Whether your ancestors lived in a worker’s cottage, 1930s semi or Georgian manor, house history can quickly develop from being a casual side project to an all-consuming quest. It’s equally fascinating if you’re tracing the history of your own house.
In the popular BBC Two series A House Through Time, historian David Olusoga researches the history of an ordinary house, revealing the fascinating, shocking and touching stories of its inhabitants. The programme has inspired many people to find out more about the previous residents of their home.
Depending on the age of the home you are researching, house history can call on some sources that are difficult to find, difficult to read and difficult to interpret. Thankfully the websites listed below are excellent sources of advice, and all of the skills that you’ve picked up as a family historian can be applied to your house history research.
When you’ve uncovered the history of your old house, find out how to restore it with this guide from Homes & Antiques
The best websites for house history
Obviously old maps are a necessary tool for house history, and in particular Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, tithe maps and valuation maps, often showing individual houses and outbuildings, can be a vital first stop.
The National Library of Scotland has been leading the way in terms of digital access to its map collections for years, and this includes maps covering all of the British Isles, not just Scottish records.
Thanks to the successful GB1900 project crowdsourcing project drawing to a close, volunteers have transcribed all of the place names printed on sheets of the original 1900 OS maps of the British Isles, adding a new and truly comprehensive gazetteer.
This website lists the core sources that form the basis of the free and totally wonderful ScotlandsPlaces, a fantastic source for Scottish house history. You can find maps, surveys and plans, drawings, various tax rolls, Ordnance Survey name books and more.
Examples include schedules of 18th century ‘Duties on inhabited houses’, first imposed in 1778 and arranged in county volumes, and the ‘Official reports’ section. This leads to the likes of the Land Ownership Commission 1872–3 – a land ownership report that gives the names of every owner of land (of one acre or more) in each county.
Historic England’s homepage has sections on a project to tell the story of England through ‘100 Places’, a map of all listed buildings, plus sections on war memorials and Historic England’s own archives.
The right-hand menu (click ‘Advice’ then choose ‘Your Home’) leads to more practical advice for house history – not only aimed at those who own listed properties.
It could be more comprehensive, but it’s a good starting point, and includes some useful links to the likes of Victoria County History.
There are all sorts of local history projects out there that might record the history of your house, or properties in the wider community. This example from Brighton and Hove was launched in 2008.
Volunteers from the Regency Town House have also now completed the Here in the Past project. This tool draws on directories, census returns, cemetery records and electoral registers, to create a searchable database for users to explore house histories in Brighton & Hove.
The wealth of material available at British History Online can seem somewhat overwhelming, especially when you combine it with other sites in the Connected Histories stable. As a starting point I strongly recommend visiting two of the subject guides – ‘Urban History’ and ‘Local History’.
These give broad overviews of the strengths and weaknesses of what’s available here, and describe the primary and secondary sources for house history at your fingertips.
Chosen by Gill Blanchard, professional researcher and author of Tracing Your House History:
“I recommend TheGenealogist for house history because the site has digitised copies of the tithe maps and apportionments held at The National Archives which can be searched by name and place.
“The old system of tithes payments of farm produce in kind, made by parishioners to support the parish church and clergy, was replaced by money payments in 1836.
“Maps showing all titheable land and properties on it were drawn up with accompanying apportionments listing owners and occupiers, acreage, type of cultivation and its tithe valuation.
“Other useful house history records on TheGenealogist include the Returns of the Owners of Land (1873–1876).
“And for those researching house history in Ireland the site also has copies of Griffith’s Valuation of land, carried out between 1848 and 1864.
“There are also trade and telephone directories, electoral registers and poll books.
“A new addition to the site are the beginnings of the Inland Revenue Survey collection taken between 1910 and 1915.
“More commonly known as the Lloyd George Domesday Survey, these records and their accompanying maps feature owners and occupiers across the UK.”
More house history websites
The National Records of Scotland guide details house history sources in Scotland, including the Register of Sasines, exchequer records, registers of deeds and more. West Yorkshire’s Archives Service looks after one of only five surviving Registry of Deeds, containing memorial copies of more than seven millions house deeds (1704–1970).
Dating a house’s original construction is an important step in tracing house history. A really old house may have had all sorts of redesigns, rebuilds, alterations and additions. Deeds and wills are of course incredibly useful, but they’re not for the faint-hearted. Step forward Building History. It has a simple design, giving brief and clear advice for anyone interested in house history.
Title deeds are useful documents in house history because they include the names of vendors and sellers, a description of the property and the amounts of money used in transfer of ownership. Further information for many properties can be obtained from the Land Registry.
Historical trade directories can give you some indication of who used to live in your property. There are some free examples online for England and Wales held by the University of Leicester.
Other useful websites for house history include University College London’s Survey of London; Vision of Britain, a map-finding tool; and HistoryPin, where you can search for photographs of streets and buildings in the past.
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History