Thomas
Where we live is so much more than ‘just a house’. Rented or owned, it’s ‘home’, the place we create our nest, rear our families, store our belongings, make memories and play out the joys and sorrows of life.
Events since we moved in are safely stored in our memory or photo albums. But what happened before that?
Gill Blanchard, 56, from Norwich, has always loved history and a job as an archives assistant in a records office inspired her to delve into the past for a living.
First she looked into her own family history, and that of her partner, Ian, and then began taking commissions from people to look into their family trees. It seemed natural to move on to researching people’s houses so, as you might expect, she began with her own.
‘Our first house in Norfolk was in a row of four cottages dating back to the 1700s, which we bought in 1995, from the Estate of someone who’d died.
‘A brewery had originally built the cottages for its workers. At the local records office, we found deeds relating to Reepham Brewery which mentioned our house.
‘It had been a traditional two-up, two-down with an outside loo, and we were able to trace the owners before last. Prior to them, the house was owned by a couple who grew tobacco in their garden during wartime rationing.
‘An old neighbour told us about the ‘Honey Cart’ – a sweet-sounding name for the wagon used to collect the contents of the outdoor toilets at night as the houses weren’t on mains drainage – and how people in our house kept chickens and worked in the local leather-tanning industry.
‘The first book I made of someone’s house history was of a manor house in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, dating back to medieval times. Together with an architectural historian, I traced it back to the family of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, and also found out that one set of residents were neighbours of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
‘Knowing the history of a house gives you a wonderful thread that connects all the people who have ever lived there.’
So, who’s prepared to spend time (it can take months), or money (it costs from £350 to have someone like Gill do it for you – visit pastsearch.co.uk), on finding out about their home?
‘It tends to be women in their fifties and sixties who have built up a connection to their home and want to know more,’ says Gill.
‘One client, still living in the house she’d grown up in, inherited a little money from her father and spent it on having the house researched as a dedication to him. Another had their house history turned into a book as a gift for her husband. When they moved, they had a copy made for the new owners.’
Gill gives the following tips: ‘Before you start, get a modern Ordnance Survey map and mark on it where your property is. Then get a much older map (see panel, right), and put them side by side. Roads change, buildings get knocked down, and it’s easy to misplace a building, odd as that sounds.
‘You know it’s on a crossroads – but you might be looking at the wrong crossroads, so focus on a landmark that won’t have moved, like a local church, and work out the position of your house in relation to that. It’s also a good idea to establish the administrative area of your house.
‘Knowing the exact names of the county, registration district and parish in which it stands – or once stood – will help when searching records.’
Useful books and websites
✤ Tracing Your House History by Gill Blanchard (£14.99, Pen & Sword)
✤ House-Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door by Melanie Backe-Hansen (£20, The History Press)
✤ www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk (to see if your house or its residents have ever featured in any newsworthy stories)
An Old Garage For A Car Enthusiast
When Maggie Shapland, who’s in her sixties, bought her house near Bristol in 1978, it was just a shell, and she didn’t have the deeds to tell her anything about it.
Using historic maps* and Wright’s Directories (which lists local trades) in her reference library, she discovered that in 1883 the site had been home to a collection of small workshops housing a single horse-drawn taxi, builders, chimney sweeps and carpenters.
‘While I was renovating the place, I found beautiful lettering under layers of old paint which revealed that it had been converted to a garage in the 1920s, and the name of the owner.
‘Using street directories, I found a relative of the original owner – who I actually knew! They told me more about the garage. A signwriter put the lettering back as it had been in the 1920s and now my house is rather a landmark building.
‘I drive vintage cars and it seems fitting to live in a former garage. Although the lettering on the house does confuse people who want their modern cars fixed!’
Heather Bailey and Peter King researched the history of their 190-year-old cottage in Tickenham, Somerset, and found that it had been built in the 1820s by two stonemasons, a father and son team, both called Moses Bailey – so they had the same surname as Heather.
‘Both of us have traced our family history and 14 years ago, when we moved into this house, in a row of three workers’ cottages, we decided to find out more about it and who’d lived here. Information came from books about the area in the local library, and the Somerset records office in Taunton, and we learnt a lot of local history.
‘There were no great historical moments attached to the property, but it was fascinating. And we did discover a horrible event which took place close by, concerning a woman who killed her children to save them from their violent father. I’m not sure how I’d have felt about my house if I’d found out something like that had happened there.’
How to research your house
You’ll be using resources such as archives, national records, The Land Registry (landregistry.gov.uk), local newspaper archives, manorial and estate records, and specialist websites. Here’s how to get started:
✤ Try to get the deeds – if you have a mortgage, they will probably be held by the bank, building society or your solicitor, and there’s also an online registry of house deeds, which contain the names of people who have bought and sold your house.
Can’t find them, or don’t own your house? The local records offices may still help.
✤ Talk to neighbours, people at the pub, and the oldest people you can find who might remember your house and who lived there.
✤ Old wills, census returns, local trade directories will reveal details about who
lived in your home.
✤ Join a local history group, or one which specialises in the period in which your house was built. Maybe your neighbours would like to do it with you.
✤ Check local archives, either online or at your library’s local studies and archives unit, for maps and plans which should help you discover why your house was built.
A worker’s cottage connected to a particular industry? Part of the estate of a grand house? A house built
to replace one destroyed by bombing?
✤ If you don’t know when the house was built, look for architectural clues. You may find old photographs of it in places like The English Heritage Archive and local records offices.