How to research your home's history

The popularity of BBC Two's A House Through Time has led to many people researching the history of their own homes. Here's how to get started. 

Getting started

an old house by a river

Before you begin researching old documents, it’s usually best to establish a few key points to direct you in your research.

Your first step is to try and get a rough estimate of how old your house actually is. This can be established by reading up on the history of the local area, by talking to any neighbours who have lived in the area for a long time or other knowledgeable members of the community. Your local library will have a host of resources relating to the history of your area and can be a good place to start your research. 

research books

Look for visual clues. Does the style of your home give an indication of when it was built? What materials were used and is it different to other properties on the same street? For example, Victorian houses can usually be identified by their slate roofs, bay windows, sash windows, distinctive brickwork and lack of a garage. The date of construction may even have been carved onto the building.

Find out which administrative area your house is in. Knowing the names of the county, registration district and parish in which your property stands will help significantly with locating relevant records.

Be your own archaeologist! Have you found anything interesting while working in the garden? Shards of discarded pottery and old masonry may reveal clues that predate your house!

 

Points to remember

a quaint typical english street

Street numbering, and often street names, frequently changed over the course of time, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Compare the location of your property with other buildings in the street to make sure that you are looking at the right house.

Owners or occupiers? Owning the house you live in was much rarer in the past than it is today. Up until about 1914 approximately 90 per cent of all housing in Britain was privately rented. This trend began to reverse with the 1915 Rent Act that prevented landlords from exploiting the increased wages of munitions workers. This was the start of a whole series of legislative acts designed to protect tenants and by the Second World War, homeownership was on the rise while renting declined and by 1990, as few as 12 per cent of the population were renting privately. For much of your homes history, the occupant may not have been the owner so bear this in mind when examining records.

Dig out the deeds. While most of the records you encounter will provide on occupants, title registers and deeds will provide you with key details of previous owner. This might include leases, conveyances, mortgages, and more. If you have these tucked away at home already, be sure to dig them out. If not, you can request them from solicitors and mortgage providers and in some cases, local archives and council record offices. They can also be ordered online from the HM Land Registry. For England and Wales, visit gov.uk/government/organisations/land-registry, search the register for free and fill in a request from. For Scotland visit ros.gov.uk

 

Tracing occupancy online

tracing occupancy online

Most family history websites now provide all the resources needed for tracing occupancy online. Now that you've covered the basics, it's time to use the information you have already to turn detective and dig deeper online.

Electoral rolls

Electoral registers are a great starting point for finding residents of a house in more recent history, providing valuable information for the registered voters living in a house from the 21st century back to the 19th century.

  • Electoral rolls and registers offer an incredibly detailed insight into not just the history of our democracy, but the history of our homes but remember that at different times in history, not everyone was eligible to vote.
  • Taken each and every year (and sometimes biannually) they are the best way of tracing occupancy between censuses.
  • Individual entries can include a name, address or abode, a description of the property, and the name, a description and the residence of the landlord, or the person to whom rent was paid.
  • Once you have found the address you are looking for, it is usually easy to follow it through subsequent registers to see how the occupancy changed over time. The names and details of any occupants you discover an then be used to search other records.

The 1939 register

  • The 1939 Register is one of the most important 20th century genealogical resources for England and Wales. The 1931 census was destroyed by fire and no census was taken in 1941 because of the war. So the 1939 register is the only national census-like resource available for this period.
  • Once war became inevitable the British government had to plan for the wide-scale mobilisation of the population and the eventual introduction of rationing. The most recent census was now almost a decade old, so more up-to-date statistics were needed. They issued Identity cards immediately afterwards (which were used until 1952).
  • The register will tell you who was living in the property at the time and what they did for a living. It records the details of every household member (including visitors, boarders and servants) and the original documents often list the details of neighbouring properties. Each search result also includes three ordinance survey maps (present day, 1930s and 1880s/90s) and infographics breaking highlighting the demographics of the area.
  • The register was divided up into registration boroughs, districts and counties and can be easily searched by address.
  • It also provides details for many who were involved in war work, from ambulance drivers, air raid wardens, and more.

using a laptop for research

Census records (National Archives collection available on Findmypast)

  • Censuses were taken every ten years and complete censuses for England, Wales and Scotland from 1841 up to 1911 are easily accessible online. The 1911 Scotland census is available exclusively at scotlandspeople.gov.uk.
  • Like the 39 register, every census record includes and address. They list the name, age, birthplace and occupation of each member of a household as well as their relationship to the “head” of that household (son, wife, mother etc.)
  • One of the most valuable elements is that the census records everyone in the house on census night. This includes children, servants, visitors, and lodgers, many of whom were often not recorded in other sources.
  • Censuses can easily be searched by address and will also include details of neighbouring properties.

Tax records (some available on Findmypast)

  • Rate books recorded how much tax householders paid, making them a really useful resource for finding out who occupied your house in bygone days. The rich detail included about the house can mention the occupier's and owner's names, a description of the property at the time the record was taken and the amount paid for it.
  • Hearth tax records are based on the number of hearths in a property. Returns can be found online and at the various archives
  • Land tax records are often still found in county record offices they tend to survive from the late 18th century through to around 1832 (although many date from earlier). This is largely because they were used to provide proof of eligibility of landowners to vote until electoral rolls were introduced on 1832.
  • Valuation rolls are essential for Scottish research, as they allow you to trace who owned property or the name of the person who was the tenant, and in some cases, both. Valuation rolls were local tax records which listed properties and people for each Scottish county and burgh between 1855 and 1996. Local taxes were based upon the rental value of a property, the assessor for each county of parliamentary burgh would compile an annual valuation roll, listing most buildings and other properties in their areas along with the names and designations of the owner, tenant and occupier along with the annual rateable value.
  • Other assessed taxes on property and possession exist (such as window tax from 1696), mainly at the National Archive and other local archives

Directories & social history records (available on Findmypast)

  • Directories and almanacs were essentially early “yellow pages” and as well as looking up specific addresses, they are great way of exploring the makeup of local area was like and what kind of businesses operated there.
  • They're useful for tracing house and particularly business history because, by their very nature, they always include addresses along with details of the owner/occupier and their business.
  • They first began as a list of tradesmen, hence the name "trade directory", but eventually became more detailed and provided details of the resident at most addresses. However, they were a commercial product, so can contain errors.
  • The majority of post directories comprise a description of the place, along with lists of people by occupation. For example, you will find lists of magistrates, councillors, sheriffs, police officers, and merchants. It is important to remember that post directories are not complete lists of all the residents in the town or county. Also, many directories fail to include women in their lists.
  • There are a vast range of directories available online from official Post Office listings through to trade almanacks and business indexes.

using a map

Parish records (available on Findmypast)

  • Church/parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials usually recorded “residence”.

Court and probate records (available on Findmypast)

  • Wills and administrations often contain addresses as property was nearly always bequeathed.
  • Court records (petty sessions, criminal courts etc) often record the addresses of defendant’s, witnesses, and vicitms.

Newspapers (over 36 million pages available on Findmypast)

  • Old local newspapers are one of the most detailed sources you can look at when tracing your house history. You may even find old photographs or sketches of the property or former residents.
  • Few of the privacy laws that we know today applied in the past and addresses would often appear alongside names in news reports (e.g. “Mr Williams of 14 Gainsborough Road witnessed the attack”).
  • They will reveal whether anything noteworthy happened in your street and allow you to view major historical events through a local lens.

Mapsget a bird eye view

  • Maps are a fantastic tool for the house historian as they can provide a visual representation of both your house and its position within the entire surrounding area. One of the most useful is the detailed maps from the Ordnance Survey, which can be viewed online in several places. Every town and city will have their own including specific town and parish maps, but also unique maps produced to document disease and demographics, including the Charles Booth Poverty map for London, as well as maps produced at key times when changes to taxes and land ownership were put in place, such as the Tithe map (c.1840s) and Enclosure map (usually late 18th century) and their accompanying records.
  • Findmypast also provide a dedicated map search function that enables you to easily locate properties on historical maps from 1888, 1939 and the present day like a modern day GPS. Simply tap in your address, postcode or town/village to gets a birds eye view and see how the area has changed over time.
  • The National Library of Scotland also provides access to high-resolution zoomable images of over 200,000 maps of Scotland, England, Wales and beyond. These can be accessed for free at maps.nls.uk.

 

Offline research: learning the lay of the land

two neighbours discussing history of their homes

TOP TIP: visit your local archive service! Not only are they staffed by local experts who will be more than willing to help, they are home to a wide variety of material you won’t find online! Including:

  • Miscellaneous estate maps and plans relating to the area in which your house stands. There is also a series of national records that contain additional information about individual properties. Maps and plans will help you discover why your house was built in the first place. Was it a cottage for workers at a nearby factory? Or a new-build replacing a house that was bombed in the 40s?
  • Titles deeds and conveyancing: various sources that record the transfer of land or property, such as leases, indentures, sales etc combine to form the "deed package". These are valuable for tracing property ownership.

 

Collaborate and have fun

Contact your local history society or join a group on social media (there are many excellent groups and forums out there).

This type of research can be made much easier with the help of fellow locals.

 

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