Five expert tips for discovering the secret history of your home

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22 June 2018
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Find out more about the history of your house with probate genealogist Imogen Benneworth's expert tips.

Find out more about the history of your house with probate genealogist Imogen Benneworth's expert tips.

1. Consider starting with the census records

There’s no secret short cut for the experts – if we know the property was likely to have been built prior to 1911, then consider starting with a search of the online census records. Every ten years the census gives you a snapshot of who lived in your house, so it’s a rich source of information for names, ages, birthplaces, and even occupations. This will give you the basic outline of the story - the hard part is filling in the gaps! 

Personally, I love that moment when the names are first revealed – it’s the start of the journey. As I follow their stories, I feel as if I am walking in their footsteps. 

2.  Use trade directories to find out about how they lived

It’s great to get those names but you really want to know what kind of people they were – butchers, bakers or candlestick makers? That’s where the trade directories can help, because the one thing you always find in a directory is an address. Find your own address and you have another piece of the puzzle. 

There are a large number of trade directories you can research online, including business indexes and trade almanacs. If you are lucky then this is where a story will really start to draw you in.

3.  Electoral Registers can give you more than just a name

Someone may have only lived in your house in the years that fell between census years – so how do you find them? Well the Electoral Registers and Rolls are continuously updated, so they may throw up some new names for you to investigate. Of course not everyone will be on those records, as it was only in 1928 that women were given voting equality to men and prior to that varying restrictive property requirements denied the vote to many people, both men and women.

Some of the Registers provide descriptions of properties or information on the landlord of a property. The 1939 Register is an important online resource for anyone living in England or Wales because it provides the most complete survey of the population of those countries between 1921 and 1951. Sadly, the 1931 census was destroyed by fire during the Second World War and no census was taken in 1941.

4.  Use your library and talk to the staff about your project.

Today many documents are available online, but do not ignore your local archive collections. This kind of research can be time consuming and you will need a lot of patience to find that ‘golden’ piece of information – perhaps a photograph of your street or a newspaper article about a family who lived in your house.

And talk to the librarians - they love to help people and central libraries are a treasure trove of information. The staff at Liverpool Central Library were incredibly knowledgeable when we were researching for the BBC series, ‘A House Through Time’. They helped us navigate a path through over 15 kilometres of archives, including newspapers, maps, family letter collections, hospital records and photographs.

5.  Don’t ignore some of the less obvious sources of information

If a census isn’t available you have to look for alternatives. Some government and legal documents will record the address of the property, or you could consider land or estate surveys. 

And don’t forget maps! Part of the story of your home is the way the surroundings have changed over the decades and a map will give you a bird’s eye view of your home in an ever-changing landscape. 

Imogen Benneworth is an experienced probate genealogist working for Anglia Research. She has also conducted research for the BBC to uncover the history of number sixty-two, Falkner Street, the home featured in the BBC TV series, ‘A House Through Time’.