Archives can reveal all sorts of fascinating information for those tracing the history of a house.
What you will find will depend on how old the house is, where it is, and what sort of property it is. There is quite a lot of luck involved – you may find lots of records that help you to trace the history of a house, find out about how it looked when it was first built, and discover who lived there. On the other hand, sometimes only a small amount of information survives for a particular house – though you can have fun finding out about the history of the area.
Do you want to find out about the building itself?
Are you interested in the people who lived there?
Finding out about the building itself
Maps are a very good starting point. Large-scale maps can show the ’footprint’ of house, and by comparing maps of different dates you can estimate a rough date for building. The most useful maps are
- Ordnance Survey maps, large-scale (1:2500, 25 inches to the mile). The ’County Series’ first edition was published in the 1870s and 1880s, the second edition in the 1900s, and the third edition around 1920. Editions are also available for various dates from the 1950s to the present.
- Ordnance Survey very large scale (1:500) maps were drawn up for some towns. Dates vary from 1870s to the early 1900s.
This is part of a map of Merthyr Tydfil drawn up in 1851. The original is in the Glamorgan Record Office.
- Tithe maps. A tithe map was drawn up for almost every parish in the late 1830s or early 1840s. They show most buildings, and the accompanying ’apportionment’ records who owned and occupied the property.
- Large landowners sometimes had maps of their estates drawn up. These usually date from the late seventeenth or the eighteenth centuries, and sometimes show properties in great detail.
- In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the firm of Chas.E. Goad Ltd. produced large-scale plans of the centres of large towns, for assessing fire risk for insurance purposes. The plans are very useful for house historians because they are so detailed – colours on the plans even indicate construction materials.
Most of these maps can be found in local authority archives (for their own areas), and in the National Library of Wales (for all of Wales).
If you are lucky, you may find the original plans for your house, or plans drawn up when major alterations were made to it.This plan for a house in Ogmore Vale, 1908, is held by the Glamorgan Record Office
From the 1870s, plans had to be submitted to the local council to show that the house was going to be built in accordance with ’building regulations’ which laid down minimum standards of construction. From 1947, plans also had to be submitted for ’planning permission’, as the location and style of housing were now more closely controlled by councils. Plans also had to be submitted when major additions or alterations were being proposed. For some local authorities, some or all of these plans have survived and have been placed in the local authority archive, where they provide a fantastic source for house historians.
Sale particulars are usually drawn up when a property is being sold. They describe the property, often quite briefly but occasionally in great detail, and they may include photographs or plans. Sale particulars are occasionally to be found in archives among the records of solicitors, valuers and estate agents, landed estates or county councils.
You may possibly find a photograph of the house you are researching, showing how it used to look. More probably, you may find a more general photograph of the area. The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales has a large collection of photographs of buildings, and most other archives have some photographs of buildings or streets.
This is a cutaway drawing from the RCAHMW, showing a typical end chimney house in Wales. This was one of the most common type of house built in Wales before the 17th century. Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
Royal Commission Surveys
If your house is especially significant it may have been surveyed by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. It doesn’t have to be a grand house – even small houses have been surveyed, if they are typical of a certian type of building, or have some unusual features. Records of all the surveys are held at the Royal Commission, and may include photographs, drawings, and written reports.
Finding out about the people who lived there
Estate and solicitors’ collections held in archives often include a large number of title deeds. Sometimes early title deeds can be difficult to use because they don’t describe the property they deal with clearly – or at least it isn’t clear to us now. But you may be lucky and find deeds to your house or to the land it stands on, and discover who owned it or who was leasing it. If you find the original lease or sale of land to the builder of the property, you will know that you have taken your research as far back as it can go!
Available mainly for the period from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries, street and county directories list the principal inhabitants of towns and villages, although for villages they may not give precise addresses. For large towns, the directories will list most of the heads of households, with the lists arranged street by street, so that it is easy to find out who lived in a particular house. Almost all archives (and many libraries) hold copies of directories.
Registers of Electors
Registers of Electors list all those eligible to vote. Most series of registers start in 1832 and continue up to date. It wasn’t until 1918 that all men got the right to vote, while all women were able to vote from 1928. Registers of electors are usually held in local authority archives, and can be a useful way of finding out who used to live in your house. In the twentieth century, the date an address first appears in a register can indicate when the house was built (before 1918, a house may not appear in the register because none of the people who lived there was entitled to vote).
There are a number of different types of rate books, reflecting the numerous different types of rates that were collected, especially in the nineteenth century. They usually list all properties on which rates had to be paid, and give the name of the ratepayer – sometimes they record the names of both the owner and the tenant of the property. They also give the rateable value, or the amount of rates to be paid, indicating the value of the property. Rate books in some areas date back to the late eighteenth century, but the survival of early rate books is very patchy. Some twentieth century series of rate books are very large, and only books for certain years have been kept. Rate books are to be found mainly in local authority archives.
Most sources will tell you only the name of the head of the household, or possibly the names of the adults living in the house. Find an entry for the house on the census returns, though, and you will discover the names of all the people who lived there at the time the census was taken – and find out how old they were, where they were born, and what they did for a living. Censuses recording names have been taken every ten years from 1841; all the returns for 1841-1901 are available now, and some of the 1911 census returns are also available.
You can look at the census returns for all of Wales for 1841-1901 on microfiche at the National Library of Wales, and most local authority archives have the returns for their own areas.