Researching the History of a House

Emmeline Garnett

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Some people like to live in a house of which they are the very first occupants. Most of us, given the choice prefer the feeling that others have lived and died on these premises, have sat in front of this hearth, and dug in this garden. Of recent years there has been a huge growth in the family history business and the level of expertise is now very high. Researching houses is a less common area of interest and I know of no local societies dedicated to it, but that may well change. This article offers no more than a jumping-off place: as with family history there is only one way of learning and that is by doing. But if it inspires anyone to go further, particularly if they then pass on their acquired knowledge the cause of local history will have been given a boost.

The place to start is the building itself. This is not the place to try and give a practical guide to architectural development but, if you are interested and keep looking you cannot help learning by experience, and there are many excellent books. Some general points may be borne in mind. No one can avoid the handwriting of their own generation, witness all those Victorian architects who thought they were building churches in the original mediaeval style and succeeded in expressing their own century so unmistakably. Of course in a house there may be features that have been imported. That eighteenth century fireplace may have come from a builders' merchant. On the whole such importations are usually rather recent, and may be checked out with the previous owners or even the local building firm who did the alterations. But if our ancestors did not often buy up the cast-offs of a previous age quite as much as ourselves, they altered and modernised, added to and knocked about the buildings in which they lived. Remember also that no one does more alteration than they strictly need in other words, that most houses provide a palimpsest, if we can tease out the different layers, of every generation that has tinkered with the structure and the decoration.

As well as books from which you can learn in general, you may find your house described in particular in something like Pevsner's Buildings of England, published county by county. Or if by chance it is a listed building, then you can have the benefit of a brief but accurate expert's description. The local planning department is the place to go. Here it is worth remarking that building regulations go back further than you may have thought, into the nineteenth century. That is if they have been preserved, and if they have been kept in some sort of order. These are two sizeable 'ifs', but it is worth finding out. Maps are a great resource. I think it is true to say that Britain is the most completely and the best mapped country in the world. The Ordnance Survey 6-inch maps date back to the 1840s the 25-inch maps to the 1850s and the incredible five-feet-to-a-mile plans of some towns and cities usually to the second half of the nineteenth century. (The tithe map if it exists for your area is described later.) During the twentieth century there were two very complete surveys which are rather more complex to find and use, but may well repay the time and trouble. Before embarking on either either of them, it would be as well to invest in the excellent Public Record Office guide book whose title is quoted in full at the end of the article. 'The first is the Valuation Office Survey 1910-1915, often known as the 'New Domesday', because it covers all the land in the United Kingdom. The second, which is only truly relevant for some house researchers, is the National Farm Survey 1941-1943. This, as the dates suggest, was undertaken with a view to maximising food production an urgent requirement for this island in the face of war and shipping blockades. The preceding paragraphs sum up very briefly the resources for researching a house without any reference to the people who lived there. Nearly everything else deals mainly with people, and here we shall borrow from the field of family history, and starting with the present day, work backwards. It must be remembered, however, that the history of the site and the people who lived there may not be the same as the physical entity of the house, which possibly has been entirely renewed at some time. Never underestimate the value of the deeds to the house. They are not always easy to winkle out of the hands which hold them (banks and building societies in this respect are more difficult than solicitors), and people are sometimes dismissive because nowadays the older deeds have often been jettisoned as unnecessary. Those you hold may go back only fifty years or so. Sometimes they go back to the break-up of an estate and the building may be more fully documented elsewhere. Sometimes the earlier material has been kept by the person who divided and sold off a plot. Whatever there is, is worth looking at very closely. You may possibly find a map, and some of the dullest looking collections lead off with a brief summary of earlier documents no longer included - a so-called 'Abstract of Title". All names are worth noting; they may for instance, be connected to a previous owner in some way not at first apparent. While we are in the twentieth century, remember the value of asking the neighbours. Somewhere, you may be sure, there is someone whose memory of this house goes back a long time and their family memory, what they heard from someone else, may go back over a century. All such tradition is worth something, although it has to be said that it often gets muddled on the way. As we get older we recognise how fallible is our own memory, and so-called 'oral history' must be treated with the greatest care and a healthy dose of scepticism. Who has not had the experience of disagreeing fundamentally with some other member of the family about an event at which both were present and which both are convinced that they remember with crystal clarity? In this respect it is worth remarking that we all very much want our past to be a little bit romantic, a little bit out of the ordinary. Everyone wants a duke in their family tree, or if not a duke, then at least a sheep-stealer. The same applies to the history of your house. Purely factual memories about, for instance, alterations or previous inhabitants within the teller's own lifetime are probably rock solid. Older traditions, especially if they sound exciting, should be held in suspense until proven. Moving backwards to the nineteenth century, the sources seem to be the same as those for family history the census returns and the street directories, but there is a difference in their use. If the house is named, it will probably be very simple to trace. Otherwise, you will find yourself doing elaborate jigsaw puzzles to find out which family in the census actually lived in the house you are researching counting from an inn or the corner of the street or some other identifiable place, checking on the neighbours from one two three along the road, working out which way round the census taker was walking with his notebook and his little portable ink bottle Street numbers have often changed. If you can surmount these obstacles, then the census returns give you snapshots of everyone living in your house at ten-year intervals from 1891 back to 1841. Indeed by the time you read his article, the 1901 returns as well may be open to the public. From them you will learn about families, occupations, and (from 1851), where each person was born.

All this time, you have been crossing your fingers that there is a tithe map covering the area. If there is, one of the copies should be in your local record office. These finely detailed maps are usually dated between 1840 and 1850, although the material for them may have been gathered a few years before. Over the years the payment of tithes of farm produce to the church had become immensely complicated, and an act of 1836 allowed them to be commuted into cash. To work out the payments due, it was necessary to map the parish minutely, and the resulting plan and schedule give you not only the name of the owner and where appropriate the tenant, but it also shows in meticulous detail the shape of every building on the site and a survey of any land belonging. This is often the key document in your research but, as usually happens, there is a fly in the ointment. Many tithes had already been commuted, probably round the end of the eighteenth century when the common land was enclosed Enclosure maps are rarely as useful as tithe maps, and sometimes, for the purpose of a house history, of no use at all. From the tithe map, sometimes from the early census returns, you may with luck be able to identify your house on the land tax returns, if these exist, and if they exist they may bridge another fifty years. The land tax was payable over a far longer stretch of time than 1780-1832, but where the returns have been preserved they date between those two years. They were kept to prove that people who claimed a vote had sufficient property to qualify, and with the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill this was no longer necessary. The land tax for a parish or township often at first sight looks very unpromising. It usually consists of a list of names, apparently in no particular order, with the sum of money due from each. Sometimes both owner and occupier are named, occasionally names of properties. The principal value to the house-researcher is that although over the fifty years the names may change as land changes hands, the sum of money remains constant. If, from the tithe map, you can pick up John Smith as your tenant, and John Smith pays 1s 53/4d and in 1832, then with luck you can track the owners and occupiers of John Smith's property back to 1780. Now we are back in the eighteenth century, and if you are doing your research in the old West Riding of Yorkshire, you have one tremendous bonus. This is the Registry of Deeds at Wakefield. (It has to be admitted that if you live in the old West Riding, you have probably already noticed that you are in need of a bonus. Straightforward research is difficult, time-consuming and expensive as you trail from Northallerton to Leeds, from Preston to York, in pursuit of the various sources.) Yorkshire and London were the only two areas to implement early eighteenth century acts which set up these registries of land transfer documents. The documents are indexed, and although the huge metal-hound volumes sometimes make you wish for a diploma in weightlifting, a day spent in Wakefield can be very profitable. It is important to note however, that you cannot trace a property by its name. You have to be in possession of the name of at least one of the signatories (usually the buyer or seller). But having found out that our John Smith bought from Michael Robinson in the year 1773, you can then look for Michael Robinson before that date to see whether he bought from somebody else, and if you read and note the entries with care, they often include other valuable titbits of information which may give a further lead.

Other sources to be canvassed are the estate and the manor. If you can find out to what larger unit your property belonged in its earlier days, there may be considerable documentation still extant, although perhaps inconveniently sited. A large county history, such as the Victoria County History, will give you good information as to what manor your house was in, and through what families the manor descended. The local record office may hold a deposit of papers from the family in question. If not, then an invaluable address is that of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, given at the end of this article. In the past important families may have held land all over the country, and the documents you need may be deposited many miles away. But the main sources of information for these early days will be again the same as those used by family historians, namely parish records and wills. Through these time-honoured sources you may he able to track back your householders for another hundred years or more, perhaps to 1600. They will be in the record office or, if not, the record office will know where they are. Some counties have excellent series of printed parish registers, complete with indexes. But indexed or not, I know no other way of tracking a family than by the painstaking copying of every entry under that name in the register, from which you may create a family tree. It is of no use to look for just those entries which you think you need. The parish registers are never totally complete, and the technique of family research is very like putting together a somewhat defective jigsaw puzzle - unless you join up all the pieces which are present, you cannot begin to see the gaps. Reading wills is not always easy as you go backwards because of handwriting difficulties, but these can be overcome by practice, and by their mention of specific people and relationships and sometimes specific places, wills provide details not obtainable elsewhere. Seventeenth and early eighteenth century wills are often accompanied by an inventory which for the house-historian is a treasure. The assessors not only listed the dead person's property, but often they listed the rooms as well. Ironically, you may get a far more complete picture of your house and its owners at this remote period than from any later documentation. A final source may be the gravestones in the local churchyard or chapel yard, although between the effects of intentional destruction, natural wear, and the fact that most people could not afford a stone until very recently, this is often a disappointing search. A word of warning on the use of parish records: the IGI (International Genealogical Index) collected by the Mormon Church and generously made available to researchers, is a fine tool but a very bad master. It is not complete, but it does not tell you where it is not complete; it has been compiled by great numbers of people, so by definition a proportion of them are going to have made mistakes. It covers christenings and marriages, but not burials. It is in all record offices and many public libraries and has lightened the load for thousands of family searchers. Use it but check your findings.

Very briefly, this article has tried to point out the main sources of house research back to 1600 which in round figures is usually the cut-off point. There are of course documents which go much further back and may name the names you are looking for, but the parish register, for ninety-nine per cent of the population, is the first and only document which connects father to son, and without that connection you cannot assume a link. However 400 years, if you are lucky enough to have covered that span with the history of the house you live in or the site on which it is built, is a more than satisfactory achievement.

Sources. There are many books about understanding the physical features of a house and dating it. The best book I know about the method of research is deceptively small: Iredale and Barrett: Discovering your Old House (Shire Publications 1997)

Foot: Maps for Family History (Public Record Office Readers' Guide No 9. 1994).

The local library is the starting point for finding out what is available and where in an area, but beyond this an important national address is The National Register of Archives, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1HP.

O.S. map of 1927 showing the position of the Hammertons first hall at Slaidburn. There is a photograph of the hall in the Journal of 1998.

The Folly
Photo: Anne Read

The Folly