In the UK over the past few weeks there has been a very absorbing programme on BBC2 called A House Through Time, focusing on the history of one house in Liverpool from it’s first inhabitant in 1840 through to the present day. Presented by David Olusoga – recently appointed as a Trustee of English Heritage, it looked at the very different lives of the people who called 62 Falkner Street home.
The programme delved into their jobs, their families, the events going on in Liverpool at the time that shaped the area, changing it from a well to do upper middle class street, where merchants lived, to it being split into rooms to rent, to separate flats, when the area became run down following the bombings in WWII. The house was a stones throw from the Toxteth Riots, at one point it was close to being earmarked as a property for demolition, very different to the lovely family home it is today.
David Olusoga is a very engaging presenter, who has his own connection with Liverpool, having studied Slavery at the University of Liverpool. His family came from Nigeria when he was a young boy and lived in Newcastle until he was 14, sadly forced out from unrelenting racism and attacks by the BNP.
It certainly got conversations going between Paul and I about the unseen history of houses, how we buy a house with no knowledge of the people who lived in it before us, other than maybe a name on a deed, or on the contract paperwork. Our house is only about 40 years old and I think has only seen about one or two owners in that time. Paul bought the property in September 2016 after the previous owner, who was in his 90s had passed away. My last two homes have been quite new properties, the last one only one previous owner – a young couple who separated, and the one before that a new build.
The house I grew up in had only been lived in by one family for about 3 years before we bought it and prior to that our homes were perhaps only about 10 to 15 years old when we lived in them. Of course when my parents were first married they lived in older houses, and the properties they have lived in since leaving the home I grew up in have been much older.
In 2001 my parents bought a guest house in the Scottish Borders, it was built in 1906 for the son of the Tweed Mill owner of the village, one of four big houses built for each of his sons. It retained much of the original features, such as wood panelling, wooden arts and crafts style mouldings, plaster mouldings, the original 1906 bath that filled from the bottom up. It was a beautiful building, it had been a hotel since the late 1970s. My Mum worked hard to redecorate many of the rooms and in one we found wonderful glimpses into the past when we removed wallpaper to find writing on the wall in pencil from the 1910s.
The house my parents now live in is a converted cow barn. They live not too far away from many places my father’s ancestors were from. Some years ago we found out that his second cousin used to cycle from the village he lived in to come and work at the farm at the top of the same track their house is on. It was a B&B as well as their home up until the end of 2018 – a lovely place to stay with fabulous breakfasts and homemade bread and jam!
So how do you go about researching the history of your house? It is good if you have a rough idea how old the property is, if you are lucky it might be inscribed on a stone on the facade of the house. You may find details of previous owners listed on old title deeds of the property which can be a great place to start.
If you live in England and your property is listed – details about it can be found on the National Heritage List for England. (For Scotland – visit Historic Environment Scotland, for Wales – visit Cof Cymru – National Historic Assets of Wales and for Ireland – visit Buildings of Ireland.) You can also use directories and electoral rolls, search newspapers for the address. It is worth remembering that sometimes streets were renumbered often when new houses were built on the street, or the whole street could get renamed, so go to your local record office and see if there are any detailed street maps of the area. As you go further back you should be able to pick up the property on an address search of the censuses. Check maps as you go, if you don’t know the date the house was built, street maps can help you with an indication of when the street starts appearing.
Once you start finding the names of the previous owners, you can find out about their lives through the censuses, certificates, newspaper archives etc. What did they do for a living? What about neighbours? What sort of neighbourhood was it? Well to do? A poor slum? Did they leave a will and bequeath the property to a family member? Did they serve in the military? You may also be able to find tax records, references to the property through other sources such as company records, perhaps the owners ran a business from the house, or indeed records of companies doing work on the property such as builders. Also don’t forget local historians who may have a wealth of knowledge about the area and it’s inhabitants. Many places in the UK have had “…In Old Photographs” books done which may of course feature photographs of the street in years gone by. A good guide to records and links to books on the subject can be found here on the National Archives website.
Have you ever looked into the history of your house? If so – tell me about it!