Research a Victorian house’s history

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

What evidence can I use to find out about my house’s history?

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 of the same or similar design to work out the original internal arrangement of the house. Looking at records of sold properties on websites such as Rightmove or Zoopla can often provide such information.
  • 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 the entrance hall 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 documentary evidence should I look for?

Your 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 in dating a building and any alterations. 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.

Alternatively, you can search national internet sources. The Library of Scotland have digitised a number of historic OS maps which can be accessed here ( and the British Library have digitised the Goad Fire Insurance Maps, a useful source for establishing historical land uses (

Photographic evidence is helpful and can help establish the appearance of a house before later changes were made. Images can be found either through simple internet image searches, or via specific collections. Historic England have digitised a number of their old photos and these are available in their Architectural Red Box Collection ( Alternatively, photos on Britain from Above can be used to get a better idea of the building and historic surrounding development ( The London Picture Archive is also a great source for those in London with several photos often available of streets and buildings. ( Images on old post cards can often be found of many places try searching for the street or building name on Ebay or other places where such postcards are sold. Finally, Google Street view allows you to go back in time to see previous Google street view images. If unsympathetic changes to the exterior of the property have been made in the last decade or so you may be able to find evidence of what the original doors or windows were like. Even if they had been removed on your house they may have survived for longer on a neighbouring property. (…)

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

Your immediate predecessors can be identified from the sale documents if you own the property. Again, if you have bought a property you may have the title deeds although as more houses are registered at the Land Registry these are increasingly hard to find.

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.

Those looking for information on a building in London may also find Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps, digested by LSE, an interesting source for demographic information. (

We often use the Pevsner Architectural Guides in our casework, and it is well worth hunting the relevant copy of this down in your local library. They are usually county specific, with several series’ covering England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but there are some volumes dedicated to particular cities. These guides can be an invaluable source, giving information on particular buildings and their expansion, as well as the surrounding area. There are sometimes some gaps in these, but new editions for various counties are still being produced and are often a great starting point for research. More information can be found here: