Finding an old photo of your house online is a great way to connect with the history of your house. You can discover who lived in your house using old census records, but seeing the house or street you live in now as it was 50 or 100 years ago can be a real joy.
Of course, some streets and houses are more photogenic than others, and some areas will have been more carefully documented than others. Streets may have been surveyed by the local council, or snapped by professional photographers, or be depicted in postcards preserved at a local-history library.
For more recent photos of your house, you can step back in time using old photos on Google Street View. Just click on the clock underneath the address and see images going back to 2008.
We’ve also listed some websites where you can search for old aerial photographs of your house, which even if they don’t show your specific street will reveal how the wider landscape has changed, for example, Historic England has recently added more than 400,000 historic aerial photographs of England to its collection (see below).
Although this website is focused on selling you prints, it is nevertheless an excellent place to browse vintage, retro and nostalgic black-and-white photographs of areas across the UK. More are added every month – in February 2022 alone 1,098 photos were uploaded depicting 432 places. The site is also quick and responsive, and there are various new features since it last appeared in this column, including the ability to send free electronic postcards to friends. You can also share memories and stories relating to specific images – more than 82,600 have been added to date. There’s no postcode search, so just type in the name of a town or area to get started.
This website is based around a collection of 95,000 aerial photographs, the majority of which were taken by the company Aerofilms Ltd between 1919 and 1953. It was the result of a four-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to conserve and digitise the images. You can search by keyword, image reference or county, or by using the map which is arguably the best way in. The site has been online for some time now and is showing its age in some respects, but remains a useful tool for family historians. Britain From Above is free to use, but you will have to create a user account in order to be able to zoom into the photographs.
More than 400,000 historic photographs of England from the air are now free to view online via the Aerial Photo Explorer on Historic England. The photos cover nearly 30 per cent of England and date from 1919 to the present. About 300,000 of the images date from after 1967. This accompanies the England’s Places collection which is a favourite of expert buildings historian Karen Averby.
Another Historic England collection is recommended by Karen Averby a buildings historian who co-hosts #HouseHistoryHour on Twitter:
“One of my favourite online sources of historic images for house history is Historic England’s site England’s Places, an enjoyably absorbing wholly digitised and searchable photographic collection. The images date from the 1850s to the 1990s and comprise street scenes, village and townscapes, and exterior and sometimes interior views of individual buildings. Often referred to as the ‘Architectural Red Box Collection’, the originals were, not unsurprisingly, stored in red boxes in Historic England’s archive.
The collection originated in 1941 when the National Buildings Record began to document built heritage. Subsequent additions to the core of 1930s photographs include a variety of images from both commercial and amateur photographers, lending the collection a wonderfully eclectic air.
An especially endearing feature of this digitised version is its replication of the physical experience of looking through the red boxes – as far as is possible – which many may fondly remember doing in person at the Swindon searchroom. Simply search by place name, and virtually ‘open’ a box to browse a clickable gallery displaying cards with images affixed. Clicking on an image reveals the handwritten details on the reverse, such as building name, date and photographer. Happily, there are zoom and rotate options too.
Looking through the images one by one is a fascinating process, made all the more enjoyable if your house or street pops up. Even if the house you are researching is not included, the views of streets and buildings in the area you are looking at offer glimpses into the past, literally snapshots in time, thereby providing a wider visual context for your investigations.”
Historypin was first on the scene with the idea of superimposing old photos on Google Street View, attracting lots of publicity in the 2010s. It remains a diverting browse, although how useful it will be for your research depends on how much material has been uploaded for the area you’re interested in. Visitors can browse the photographs on the website, and if you sign up then you can upload and curate collections too. WhatWasThere also allows you to explore historic images linked to Street View. It works well, and has all sorts of interesting stuff if you dig for it, but there are not yet enough photos from the British Isles to make it genuinely useful.
This smart and spiffy website has all sorts of resources aimed at the association’s members, and will help you track down local-heritage groups. Many of these will have online galleries, often featuring privately owned images of local streets and houses that you can’t find elsewhere. And if you visit a local-history website then always make sure that you check out the links section. This is where you tend to find members’ own websites, which in turn may have all sorts of buried treasure, and are just the kind of sites that won’t turn up anywhere near the top of the results of a web search – no matter how good you are at using Google.
It’s worth visiting the NLI’s online catalogue to explore the kinds of images that survive, and see how fun they can be to research when they’ve been well catalogued, regardless of whether you have Irish roots or not. This is the finding aid to all sorts of NLI content, including references to more than 150,000 photographs, of which about half have been digitised. These cover all sorts of subjects, from historic buildings to industry, events and disasters, famous people, civic celebrations and protests. But there are of course many hundreds of images that simply show streets, houses and communities from across Ireland. You can narrow by timeline, creator, region or subject – and there are categories for both ‘Houses’ and ‘Streets’.
Other websites that may include an old photo of your house:
Find out how your postcode has changed since 1801 using Ordnance Survey maps.
Local-history groups and libraries often post highlights to Facebook. Try searching for the name of an area together with ‘local history’.
Many museums, archives and libraries still upload georeferenced images to Flickr.
It’s always worth searching Google Images, but you may be swamped with estate agents’ photos.
This is the website of the weekly Twitter event #HouseHistoryHour, which takes place on Thursdays at 7pm GMT.
If your house is in Leeds, then you may find a photograph of it here.
Many archives and libraries have their own dedicated image catalogues, such as this one from the London Metropolitan Archives. Type the name of a London street into the search box to find historic photographs of your house.
Find old photographs of Manchester in this collection of over 80,000 images including thousands of street views. Just type the name of your street into the search box and hey presto! Prints can be purchased for £10
View digital versions of some of the library’s photographic collection.
Directories can be invaluable for getting to grips with changing streets and house numbers. For Scottish properties try digital.nls.uk/directories.
Search 75,000 digitised examples from TNA’s image library, including aerial photographs.