Research a Victorian house’s history

Uncovering the hidden history of your Victorian or Edwardian house will help you appreciate it.

What kind of evidence can I use to find out about the history of my house?

Historical evidence falls into two categories: physical and documentary. It is usually easiest to start by assessing the physical evidence, which includes everything you can discover by investigating the house itself. Documentary evidence includes all other records (e.g. deeds, maps etc.) of the house.

How should I investigate the physical evidence?

Look carefully at:

  • The exterior of the house. Most 'ordinary' Victorian houses conform to well-established plans and types (e.g. the London terraced house) and have distinctive decoration that helps to date them. Photographs are useful for comparison with illustrations in books.
  • The plan of the house. Look for evidence of alterations and compare with neighbouring houses to work out the original internal arrangement of the house.
  • Interior architectural decoration. This includes all fixed features such as skirting boards, cornices, fireplaces, panelling, windows, and doors, and fittings such as door handles, fingerplates, and window catches. In particular, look at the hierarchy of decoration - more elaborate mouldings in entrance halls and reception rooms, simpler effects in kitchens and bedrooms.
  • Evidence of previous services: gas lights, old electrical circuit boards or bell systems.
  • The superficial decoration: wall and floor coverings, paintwork, and curtain fixtures. Old paint layers or scraps of wallpaper give valuable clues to the taste and aspirations of previous occupants. Wallpapers in particular can sometimes be very accurately dated.

What sort of documentary evidence should I look for?

You local library should have a local studies collection and be able to put you in touch with the local history society. You can find your local archive here. Local studies collections often include old maps, which can be very useful. Estate maps, drawn up for individual landowners to show rentable properties and plans for new buildings, are often deposited at libraries or county record offices. Tithe maps, showing individual households in each parish, were produced from 1840.

How can I find out who lived in the house before me?

Your immediate predecessors can be identified from the title deeds.

Census returns are another useful source of information. From 1801 to 1831 the censuses were simply head counts with no personal information on individuals (except in exceptional cases). From 1841 personal information was recorded. The National Archives census search facility is a good starting point and National Archives' website and General Record Office will help you with other government records and sources you need for your family history research such as birth, marriages and death certificates and probate documents and wills.

Local studies collections often have street directories, which contain house-by-house information on residents and tradespeople in a particular area.