We’ve previously written about the benefits of exploring your family tree – and another area of ancestry that’s worth exploring is the history of your house. House history has grown in popularity in recent years, with TV programmes like A House Through Time inspiring many people to research their own homes.
Learning more about the history of your home can reveal fascinating secrets about previous residents and provide a unique connection to the past. And the good news is that there are plenty of resources available, both on and offline, to help you get started on your journey of discovery.
With that said, here’s our useful guide for tracing the history of your house.
3 tips for tracing the history of your home
Before we explore some of the most helpful resources for searching house history, we’ve pulled together some useful tips to help you get started down the right track…
1. Work backwards
It might feel like searching for the oldest possible record of your home is the best place to start, but it can actually be more beneficial to work backwards from the present day.
This is because street names, and house numbers and names can change, meaning early records might not list your current address. Working backwards can eliminate some of these obstacles and allow you to pinpoint where changes occurred before tracking the names of owners and occupants.
2. Understand the difference between owners and occupants
When tracing the history of a house, it’s important to note that for centuries, a large majority of the population rented their homes – meaning owners weren’t necessarily the occupants of a house.
Only since the 20th century have a larger proportion of people in the UK become owner-occupiers.
3. Make use of both online and offline resources
These days, a large collection of records have become available online. However, there are still a number of resources that need to be seen in person – for example, in local archives or record offices.
That being said, try not to be disheartened if you’re unable to visit these offline resources, as online records will still allow you to piece together most of the key information about the history of your home.
What resources can I use to trace the history of my house?
Now we’ve covered some key things to look out for when tracing the history of your house, what are a few of the best places to start searching for clues?
We’ll cover some of the best resources below…
1. Electoral registers
Electoral registers can be a good place to start when it comes to house history. In England and Wales, voter registration has been in place since 1832, and electoral registers are typically updated and published annually. These can provide fantastic clues about where registered voters lived between the 19th and 21st centuries.
However, it’s important to remember that not everyone was eligible to vote at different times throughout history, which can make searching for a specific address more challenging. Nevertheless, around 220 million names are recorded in the British Library’s extensive collection of UK electoral registers, which are available to view on Findmypast.
Often referred to as street directories or trade directories, these are essentially records of the main occupants of a house each year – though, the level of detail can vary depending on the location and year.
Directories first began as a list of tradesmen – hence the name ‘trade directory’ – but became more detailed over time to include details of residents at the majority of addresses.
For this reason, directories are an excellent source (and often complementary to electoral registers) for tracing the history of your home during the 19th, 20th, and sometimes18th centuries. However, it’s important to note that because they were a commercial product, you can expect directories to contain errors.
Ancestry, The National Library of Scotland, and the Historical Directories of England and Wales are just some of the many places you can find trade directories. For more guidance, check out this useful guide to finding historical trade directories from Who Do You Think You Are magazine.
3. Historical maps
Old maps are a rich and fascinating tool for tracing the history of your house and many people particularly enjoy using them because they provide a visual representation of the house, street, and local area.
Some maps reveal land use and ownership – and those that are more detailed may even provide the footprint of small structures like paths, trees, and wells.
Generally speaking, one of the most useful resources for finding historical maps is the Ordnance Survey (OS). However, there will also be maps relevant to specific towns, cities, and parishes – as well as unique maps created to document things like demographics and disease, such as the Charles Booth Poverty map for London.
Some of the best national collections of historical maps include the British Library and Bodleian Library’s Map Room. Though, if you can’t visit these places in person, there are plenty of ways to view them online too.
For example, the National Library of Scotland offers digital access to a wide collection of maps covering the entire British Isles. Here, you’ll also find access to GB1900 Historical Gazetteer, an exciting project produced by volunteers who spent time extracting all of the textual information from the 1900 OS maps. It holds around 2.6 million place names – not only of towns and villages, but of fields, farms, footpaths, windmills, and wells too.
4. Census records
If you’ve previously looked into the history of your family tree, you might already be familiar with census returns. These population surveys are a fantastic resource for tracing house history too.
As well as providing the personal data of each resident, one of the most valuable things about census records is that they list everyone present in the house on census night. This includes children, visitors, servants, and lodgers – many of whom may not have been recorded in other places.
One way to view UK census records is in-person at The National Archives, or you can browse their collection online.
While many of the sources on this list may only provide information about the occupant of a house, deeds (legal documents relevant to a property) can tell us more key details about things about a property’s history of leases, mortgages, and conveyances.
You might already have these somewhere at home. If not, you can request deeds from HM Land Registry – even for an address that you don’t live at. You can also contact solicitors or mortgage providers, or search for them in local archives and record offices. Remember that they may be part of a collection that belonged to a former solicitor, or be part of an estate or manorial collection.
As a result, tracking down deeds may involve some detective work, but some people find this quite fun.
6. 1939 Register
The 1939 Register is a valuable tool for finding out about house history because it recorded the details of house occupants at the beginning of World War II.
It provides similar information to earlier census records but is particularly important because the 1931 England and Wales census was destroyed in a fire, and there was no 1941 census taken during the war. Plus, it also provides details for many people who were involved in war work – from air raid wardens to ambulance drivers.
One way to view the 1939 Register is in person at The National Archives, or through their online collection.
7. 1910 Valuation Office survey
The 1910 Valuation Office survey was carried out between 1910 and 1915 as a review of land properties in England and Wales. Recording nine million houses and farms, the survey data includes information about everything from the value of a piece of land, to how it was used, and the name(s) of the occupier.
You can explore the 1910 Valuation Office survey data on the National Archives website or by visiting in person. The National Archive offers further guidance about how to use this data in their research guide.
8. Rate books
Before council tax was introduced, households had to pay a range of different rates and taxes. This included things like highway rates, sewerage rates, and church rates. However, the most common type of surviving rate books are those for the poor rate.
The poor rate was a tax based on the value of a property, which offered relief to those in need within a parish. Surviving book rates naturally vary from area to area, but can be found dating back to the 18th century.
Findmypast has a search tool you can use to find rate books in your area.
9. Wills and probate records
Wills and probate can be another source of clues about former owners and occupants of a house.
While you can’t search for addresses, once you’ve managed to gather names of occupiers from other records, wills and probate records can provide valuable information about the transfer of a property – as well as family connections.
You can search for wills and probate records of the GOV.uk website.
10. Land tax records
Much like rate books, land tax records are another source that can help to piece together the history of a house. Many land tax records can still be found in county record offices and most store information from the late 18th century (sometimes earlier), up until around 1832.
Land tax records were used to provide landowners with proof of eligibility to vote, but when this all changed in 1832, they were no longer needed. However, the surviving information can still be used to track owners and occupants of a property.
Other records to explore…
While the resources listed above tend to be the best places to start, there are plenty of other records to explore too.
- Insurance records
- Old newspapers
Connecting with our past can be emotional and thrilling, and offer fascinating insights into the past. With so many exciting avenues to go down, many people find that once they start tracing the history of their house, they don’t want to stop!
Are you interested in tracing the history of your house? Have you got any other tips that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.