for People with a Passion for Period Property

Period Property House Detective Research Guidelines
by the BBC's Dr Nick Barratt
from the House Detectives.

Dr Nick Barratt worked at the Public Records Office for 4 years in the medieval and early modern records team before moving to the BBC in November 2000.

He has researched the history of the houses featured on the last 3 series of House Detectives on the BBC, and worked on other history-based programmes.

For further information see the web site at


Before embarking on the fulfilling experience of researching the history of your period home one of the most important 'first steps' is to sit down and sketch out a provisional research plan. Although every house will have a different research trail that reflects its own unique history, the majority of all first-time house historians should consider the following framework as a place to begin.

Furthermore, you should also consider at the outset what you want to find out about your house. For some house historians, pinpointing a construction date will be sufficient reward for time spent in an archive; but for many others, the real excitement is provided by bringing the past back to life by finding out about the lives of the people who resided in your home, and how the local community evolved through the ages. Even if you live in a house built in the early twentieth century, don't let this deter you from researching the previous history of the site.

First Steps

(a) Work out what you want to find:

  • Set your research parameters; these can change as you find out more, but you should try to limit yourself to one or two immediate goals.
  • Do you want to concentrate solely on the chronology?
  • Do you want to research previous owners?
  • Do you want to research previous houses on the site?

(b) Make your goals realistic:

  • How much research time do you have?
  • Are you prepared to travel to distant archives?
  • Research can be expensive - are you prepared to pay for photocopies (where available)?
  • Do you require any additional skills (e.g. language, paleography)
  • Do you have access to research tools (e.g. Personal computer & Internet access, Latin dictionaries, guides to local history?)

Background Research

(a) Begin with the architecture of your house:

  • Try to work out a rough date of construction for your house from the architectural clues that exist.
  • You should also try to identify the dates of any major rebuilds or additions, as the cause of these might be important clues in your research.
  • Compare your house to its neighbours - is it similar or different?
  • Where is your house in relation to the village / town / city in which it is built? In general, if it is close to the centre it is probably older.

(b) Pinpoint the location of your house in the local area. This will probably involve a trip to the local studies centre. If possible:

  • Locate the manor you house was once in.
  • Locate the parish it was in; this might be different from today.
  • Locate the administrative district - county division (hundred, rape, riding etc.); local authority (urban district council, rural district council, borough etc.); poor law union; tax district.

(c) Whilst you are at the local studies centre, read about your local area and its history in secondary sources:

  • Local studies publications (e.g. Victoria County Histories) may provide information and document references that you can follow up.
  • Look for old photographs, newspaper clippings or any other items that can provide clues for your documentary research. It may be that some research has already been done on your property.

(d) Next, try to contact your mortgage provider:

  • Ask to see your title deeds, as they will give you the names of previous owners.
  • You may be charged a fee to view these documents.
  • They may not go back that far, so don't be too disappointed if the information they contain is limited.

(e) Start your oral research:

  • Talk to neighbours, local antiquarians, previous owners, estate agents and solicitors that handled the sale of the property - they might be able to provide you with evidence or stories for your to research.
  • In particular, solicitors may have earlier title deeds, although they are most likely lost or with previous owners who paid off their mortgage.
  • Remember to exercise diplomacy and courtesy when approaching any of these people

(f) Start to locate relevant archives:

  • Based on where parish, manorial, estate and relevant local records are located, you should start to plan where to continue your research.
  • Check the publications listed in the reading list, or browse the HMC website
  • Contact potential archives and ask about opening times, entry requirements and document availability.

Archival Research: Creating a Document Framework

You can construct a document framework that in theory will provide names for owners and occupiers from 1840-1910. Although these documents have not survived or are appropriate for all houses, they should cover the majority of properties in England and Wales and are recommended as the starting place for all house historians:

(a) Public Records Office: Valuation Survey

  • Provides maps and names of owners / principal occupier c.1910, plus a basic document description

(b) Public Records Office/ County Records Office: Tithe Map

  • Provides names of owners / principal occupier c.1840s.

(c) Family Research Centre/County Records Office: Census Returns

  • Provides names of all occupiers 1841-1891 (and 1901 from 2002).

(d) Public Records Office/County Records Office: Enclosure Awards

  • Provides useful background information on local landowners and tenants, with maps; from 1780s, mainly 19th century.

Public Records Office web site:

Archival Research: Following up leads

Armed with the data from your document framework, plus information gleaned from your pre-research in step 2, you can start to plan your unique research trail. This will lead you to various archives, but I would recommend starting with the relevant County Record Office. The main documents you will probably use are listed in descending order of potential value, although this will vary depending on the history of your house and what you find from your document framework:

(a) Relevant County Record Office:

  • Maps and plans of the local area (including OS).
  • Manorial records (court rolls if copyhold).
  • Other estate records (if copyhold, freehold or part of a larger estate).
  • Deposited title deeds.
  • Sale catalogues (amongst estate agents papers).
  • Wills (deposited, plus existing local consistory court registers).
  • Personal papers of known owners / occupiers.
  • Trade directories.
  • Land tax (and other assessed taxes).
  • Parochial material (for occupancy and local rates).
  • Local newspapers (for listed sales).
  • Local fire insurance registers.
  • Records of local industries.
  • Records of utility companies.
  • Miscellaneous local records (be bold, be imaginative - you never know what you might uncover!)

(b) Public Record Office:

  • Maps and plans.
  • PCC (Prerogative Court of Canterbury) wills and administration pre-1858. (also at FRC)
  • PCC inventories.
  • Records of land transfer, enrolled deeds.
  • Legal disputes.
  • Hearth tax (and other assessed taxes).
  • Records of national events.
  • Records of modern houses.
  • Private papers of known owners / occupiers.

(c) Other archives (in no particular order of relevance):

  • Family Records Centre, Myddleton Street, London for census, wills and registration of births, marriages and deaths.
  • National Register of Archives, Chancery Lane, London for Manorial Documents Register.
  • London Metropolitan Archives for property in Greater London.
  • Corporation of London Record Office for property in the City of London.
  • British Library for maps, plans and records of private individuals.
  • Guildhall Library for fire insurance registers for London companies (which will include records of provincial insurance).
  • Borthwick Institute for PCY wills, administrations and inventories pre-1858.
  • First Avenue House, Holborn, London for post-1858 probate material.
  • National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth for Welsh property not covered in PRO.
  • National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh for Scottish property.
  • Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), Belfast for property in Northern Ireland (some earlier material in Dublin).

You will find that your research takes you to any number of these archives, and you will use various combinations of the documents listed above.

Finally, researching the history of your home can be an immensely fulfilling experience, and if by good fortune you do discover an interesting tale concerning your property it could provide you with an invaluable sales aid if you ever decide to sell-up and move on to further cases.

Terms Explained

  • chronology - a timeline
  • paleography - the study of handwriting and abbreviations used in documents.
  • hundred / rape / riding - ancient county administrative divisions.
  • Poor Law Union - an administrative division for the delivery of poor relief, introduced in the nineteenth century.

General House History Publications

D, Austin, M. Dowdy and J.Miller, Be Your Own House Detective (London, 1997).

J.H. Harvey, Sources for the History of Houses (British Records Association, 1968).

B. Breckon and J. Parker, Tracing the History of Houses (Countryside books, 1998).

M.W. Bailey, The English Farmhouse and Cottage (Sutton, 1987).

R.W. Brunskill, Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture (Faber, 1970).

D. Iredale and J. Barrett, Discovering Your Old House (Shire Publications, 1991).

P. Bushell, Tracing the History of Your House (Pavilion Books, 1989).

N. Currer-Briggs, Debrett's Guide to Your House (Headline Book Publishing, 1993).

N. Pevsner et al, The Buildings of England (Penguin, 1951-).

M. Wood, The English Medieval House (Ferndale, 1981).

D. Cruickshank and P. Wyld, Georgian Town Houses and Their Details (London, 1990).

Local History Guides and Publications

English Place Name Society series, published by county.

S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of England (London, 1840)

S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Wales (London, 1840)

S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (London, 1846).

S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (London, 1846).

F.A. Youngs Jr, Guide to the Administrative Units of England, 2 vols. (Royal Historical Society, 1980, 1991).

C.D. Rogers and J.H. Smith, Local Family History in England, 1538-1914 (Manchester, 1991).

A. Macfarlane, A Guide to English Historical Records (Cambridge, 1983).

Alphabetical List of Parishes and Places in England and Wales 2 vols. (HMSO, 1897)

M.D. Herber, Ancestral Trails (Sutton, 1997).

D. Hey, Oxford Companion to Local and Family History (Oxford, 1996).

P. Riden, Local History: a Handbook for Beginners (London, 2nd edn, 1998).

Guides to the PRO and FRC

A. Bevan ed. Tracing Your Ancestors at the PRO (PRO, 5th edn, 1999).

J. Cox and S. Colwell, Never Been Here Before? A Genealogist's Guide to the FRC (PRO, 1998).

Guides to Records Offices

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Record Repositories in Great Britain (PRO, 11th edn, 1999).

J Foster and J Sheppard, British Archives: A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom (London, 1995).

J.S.W. Gibson and P. Peskett, Record Offices and How to Find Them (FFHS, 1998).

Guides to Document Interpretation

E. Gooder, Latin for Local History (Longman, 2nd edn, 1978)

D. Stuart Latin for local and county historians: A Beginners Guide (London, 1995).

B.H. Kennedy, rev. Sir J. Mountford, Shorter Latin Primer (Longman, 1974)

C.R. Cheney, rev. M. Jones, Handbook of Dates for Students of British History (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

W.S.B. Buck, Examples of Handwriting 1550-1650 (Society of Genealogists, 1996).

Maps, Plans and Land Surveys

Maps and Plans in the British Isles 1410-1860 (PRO, 1967).

W. Foot, Maps for Family History (PRO, 1994).

Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks No. 18, 'Historians' Guide to British Maps', (London, 1994).

M.P. Hindle, Maps for Local History (London, 1988).

P.D.A. Harvey, Maps in Tudor England (London, 1993).

O.Mason, ed. Bartholomew Gazetteer of Places in Britain (Bartholomew, 1986).

Tithe Apportionments

R.J.P. Kain and R.R. Oliver, The Tithe Maps and Apportionments of England and Wales (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

R.J.P. Kain and H.C. Prince, The Tithe Surveys of England and Wales (Cambridge, 1985).

J.A. Edwards, Historical Farm Records (Reading, 1973).

W.E.Tate, A Domesday of Enclosure Acts and Awards (Reading, 1978).

W.E. Tate, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements (London, 1967).

Title Deeds

N.W. Alcock, Old Title Deeds (Philimore, 1986).

F. Sheppard and V. Belcher, 'The Deed Registries of Yorkshire and Middlesex', Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol. VI (1978-1981), pp.274-286.

Manorial and Estate Records

M. Ellis, Using Manorial Records (PRO, 1997).

D. Stuart, Manorial Records (Philimore, 1992).

R. Hoyle, The estates of the English Crown, 1558-1640 (Cambridge, 1992).

A. Travers, 'Manorial Documents', Genealogists' Magazine Vol. XXI (1983).

Useful Websites

Institutions PRO / FRC

National Archives of Scotland


British Library

National Register of Archives


Land Registry

British Records Association

College of Arms

EARL - Public Library Networking


Family History Portal

Genealogy in UK & Ireland


Britannia - histories of country houses


Victoria County History

British Association for Local History

Gazetteer of British Place Names


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