You can trace the architectural history of your house through old maps, photographs and written records, and many of these useful resources are online.
Kate Bevan, Cataloging Team Leader for Historic England, lives in a semi-detached house in Faringdon, a market town in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire. She had an idea from the mortgage documents that the house was built in around the 1920s, but wanted to try and find out exactly when.
Here Kate takes us through the steps and resources she used to uncover her home’s fascinating history.
1. Find out where your house is
“While finding out where your house is may sound obvious, it’s important to know which electoral ward, parish, and county your house is in, as it’ll help you to track down records in county record offices. Faringdon, although now in Oxfordshire, was actually part of the county of Berkshire until 1974. This meant that any records up to that point would be kept at Berkshire Record Office.”
2. Spot your house on an Ordnance Survey Map
“As the Covid-19 lockdown meant that visiting record offices was not allowed, I began my research looking at old maps of the town. You can find old maps online and the National Library of Scotland’s website also has digitised Ordnance Survey maps of England.
My house, on Highworth Road, is on the edge of the town, and using the 1900 Ordnance Survey map I could see that the area was at that time mostly fields, with the odd farmhouse. By the 1914 map, a few more houses had begun to spring up along Coxwell Road, leading into the town, but there was no development on my road. The next map, dated 1971, showed the whole area had been developed into housing, including my house.”
3. Find your Title Deeds and Conveyances
“Looking at the maps had been interesting in terms of seeing the growth of the town, but it hadn’t helped me narrow down the date when my house had been built. The next place to look was the title deeds to the house.
These should include names of vendors and sellers, a description of the property, and amounts of money used in transfer of ownership. They can also be used to trace the owners of the land on which a house was built. Title deeds may be held by the solicitor, bank or building society involved in the sale of your house. A copy may have been included with the solicitor’s paperwork when you purchase a property. You may also be able to find information for many properties for a fee from the Land Registry.
I began to look through the documents left for us by the previous owners, and was very lucky to find a whole box containing details of the transfer of ownership over the years, including title deeds and conveyances. Using these documents I could trace back to find out when the house was built.”
“The earliest document was an agreement between Susan Porter, Eaden Caddy and Edward Chamberlain, and the Right Honourable Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt Wilson, Baron Berners, who was the main landowner in Faringdon. This document, dated 7 July 1924, showed an area of land in Highworth Road being enfranchised, and made freehold.”
“This was followed in September 1925 by a document recording the sale of this piece of land to the Faringdon Public Utility Housing Society Limited. I then found a Deed of Conveyance dated May 1926, recording the sale of a property at 2 Highworth Road, to James Scott Pollard for £385. This meant that my house must have been built between September 1925 and May 1926.
I also discovered that at some point, my house number had changed from number 2 to number 3, presumably because the houses on the other side of the road were built at a later date, and the numbering changed to accommodate the new houses.”
4. Identify the date period of your house
“I contacted Berkshire Record Office to find out if there was any record of the Faringdon Public Utility Housing Society, or any mention of the houses being built on Highworth Road, but unfortunately none was found. My next step was to find out whether the design of the house was typical of mid 1920s housing. There are many resources online to help identify the date period of a house. Here are just some examples:
- House Beautiful
- Homes and Antiques
- University of West England, domestic architecture 1700 – 1960
In 1919 a Housing Act was passed in Parliament, aimed at providing government subsidies to local authorities for constructing more working class housing. During the 1920s there was a housing boom, and many new homes were built to cater for the changing demands of families. Semi-detached houses became popular, many of which had similar internal layouts. Again, I was lucky to find plans of my house which were drawn up prior to proposed extensions, and which showed the house as it was originally built.
Looking at the plans, I could see that my house was very typical of this era. Although it has now been extended both upstairs and downstairs, the original rooms were clearly shown on the plan. I also found a planning application from the 1960s for the construction of a new garage – this included a plan which showed the site of the original garage.”
“Having been able to date the construction of my house to within a few months, I now wanted to find out a bit more about who had lived there in the past, and about what the town used to be like.”
5. Use online archives to find out more about the families who lived in your house
“I wanted to find out a bit more about the people who owned my house in the mid 20th century, and to find out how the town of Faringdon had changed since my house was built. As my house was built in the mid 1920s, I wouldn’t be able to use Census records to find out who had lived there.
The Census, usually conducted every ten years, is a great source for finding out about who lived in your house in the past. It is however closed for 100 years after it is compiled, meaning that currently the latest Census that can be used is the 1911 one (although the release of the 1921 Census is imminent). Although a Census was conducted in 1931, the records were destroyed in a fire, and the 1941 Census was not taken because of the Second World War.
Instead, I was able to use the 1939 Register. This was a National Register of all civilians in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, compiled to aid in co-ordinating the war effort at home. The Register contains details of the names, dates of births, and occupants of each house. It can be searched online through Ancestry or Find My Past.
A search for Highworth Road showed that in 1939 the occupants of my house were Merle C Elliott, a Cinema Proprietor, his wife Lilian, Cinema Cashier, and their son, also Merle, a Cinema Projectionist.
Looking back at the Deeds to the house, I found the sale in 1928 from James Scott Pollard to Merle Chapman Elliott, for a sum of £550. Interestingly, I also found that Merle Chapman sold the property to his mother, Sarah Elliott, in 1933. Despite this, he and his family were still living at the address in 1939.”
“I decided to do a bit more research into the Elliott family. Using local history resources, and the excellent Faringdon History Society pages on the Faringdon Community Website, I found that Merle’s father, David J Elliott, had been the owner of the steam saw mill in the town, now demolished but commemorated by the name ‘Old Sawmills Road’. A well-off family, they had lived at various addresses in Faringdon. A search on the Ancestry website brought back Canadian Passenger Lists which showed that in August 1914 David, Sarah and Merle had travelled to Quebec in Canada for a six week holiday. Merle was 17 years old at the time.
Canada clearly made an impression on Merle, because in April 1917 he travelled back to Canada, with the Passenger Lists recording that he intended to stay permanently. In 1919 he married Lilian in Calgary. The next mention of Merle is in March 1926, when the Passenger Lists record him, his wife and their son, also Merle, travelling back to Canada after a trip to England. At this point, the elder Merle’s occupation is listed as a rancher. It would seem as if their intention was to stay in Canada, but two years later he bought the house in Highworth Road.
By 1939 the family had moved back to Faringdon, and were living in the property, now owned by Merle’s mother. Father, mother and son all worked at the Regent Cinema in Gloucester Street. The cinema had been built by Merle Elliott in the mid 1930s. Before this, films had been shown at the town’s Corn Exchange.”
“By 1946 Merle Elliott can be found on the UK Passenger Lists travelling to the USA, with an intended destination of Canada, and it would seem that he stayed there until his death in 1977. Sarah Elliott, his mother, continued her ownership of the Highworth Road house until her death in 1963. In her will, she left the house to Merle Elliott, who subsequently sold it in 1967.”
6. Search Historic England’s photo archive for a peek into your town’s past
“I had now discovered when my house was built, and some of the details about who had lived there. But I wanted to find out a little more about the town, and how much it had changed in the last hundred years, particularly as I was spending more time in the local area due to the lockdown restrictions.
Between the 1830s and 2001, the population of Faringdon grew from around 3,000 to around 6,000, but since 2001 this has increased by 75%, with the construction of several new housing estates. My earlier research had shown that, when it was built, my house was on the very edge of town, surrounded by fields. Now, it is surrounded by houses, with a new estate currently being built on the same road, thought to be on the site of a former isolation hospital for infectious diseases.
Many of the town’s historic buildings still survive, so I used Historic England’s archive photographs to find some images of the town. It was really interesting to see how busy and bustling the town was in the early 19th century.”
“To try and make our daily lockdown walks a little more interesting, I took my five year old son out armed with a clipboard and some print outs of the historic photographs. We tried to take a modern day photograph from the same perspective. This really helped to give an idea of what had changed and what had stayed the same, and even my son showed some enthusiasm when he realised that the 17th century town hall used to be a fire station!”
“Finding out a bit more about what the town was like in the past has really helped me to feel connected to Faringdon as a place. I have found it interesting working out why certain street names have been used, and am sad that Faringdon lost its railway station. While lockdown was in many ways a very difficult time, it did give me the opportunity to find out more about where I live, and to bring its history to life.”
You did a real investigation, like Sherlock!! Cool! Once I also tried to learn the history of my house, but I never learned anything interesting, except that earlier on the site of the house was an apple orchard =)