Why you should find out the history of your home

Ned Browne 5 October 2020

"If walls could talk" is a phrase often used, but seldom pondered. The vast majority of us live in properties older than ourselves. That includes everyone living in Tudor, Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian properties and everything before and everything in between, given that the last of these were built in 1910

Death and taxes

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously said, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." And, over the years, no asset has been taxed more than property. This, unlikely as it may seem, has a hidden benefit. You can’t tax without records, meaning governments have kept meticulous property records for decades. Indeed, the Domesday Book (1086), a survey of much of England and Wales, was commissioned by King William the Conqueror for this very purpose. Although the Domesday Book doesn't include domestic dwellings, it does detail land ownership at that time.


The digital age

Traditionally, finding out about a property could be a labour-intensive task, often requiring the help of a local historian. But things have become much easier with the mass digitisation of historic records. The Domesday Book, for example, is now available online. To learn more about where you live, it’s a great starting point.


What other resources are there?

Census data is a gold mine. The government has conducted a survey every decade since 1841. The National Archives website allows you to access every one up until 1911 (although some are accessed via a third party). Cassini Maps, a private company, allows you to search and download (for a fee) digital versions of the original Registration District maps from the 1871 census. Between 1910 and 1915, the Valuation Office carried out a survey to determine the value of land for tax purposes. The survey contains the names of property owners and occupiers, and the value and area covered by the property. For many properties they also show the number of rooms and how the rooms were used. The National Archives also have a Valuation Office map finder tool, that allows you to identify and order Valuation Office Survey maps of England and Wales from 1910 to 1915. Historic Ordnance Survey maps are also interesting for seeing how areas have changed over the years.

Tithe maps and apportionments from 1836 will help you establish whether a property existed at that time and should provide clues about property ownership and occupancy.

Taxation records from ancient parish taxes and rates, which can go back hundreds of years, are well worth exploring too. As is The National Farm Survey 1941-43, which recorded owners of land.

Your property’s title deeds are another source of information. They won’t tell you too much about the property, but they can help you trace the previous owners and occupiers.


Listed properties

If you live in a listed property, you will find it much easier to find out about the history of your house. Almost all are detailed in the National Heritage List for England and the National Historic Assets of Wales.

For professional advice and help I highly recommend Tracing Your House History by Gill Blanchard—it’s packed with useful advice. Gill also runs an online course on tracing a house history, pastsearchlearning.co.uk for more details. Nonetheless, researching your home can be time consuming, especially if you’re doing this for the first time. This is where specialist historians can help. Past Search (pastsearch.co.uk) is one such organisation that can help. If you’re stuck for a great Christmas present, now is the time to call in the professionals.

Read more: Why you should find out the history of your home

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