Finding Your House History

by Phil Rigby

Despite a warm and sunny evening, which might have encouraged folk in other directions. about twenty five members and visitors gathered at Tebay to hear Dr. Rob David, of Kendal, speak to us about ‘Finding your House History’.

He began with a warning: ‘Don’t try to start from now and work back.’ This is because many of the relatively recent documents that might give information about a house’s history are not yet in the public domain. It is better, he said, to begin about a hundred years ago, just before the first world war, and work from there, perhaps back another fifty years, and build on the information acquired in that way.

Dr David suggested that there are three avenues through which we can learn the history of a house. It is possible to study the building itself, looking at its architectural characteristics, noting for example, any obvious alterations that may have taken place that might point to a change of usage or status at some time in the past. Then we may find out about the people who owned or occupied the house, bearing in mind that in the past it was much more common for people not to own the house they lived in. Indeed, for many of the older records, the name of the owners or occupiers may be the only way to reference the desired documents. It is also important to discover what we can about the local community and environment in which the building is set, because the context in which the building has existed and exists now has a clear relevance for information about its history.

We were then given four common documentary sources which are easy to find and use, usually kept in local records and/or libraries. There are the Census Returns from 1841-1911, which normally give names and addresses of people living at the time in each property, along with occupations and a few other details; there are local Trade Directories from (in some cases) 1829 to about 1930; there are often old pictures and photographs of the area, studying which may well throw light on the history of the building in question, especially if the picture can be dated accurately; and then, especially for the relatively recent past, there is oral history – the memories of local people going back into their own youth, or telling stories that have been passed down to them.

Then there are six other possible sources of information – though these may not be so easily accessed. Old maps may well help, especially if the house happened to be on an estate whose proprietor had a map made to describe his (or her!) lands. In some cases these may be very early, the earliest maps available. Later maps conclude with the British Ordnance Survey, begun in the late 18th century but published from the mid 19th century till the present day: the large scale ones (25 inches to the mile) will give detailed information about the shape of buildings, for example. Then there are the old hearth tax records, which will give an idea of the size of the property, as well as owner/occupiers. Also, in previous generations, after the death of a property owner, a probate inventory was sometimes made which gives very detailed information about what was in the property at the owner’s death. In addition, there are sometimes manorial documents, especially those compiled on the death of the Lord of the Manor, which would have occasioned a levy on all his tenants so as to continue with their holding, which would therefore be enumerated in detail. More recently, one might find deposited plans in relation to building alterations with regard to building regulation control, though these may not be easy to find. Lastly, thanks to Lloyd George’s need to raise taxation in 1910, a nationwide property valuation was carried out (though it was decided in the end to concentrate on income tax instead): these records are held, referenced, in Kew.

Finally, Dr David has made available to anyone who would like a copy, a list of possible sources of information, obtainable through the Society Secretary, Mary Jenkin.

It was an interesting and worthwhile meeting, even for those who, like the writer, is not planning to research the history of his house!