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How to discover the history behind the bricks

It is true that many are spending more time at home than ever before. But how much do we actually know about our own four walls?

In 2020, it was estimated the average person spent about 62% of their waking time at home – with the fallout of the pandemic prompting an increase of 12% on the previous year. While for many, much of this time was taken up with household chores, impromptu DIY projects or work, others might have had time to wonder about the history of the bricks and mortar around them. When was your property built? Who lived there before you? Have sections been added or knocked down over the years? Well, the good news is, the significance of your property and its residents is far from lost.

Why look into the history of your property?

It is not just the pandemic that has made us look at where we live differently. Indeed, the trend of uncovering the secret history of period homes had already begun to grow in popularity, triggered specifically in 2018 when David Olusoga’s documentary A House Through Time aired on BBC Two.

While uncovering all the answers will be no easy venture, the experience will undoubtedly come with huge rewards, not only in satisfying your own curiosity, but even pointing to valuable original features in your home. These could be newly uncovered features, potentially adding to the value of your property, or features that should be conserved should you plan to alter your home in any way. Plus, if it is revealed that your property was once owned by or lived in by someone prominent in your town or even further afield, there is little doubt that a home with a story to tell will be particularly enticing to potential buyers down the line.

Here’s how to uncover the hidden truths behind the bricks and unpick the history of your home.

1. Work your way backwards

The first rule in uncovering the history of your home is to start in the present and go back in time – work with what you already know about your property.

Before you even start your search, you can make a pretty good educated guess about what time period your home is from. Townhouses spread across different storeys, sash windows with small panes and symmetrical and flat exteriors could point to the Georgian period, while coloured brickwork, brick chimneys or high-pitched roofs could indicate the Victorian era. Red brickwork, mock-Tudor cladding and wide, bright rooms could point to Edwardian times. Check out our guide to regional architecture to help you identify characteristics associated with your local area.

Working backwards will also account for any changes that have occurred along the way. Leading your search based on an address alone, however, might falsely indicate that there are no results. Road names and numbers could have changed over the years. When you find the information you think you’re looking for, take time to confirm it before moving on to your next step. This could save you having to work out where you went wrong later on.

2. Start local

Chances are your first clues to the ownership and construction of your home are closer than you might think. Check your local borough, city or county archives, local studies centre or library for local maps, electoral registers and family estate papers to help with your search. You can do this by searching on the National Archives’ find an archive page using the place name.

Be on the hunt for building plans, photographic collections, maps and newspaper articles. But make sure you look with an open mind, as if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, you might still stumble across a hidden gem. For example, if you cannot locate the specific property, a good photo of the street, drawings of the house or location in the past could prove extremely helpful.

3. Who lived there?

When searching for previous residents of your home, it’s important to know the difference between the owner and occupants. For a large part of history, they were often separate from each other, as most of the population rented. It is only from the 20th century that people are more likely to be both owner and occupiers of a property.

Electoral registers are a promising place to start on this particular quest, as they detail important information for registered voters in more recent history, specifically those living in a house between the 19th-21st century. But remember – as not everyone was able to vote ­– searching for an address can be difficult.

Try refining your searches by county and location to find your street and house. Trade directories or street directories should tell you the main occupant of your house each year, sometimes as far back as the 18th century. Other valuable sources might include deeds, wills and probate, the Land Registry and more.

4. Use a house history website

While hunting things down physically is still a necessary part of the process, the increasing number of tools available online can help you weave everything together. Historic England, for example, has put together a list of 100 places that tell the history of England, including homes and gardens, with an easy-to-use map of listed buildings. If you’re not looking for a listed building, the ‘Your Home’ section under ‘Advice’ also provides detailed practical advice for house historians.

You could also find a local history project, such as MyHouseMyStreet for Brighton and Hove, that records the history of your house. You can use its occupancy data to see the occupancy history of houses in particular streets, directory pages which can be sorted by publisher, year and street name, and local street histories to discover intriguing information about your area.

Another popular option is The Genealogist, where you can find digital versions of the tithe maps and apportionments held at the National Archives – searchable by name and place. The Returns of the Owners Land (1873-1876) also lists everyone who owned more than one acre of land in England (apart from London), Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Enjoy your search and the hidden gems you might find!

If you are keen to find out more, why not view our previous articles on history and heritage.


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