Soon after we had moved into our new house in Wiltshire, I discovered some inscriptions on a wall. We knew the thatched cottage was old, but it wasn’t until we saw that “L.M. 1917” carved on the brick, right next to the entrance door, that we began seeing our home as a place with not one, but many stories to tell.
Now, we look at the fireplace and think of all the people that left their mark in soot, just like we began doing last winter. We wonder about that tiny staircase going down to the basement room, with a large window that might (or might not) have been used to deliver firewood, or merchandise, or food – and probably all of those, at one time or the other. And each rusty nail on the wooden beams reminds us that someone put them there, with a clear purpose in mind. Did they hang tools or mementos?
Just like ourselves, our homes have stories to tell; if we know where to look for them. In this guide, we will go through some recommended steps to research and study the story of your house.
Inspecting your house can tell you a lot about how old it might be, and how it has changed over time. For example, you might notice bricks that are different in size or color, indicating that the house was built in different construction cycles.
The age of a house can be established through basic visual clues, by reading up about the local area, and by talking to your neighbors and other members of the local community. They might be able to tell you who lived in the house before you and remember if any changes have been made to it over time. A general understanding of the area can also be useful when you’re researching the history of an individual house.
If you have an older house, you can search for 2,000 properties recorded in the 1862 Act register and explore historical editions of Ordnance Survey maps.
Gardens can be a treasure trove of specific information. Old glass bottles, toys, and discarded items can help you determine the house’s age and the lifestyle of its inhabitants.
Finally, many older properties have an ‘Erected‘ date, or the name of the house itself, carved into the façade.
Is your house listed?
The National Heritage List for England and the Cadw’s National Historic Assets of Wales offer a brief overview of the date of construction and significant features of every listed building in England and Wales. List entries vary greatly. Depending on historical reasons and according to a variety of designations (listing, scheduling etc.), some entries might be a few lines, whereas many are long and detailed.
If your home is not listed, learning what administrative area ( county, registration district, and parish) in which the property stands can still be very useful for research as it will help you locate relevant records. The local preservation office can tell you whether you live in a historic district.
If you can’t find any information on your house, don’t panic. Just like we can branch out in our family tree to learn about those surrounding our relatives when we hit a brick wall, we can explore the neighborhood and see if that sheds some light. Are there other older buildings that look similar? Does your house stand out in any particular way?
Research Land and Property Records
There are many things you can research about your house, but they will probably fall into two main categories:
- Your home’s architectural history; or
- The occupants of your house over time.
Using old maps, plans, and photographs, you can find out how a house has changed over time and the part it has played in its surroundings.
Using the census, electoral registers, and other archive material, you can trace the inhabitants and place them in time. Census usually include invaluable information like the number of children in the house, the cost of the home, whether the home had a radio, and many more.
Findmypast‘s UK census records can reveal who lived in your house in 1911 and beyond.
A more detailed list of where to consult each Census can be found in the National Archives website.
Some transcripts of census records covering England, Wales and Scotland are available free of charge on FreeCEN.org.uk.
Deeds or titles can tell you who owned the property and when, while tax records can tell you how the property has changed over time. If your county records have Sanborn fire maps, which can show the footprint of your house and layout of the neighborhood.
Many local libraries have copies of a city directory, a precursor of the phone book, as well as photographs of the area, and newspapers and publications, among others.
Local History Societies
If you’re not sure how to continue your search, local history societies can help you investigate your house’s history. We’ve put together a list of complete List of All Genealogical and Family History Societies of England that you can check here on our website.
Studying the history of your local area and your house can be as rewarding as researching your family tree. And documenting it in a way that can be shared with others is a beautiful contribution to history.
We hope our guide helped you get interested in the idea of researching your home’s history. Please consider sharing your discoveries in the comments section!