The House Detectives
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 The second source is original unpublished documents.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 new deeds.

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 City.

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 £40.

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 excluded.

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!