The history of your house: Properties with pedigree

Whether you live in a Georgian townhouse, a rambling country pile or a simple city flat, your home may tell a fascinating story. Holly Williams plays domestic detective

Researching your family tree has long been a popular pursuit, but for anyone with a curiosity about the past, conducting research into your house may also provide a satisfying hunt through history. Whether it's unlocking the secrets of your home – who lived there, what it was used for, any dastardly deeds or dramatic events that went on under its roof – or understanding more about its design and structure, really getting to know the building you live in can be a fascinating journey.

It's a hobby that's growing in popularity too: the internet is awash with helpful sites, providing or explaining how to find resources from old maps, to census records and architectural surveys. Dr Ian Friel, a professional house history compiler, suggests that people are "much more aware" now of the possibilities of research, citing family history television programmes as sparking people's interest. This has spread to our homes. He says: "People look at a house and want to know how it has changed, about the structure, and the people who've lived there. You might think people would be a bit creeped out about finding out who'd lived in their house before them, but that doesn't seem to be the case."

Friel used to work in a museum in Littlehampton, and it was noticing that people often asked about the history of buildings, rather than their ancestors, that gave him the inspiration to start compiling house histories.

But like researching family trees, digging up dirt on a house can be a time-consuming task: be prepared to spend hours trawling through old records, books and websites. While some amateur historians will enjoy nothing more than poring over parish registers, for those who don't have the time or inclination, paying someone else to do the research is becoming an increasingly popular choice. While Friel says that he'd "never want to take away the fun of people doing it for themselves", he does warn that researching your own home's history could take many months.

Dr Nick Barratt, director of the genealogical research company behind the television show Who Do You Think You Are? also offers house detective packages, where he spends three days researching your home's past, culminating in a bound (or electronic) report and a CD of images.

Barratt has been conducting house histories for 15 years, but says "it's becoming a much stronger and more popular line of work – particularly since the recession. People are commissioning house histories for commercial reasons: a bit of history and story makes it much easier to sell, it attracts a certain buyer."

But he also agrees that there is a growing interest in personal heritage: "We're re-engaging with the past to tell us something about the present. It's a bottom-up approach to history."

Barratt has unearthed some fascinating things as a house detective. One property in Cullercoats, a north-eastern coastal village, turned out to have been the home of Thomas Armstrong, an HM customs officer – who in the mid-1700s also turned his hand to smuggling. The cliff-top house was actually built over a cave system, allowing Armstrong to deal in goods from the very smugglers he was meant to be catching.

And Barratt believes that another property he investigated once held Jack the Ripper. It was part of a block of flats that had previously been the Friern Barnet lunatic asylum in Middlesex – where Aaron Kosminski, a ripper suspect, was incarcerated. A taste for the macabre is sometimes what prompts house histories: "We get people looking into hauntings too," explains Barratt.

Sue Austen, 50, who lives with her husband Steve Coombes in Herne Bay, a village on the Kent coast, was also drawn to the tales buildings tell. "Houses are full of stories; my job is to find the story," she says. One half of the team behind mii House Books, a new company which produces hardback house histories, she carries out the research while professional photographer Carol Fulton snaps a house and its grounds plus any interesting period details. Words and images are brought together in their glossy coffee-table volumes.

Austen also suggests that the fascination with house histories is due to the explosion of interest in family history. "But people are also more generally thinking about their environment and their homes – like all those property programmes," she adds. "People think of their house as an extension of themselves now."

If that's the case, Austen's first house history was an extension of herself: she made a book of her Georgian home as a surprise present for her husband. "I managed to find early plans, discovering what rooms were first used for, which staircases and doors had been moved around – how the house was used at different times in its life story," she says. The book details not only the history and many occupants of her seafront house, but also includes details of the town's development as a holiday resort, the terrible storms that struck in 1897 and 1948, and the fluctuating reputation of the terrace's sometime watering hole, the Dolphin Hotel.

Austen explains that the books make a "very personal" gift: "My husband loved it. We'd lived in the house for 10 years; we'd sweated blood and tears renovating it – a lot of heart and soul had gone into it. People do get attached to their homes. You do feel a sense of belonging, and this is all the more poignant for knowing the history."

Entering the archives

If you fancy getting dusty in the archives, or just don't want to shell out for an expensive private researcher, a DIY approach can reap rewards:



* The National Archives site ( nationalarchives.gov.uk) details available resources, from useful books to online records, as well as listing what materials they hold that might prompt a visit further down the line.



* The interactive house history desk at Nick Barratt's website, hiddenhousehistory.co.uk, has a step-by-step guide to researching your home and useful links and tips.



* Visit mycouncil.direct.gov.uk to find your council's website –most have web pages or downloadable leaflets with information on local archives and records.



* Bricks and Brass ( bricksand brass.co.uk) has hints on how to date your house by its design and style.



* The website Old Maps features Ordnance Survey maps dating back to the 1800s ( old-maps.co.uk).



* If you decide you do want to immortalise your research in an affordable house book, try designing your own at blurb.com .

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
film
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried