Tinker? Tailor? Soldier? Sailor? Who lived in your house?
From the the grandest mansion, to the smallest cottage, each has a unique history.
Researching the history of your house.
Who lived in my house? When was it built? What is its history? Discovering the history of your house can be a fascinating challenge. The house does not have to be grand or large, even the smallest cottage can be researched. Each house has a unique history. But because of incomplete archives it may not be possible to discover its complete history, nor even the date it was built. Nevertheless, it will be possible to find out a little about who lived in your house and who owned it.
It is always useful to have a little knowledge of domestic architecture. For instance, just enough tell the difference between Edwardian, Victoria and Georgian architecture and their stylistic features. There are plenty of books at the library which will help you on this.
Next, using this knowledge, look at your house and try and establish its architectural style and date. Has it been added to? Are there extensions and alterations? Try and take it back to its original shape and features.
Look in every nook and cranny, and in the loft, you never know what clues you may find.
Do beware of date stones or plaques. Unfortunately a plaque with the date of the house "built 1826" is always to be taken with a pinch of salt until you can confirm it in documentary sources.
Title Deeds and Local Knowledge
The next step is to set out what you know already about the history of the house. The title deeds to the house which may contain some information. If you do not have them, they may be at your solicitors or building society. It is unlikely they will go back many years, but they may give some recent information on the house owners. Unfortunately when the Land Registry system was created thousands of old title deeds were thrown away once the property had been registered.
Ask your neighbours, if they have lived in area for some time they may know a little of the previous occupiers.
Books and Heritage Listing
There is little point in duplicating work already carried out. Check to see if your house has a heritage listing with English Heritage. If it has, you may find a very detailed description of its architecture.
Look at local history books, Victorian Counties History (copies on Google Books, Internet Archive and British History Online, conduct an internet search, and check your local county record office catalogue.
The next useful research tool are maps. Where is your house located in the landscape? Where are the neighbouring properties?
There are scores of different types of maps available, have a look at our article on maps. The most important for your purposes are the Ordnance Survey and Tithe maps. Locate your house on each of these maps. You may be able to date its approximate construction by its lack of appearance on an earlier map.
These maps will also allow you to place your house in its surrounding landscape and will allow you to plot the route of the census enumerator when you start researching the census returns. You may have to note the names of surrounding houses or farms as these may be referred to on the census by name if yours is not.
The Tithe Map schedule (c.1836) will give the name of the owner and occupier.
Remember that there are all sorts of other maps: railways, drainage, council, land ownership, and estate maps. There may be sales catalogues as well. All of these will be held at your local county record office.
Kelvedon Hatch, Essex. Part of the Tithe Map.
Electoral Registers and Rate Books
Electoral Registers contain the names of those eligible to vote. They are listed on a parish basis. Names of eligible electors are listed and from 1900 their address also start to appear. In Essex, the Essex Record Office have made these available online through their SEAX catalogue.
The county record office may also have Rate Books and a trawl through these may give you some names of the occupants of your house.
Next you need to gain access to the census returns for 1841 - 1911. Unfortunately online suppliers of the census returns such as Ancestry.co.uk have concentrated on indexing the names on the census and not the house names. But it is possible with the 1881 and 1911 censuses to search an address.
Otherwise, download the entire return for a village or town ready to compare with a map. Alternatively, go to the record office and view the returns on microfilm or through their internet access points.
With the aid of Ordnance Survey maps, try and identify your house from the census return by following the route taken by the enumerator. Note named places such as a farm or pub to try and work out the location of your house on the census.
The returns will show who was in your house on the night of the census. It is not a guide as to who lived there all the time. However, if you are lucky, the same family may be living in the house over several decades.
Compare each census return across several decades to identify new occupants. Also check neighbours' names who stayed over the decades as this will help to 'fix' your house in the census.
The Yellow Pages of their day, they started in 1830. Useful for the intervening years between census. See our article on Trade Directories
Your house name or street address may be mentioned in the newspapers. Once you've identified the occupier's name you may find articles on them. See our articles on newspaper archives and an example search for the British Newspaper Archive.
The house or its contents may appear in Wills. See the article on Wills and Administrations after 1858
Now you have identified the 19th century occupiers after 1840, you can go back in time and use other records, some parish based, some manorial, and some based on different tax returns. The Essex Record Office has a more detailed guide on the types of records available in their collection: History Of My House.
Discovering the history of your house is a fascinating journey of exploration and through it you will learn that you not only are only the temporary owner of the house but are also its guardian for future generations.