Researching the history of your home
MAKING a family tree is a fascinating hobby and it is becoming ever
more popular. But once you've discovered all the great and good,
and even the black sheep, what's left?
Well, you can find out the history of your house. Who lived in it
and when, and how they made their living. Or, if the house is new,
you can always research the history of the site on which it is built.
So, suppose you've just bought a Victorian house, built c1840, and
there are local tales of it being a doctor's surgery one. How do
you go about finding the history of this house and its inhabitants?
You will know all about microfilmed Census Enumerators reports and
legal documents such as wills from family history research.
But what do you need to know for property research? Well to do research,
you require two thing. Printed material, such as town guides, telephone
and other directories. The second source is original unpublished
documents. There are many of these. Most legal documents concern
property of one form or another, so to list all available sources
would amount to listing every document in the Record Office so I'll
mention only the most common and vital documents.
The obvious ones to start with are the Title Deeds of your house.
These are the documents recording the contracts made between buyers
and sellers of land and property. They list many things, such as
the original owner of the site, the person it was sold to, the builder
of the house, the area covered by the house, the year it was built,
and so on. If you can get them, they are a vital source.
Title deeds are usually kept by solicitors, but they are under no
obligation to preserve very old deeds. All solicitors and estate
agents are concerned with is whether or not the existing owner has
proper title to the property they are selling. They have no interest
in who owned the property a century and six transactions ago. Over
the years, many title deeds have been destroyed to make space for
However, many solicitors have deposited their collections of old
deeds in Cheshire County Record Office at Chester, Tel: 0244 602574.
Ring for an appointment as it has only a small reading room, and
in summer especially, desks are booked weeks in advance.
The CCROs also has Estate Papers, such as the records of the Cholmondeley
Estate. These provide legal documents and sometimes maps relating
to property on or near the estate.
Other sources of original information are Rate Books. Again, there
are mostly kept in Cheshire County Record Office, but Warrington
Library has an excellent collection of local rate books for the
town and surrounding area. Chester City Record Office has some for
The Rate Books are just that. Lists of who was liable to pay rates,
and how much property they owned at what rateable value. So from
them you might discover that your house was indeed a doctor's surgery
between say, 1890 and 1932, occupied by Drs Watson and Crippen,
who paid £1 6s a year rates on a property of rateable value
The Church also imposed rates on parishioners, at the value of one
tenth of all produce of the land. These tenths or tithes were commuted
into cast payments in the 1830s. To eliminate arguments every piece
of property liable for a tithe was mapped and listed, with owners,
tenants, and tithe liabilities. These tithe maps and schedules provide
lists and plans of every piece of property in a parish, with details
of land use, owners and tenants.
Maps are another useful source of information. The Ordnance Survey
six Inch series provides very detailed plans of towns and villages
from the mid 19th century.
Before going to the original sources, it's best to do some research
in your local library, where a great deal of information can be
found. In Cheshire, Warrington and Chester both have excellent local
history collections. Chester has two local libraries, the Chester
Lending and Reference Library, which has a large collection of printed
books about the city and county, and Chester City Record Office
by the City Hall. This has a collection of manuscript and unpublished
documents on the City's history.
All of Cheshire's major libraries have collections of directories.
From around 1790, directories were printed as the 'Yellow Pages'
of their day, comprising classified lists of trades, profession
and the gentry in a town or county. Directories appear to have been
designed for weekending gentlemen and travelling salesmen. They
always list the local gentry with their addresses, and local hotels,
taverns and inns, with the names of licensees.
Local tradesmen, such as shoemakers, cheese factors, shopkeepers
and the like, are just mentioned by name and street until the 1850s.
Coverage also varies with the compiler. Some companies, notably
Pigott and his successor Slater, made excellent detailed directories.
They usually had a short historical and descriptive introduction
to each county and town, providing useful information, especially
when describing the then existing public buildings, ie churches,
town halls, markets etc. Many smaller firms' directories are just
alphabetical lists of prominent persons in a town.
So, an early Directory, such as Williams' Runcorn Directory of 1846,
will provide information like; Forber Joseph, provision dealer,
Mill Street, Gabbott Edmund, Victualler, Blue Ball, Fryer Street
and so on.
More detailed information occurs in Slater's 1848 Commercial Directory
of the Northern Counties. Brief histories of the various counties
are given, then descriptions of the towns as they were in 1848.
For Crewe that year, Slater gave classified information on the 'Nobility,
Gentry and Clergy-six entries, including Lord Crewe and Mrs Ann
Berry of Holmes Terrace, Academies and Schools, Blacksmiths, Butchers,
Cabinet Makers, and so on, up to Straw Bonnet Makers and Tailors.
But again, only the names and streets are given, not the full address.
Also, like Yellow Pages, people paid to be in directories, so only
the 'quality' and business people are included, the poor mass being
Later Directories, from about 1850, are more detailed. Kelly's Post
Office Directory series in particular giving a virtually street
by street description of the towns in the county and every single
house and householder on the major streets in them. Some towns also
have equally as detailed directories, which give the names, addresses
and occupations of almost every adult householder in the town.
The Census reports give even more detailed information. A Census
has been taken every ten years since 1801, but the original material
collected before 1841 was destroyed in a fire at the Houses of Parliament.
From 1841, the original census books are available on microfilm
at most Cheshire libraries.
These are the books in which the Census Enumerators wrote the raw
data on house address, people living therein, their ages, sex, occupations
and relationships one to another. To maintain confidentiality, the
material is not published for a century after Census day, so the
1891 Census books will soon be available. If you've done family
history research you will know these microfilms backwards.
So, when researching the history of your house, start at your local
library with street directories, town maps and census reports. Check
for original documents with your solicitor or estate agent, and
at the Chester County Record Office. And be prepared for many engrossing
hours amongst the documents. Happy hunting!
BACK TO ARCHIVES