Unravelling the history of your house can often lead to some fascinating discoveries about the building itself and the people that lived within it.

Thanks to the popularity of historical research TV shows, we in the UK are now obsessed with tracing our history. And rightly so. Against a background of industry, farming communities, and town life, the buildings of the UK tell a story all of their own. To most homeowners, it is both fascinating and fulfilling to learn why their home was built and when, who owned it before them, and if it contains any secrets.

While discovering this history used to be quite difficult, modern tools now make the process a lot easier. So, whether your home is terraced, detached, a quaint cottage, or a grand townhouse, using the following tips, you can learn a bit more about its history and let the walls do a little talking.

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Where to start

When researching buildings, people tend to want to know three different things:

  1. When was my house was built?
  2. Who lived in my house?
  3. Why was my house built?

These three elements go together to build a detailed picture of a house and give amateur researchers a good jumping-off point. While there are often dead ends when researching things such as buildings and family histories, fortunately, these questions can often be answered the easiest.

While much of the information below pertains to online research, it is always worth contacting local archives and county records offices. These will often have records that are as yet unavailable online and can help fill in the gaps as much as possible.

When was my house built?

A good jumping-off point is to simply find out the age of your house. Asking “how old is my house” allows you to consider the nature of historical digging that may lie ahead should you wish to learn more about its inhabitants.

The age of most houses can be discovered using the following three methods:

1. Check with HM Land Registry

Using this government tool, you can order an official copy of a building’s title register. Amongst the information therein, you can also see when the property deeds were transferred from the original developer to the first owner.

While this service is not free, it is cheap (£3) and almost instant, delivered via e-mail. Upon receiving your document, you will want to focus your attention on Section A:1, “Property Register”, which will detail the first time the home was registered.

2. Check historical records

While the title deed usually reveals the first registration of the property, some buildings predate this. You can therefore use census records to try and determine the first mention of your property.

Alternatively, you can use historical maps to try and pinpoint when your house starts appearing. Ordnance Survey maps are a good place to try first, but you may also have some luck with fire insurance maps, and even the National Archive may contain some clues.

3. Consider the architecture

If you’ve hit a dead-end and you can’t find any documents or maps in your research, you can always just take a look at your home’s architecture. The design and construction of your house can reveal a lot about when it was built with materials and styles changing every couple of decades.

Who lived in my house?

Learning who lived in your home before you is one of the more fascinating areas to research, unveiling tidbits of information that make you see your house in a new light.

1. Start with the electoral register

The best place to start is with the electoral register, which will detail who was registered to vote in your property going back to the nineteenth century.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, at certain periods in history, not everyone could vote, including women, so there may be gaps in the record. Addresses have sometimes changed over the years too. Nevertheless, by filtering your results by town and county, you can usually pinpoint your address and see who was living there. Most census records require a subscription or one-off payment to record-keeping websites.

2. 1939 register

Taken before the start of the second world war, the 1939 register details who was living in properties, similar to a census. It also details information on war efforts.

You will want to use map searches to discover your address but be warned that some information is not yet available due to the 100-year privacy rule.

3. Census returns

Accessible censuses taken between 1841 and 1921 are essential to unlocking your home’s history. These records detail exactly who was within a property at the time the census was taken.

Road names and numbers have shifted somewhat over the years, but taking information gleaned from title deeds or other sources such as surnames can help narrow down your search alongside the parish filter.

4. Directories

Popular in the 19th and earlier 20th century, trade and street directories detailed the head of households and other information. These often help fill in the gaps between census records, which were only taken every ten years.

Why was my home built?

For those who want to delve deeper and discover why their house was built in the first place, the local studies team at most major libraries can help. These units have historical town-planning information, including older maps, blueprints, and plans.

While there may not be precise information on your particular property, you may learn why and when your road was constructed. For example, you may learn there was an industrial mill constructed in the area, and the homes were built to house the workers.

Tracing the history of my house - Other top tips

Work backwards

While it can be tempting to dive back to the oldest records, without proper context, the information can often be confusing. Working steadily backwards from what you know is the best way to keep your research organised.

Ask neighbours

Elderly neighbours are a great source of information. People who have lived on a road for a long time can help you to start with names, bring awareness to changes in street names etc. and even rumours that can help open up avenues of research.

Look for old photographs and newspaper clippings

A lot of historical groups on social media platforms like Facebook now enjoy sharing photographs of local areas. These can help in your research by pinpointing when a road was built, for example. If you have been led to think your home may have been involved in a significant incident or event, you can even lookup newspaper archives and really bring your home’s history to life.

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Useful websites for further research

  • FindMyPast: a subscription-based website for researching family and property history.
  • Wills and probate: a government tool to discover additional information about property transfers once you’ve discovered some names.
  • Land tax records: these tax records are great for research buildings that predate 1832, allowing researchers to discover the names of owners.
  • National Records of Scotland: preserving Scotland’s historical records.
  • National Library of Wales: preserving Wales’ historical records.

While it can still prove challenging, armed with these tools, you should be able to discover a little more about your home and the people that lived within it.