Who's been living in my house?

It takes time and effort, but digging up the history of your home can introduce you to some colourful old characters.
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Anyone who has ever lived in an old property - and up to a quarter of the housing stock in our major cities is Victorian or earlier - cannot have helped wondering who occupied the building in the past and how they lived; what scenes were acted out within its walls; how it came into being and what was there before.

Anyone who has ever lived in an old property - and up to a quarter of the housing stock in our major cities is Victorian or earlier - cannot have helped wondering who occupied the building in the past and how they lived; what scenes were acted out within its walls; how it came into being and what was there before.

An opportunity to delve into this history arose when we acquired the freehold of the late-Victorian house in south London, in which we had leased the garden flat for years. The solicitor handed over a stout manila envelope bursting with documents: leases, plans, planning applications and two ancient conveyances, written in flowing italics, with many a "whereas" and "witnesseth" picked out in Gothic script, on stiff imitation parchment encrusted with stamps and wax seals.

Each was illustrated with a beautifully drawn plan showing the house in relation to neighbouring properties. I realised later how fortunate we were to have these; only title deeds are required to prove current ownership, and many older conveyances have been lost or are in solicitors' collections or local archives.

The earlier of the two, dated 12 July 1898, related to the original sale of the house; at the end, a schedule of deeds listed earlier conveyances that established the vendor's claim to the property - and offered the tantalising prospect of a paperchase back through history. The first of these, dated 2 November 1874, referred to an indenture made between William Beckwith Towse and Alexander Maclean Barrow of the one part and George Keen of the other. The latest, dated 29 September 1890, was between Eliza and Julia Keen and Henry Fisher.

The name of George Keen rang a bell. I already had a facsimile of the 1870 Ordnance Survey map of the area; on the back, the publisher had reprinted part of a street directory of the period, and there, at Cedar House, Herne Hill, was listed one George Keen.

Armed with the names of Keen and Fisher, I set off for the local studies library. Every borough or county has one, usually staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated people battling against underfunding and neglect. In our case, the search was complicated by a 1900 boundary change, which meant the relevant documents were divided between Lambeth and Southwark.

Turfed out of the library at closing time each Monday, I'd carry my spoils - slimy photocopies of census returns and xeroxes of old maps - to the Globe pub in Borough market to pore over the ink-blotted 19th-century scrawl. What gradually emerged was a family and business saga worthy of Mrs Gaskell, set against the changing landscape and society of Victorian England.

Herne Hill is a creation of the 19th century; John Roque's map of 1762 shows nothing there but fields. But after the building of Blackfriars Bridge in the late 18th century made it accessible to the City of London, it developed rapidly, and by the 1830s Herne Hill was lined with large villas. John Ruskin, who lived at no. 28, described his neighbours in his autobiography Praeteriter (1885) as "for the most part, London tradesmen of the better class... they had a cortege of footmen and a glitter of extensive pleasure grounds, costly hothouses and carriages driven by coachmen in wigs".

One such villa was Cedar House, occupied for much of the second half of the 19th century by a wharf owner called George Keen and his family. Born in the City of London in 1799, Keen probably grew up within sight of the Bermondsey wharves, and married his wife Julia by 1826. They were then living in Southwark, probably close to Keen's place of business; their elder daughter Julia was born there in that year, followed by her younger sister Eliza in 1829.

By 1832 the firm of H Keen and Son was trading at Pickleherring. By 1840, George Keen had set up in business on his own at 30 Shad Thames, moving to Cole's Upper Wharf - next to Horselydown New Stairs and the Rose and Crown pub - by 1849. A letter to the Museum in Docklands project unearthed an entry in Loveday's Waterside Surveys. Published in 1857, this splendid monument to Victorian thoroughness details, for insurance purposes, every warehouse in the London docks.

Cole's Upper Wharf consisted of two substantial warehouses. The smaller, fronting the river, was a five-storey brick-built building divided into two granaries, each about 40ft by 75ft. Four wooden bridges connected this building to a larger, five-floor brick granary, about 60ft by 110ft, on the other side of the street. Adjoining the western side of the waterfront premises was a narrow brick building containing a steam boiler and a 4-hp engine for hoisting.

Keen's business success enabled him to enjoy an increasingly affluent existence. On 14 August 1854, he bought a 21-year lease on "land and messuage in Herne Hill, on the south side of the road from Camberwell to Norwood, with the plantation and shrubbery," another two acres adjoining it to the south, and a further four acres of meadow land; this was the lease he renewed in 1874. In 1861, according to the Census, the inhabitants of Cedar House were: George Keen, 62; his wife Julia, 60; their daughters Julia, 35, and Eliza, 32; an attendant, Ellen Mary Dickinson 32 and three domestic servants. In a cottage at the far end of the estate lived the Keens' gardener and his family.

But this Victorian success story was not without its shadows. I could not help wondering about the two unmarried daughters, living with their elderly parents. From the time of the 1871 Census, however, the Keens' elder daughter Julia was no longer living with them. One afternoon in the library, I discovered what had become of her. Unfolding a brittle legal document dating from July 1887, I saw, written across it in a crabbed, spidery hand, the words "in lunacy", and read that power of attorney for the affairs of Julia Keen, then living at Earlsfield, was transferred to her sister.

George Keen died intestate on 4 December 1882, though the Keen family continued to trade out of Cole's Wharf into the mid-20th century, when the business was merged with Butler's Wharf. His wife Julia, having made a will on 11 July 1883 leaving her property to her daughters, died on 30 October 1888.

At this point, the property developer Henry Fisher comes on the scene. Born in London in 1830 or 1831, he had moved with his Durham-born wife Annie and their four children, then in their teens and twenties, into the Laurels at 26 Herne Hill by 1888. Four domestic servants lived with them, and a coachman and his wife in the lodge. This large house stood next to the childhood home of John Ruskin; what he would have made of the activities of his neighbour may only be imagined.

Fisher set to work patiently acquiring land in the area. In September 1890 he bought the lease on Cedar House from Eliza Keen, who was empowered to act on behalf of her sister, since the latter was "of unsound mind"; the following month he acquired the freehold from Barrow, and Towse's heir. In October 1891, he was granted approval by the Board of Works "for the formation of two streets, 40 feet wide, upon a portion of Cedar-house-estate".

Like many property developers of the time, Fisher would use the sale of one group of houses to finance the construction of the next, so the development went on piecemeal over a decade or more. The atmosphere of feverish construction can be glimpsed in George Gissing's 1894 novel In the Year of the Jubilee.

"London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field... The old mansion - not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built - stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material..."

Cedar House had a few more years of life, however. In 1891 it was being rented by Alexander Murray, a 54-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel in the 4th Royal Irish Rifles, and his family. It was still standing in 1900, when Henry Fisher instituted legal proceedings against a tenant, Mr Curtis, for delapidations. The house also appears on a plan attached to a conveyance in 1902, but soon after that it seems to have been demolished and the present houses on the site date from the early years of the 20th century.

As for the couple from Swanley Village, Kent, who bought our house from Henry Fisher in the summer of 1898, the census returns for 1901 will not be made public until 2 January 2002. And maybe it is only right that they - and those more recent ghosts who once moved through these rooms - should be allowed to lie in peace for a while longer.