Top three places to explore the history of your house


01 July 2022
Discover three key places to delve into the history of your house, with Melanie Backe-Hansen's expert guide.

Researching the history of our homes has become increasingly popular in recent years and it could be said that the lockdowns have made us wonder a little more about the history found within our homes: wondering about the lives of past residents who have walked through the same front door, looked out the same windows, and shared time within the same four walls.

Delving back into the history, when it was built, and why, as well as the stories of the owners and occupants through the generations, can reveal a wealth of fascinating history. The history of a house can also reveal broader social history around the house, opening an avenue to personal stories through events of our nations’ past.

1. Local history

When starting the journey into researching the history of your home, the first place to look is the local history. A house does not sit in isolation and the history of the street, as well as the parish, village, or town, will all play a role.

The local history will provide details about where to find sources, but also clues to influences and events that might have had an impact on the house. It could offer reasons for when and why the house was built, as well as the likely former residents:

  • Was the house part of a manor or landed estate
  • Was it within a rural community or built during the Industrial Revolution?
  • Was it built due to the construction of the railways or post-war homes for heroes?

Start with the Victoria County History also found on British History Online, while also looking at other county, town, and parish histories. In addition, there is a fantastic network of local history groups and the British Association for Local History.

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2. Maps

One of the best sources found online are maps. There are several for each county and parish, but one of the best map sources are those produced by Ordnance Survey. In particular, the 25-inch scale maps produced during the late 19th century and then periodically updated throughout the 20th century, which offer clear details of houses, providing a wonderful visual history over time.

The historic maps for Great Britain can be viewed via the National Library of Scotland or Old Maps. There will also be a range of other maps, such as estate or manorial maps. In addition, Tithe maps and apportionments, during the 1840s, and Enclosure maps and awards, largely during the late 18th century, can provide further details, including the names of owners and occupants.

3. Who lived in my house in 1939?

The 1939 Register (England and Wales) has become a valuable additional source for the house historian in recent years. Much like the census, it was taken in September 1939 to provide personal details for ration books and ID cards. While it does have some limitations; it does not include everyone and some listings are still redacted, it does provide a wonderful snapshot of those in a house at the beginning of the Second World War.

It also offers a fantastic additional element in providing details of those engaged in war work, such as air raid wardens, ambulance drivers, and more. Explore the 1939 Register at Ancestry and FindMyPast.

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About the author

Melanie Backe-Hansen is an independent house historian and author. Her most recent book, A House Through Time [Picador, 2020], was co-authored with David Olusoga to accompany the television programme.

Originally published April 2021. Reviewed July 2022.