A House Through Time: Research tips from Yorkshire's own 'house detective'

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Amateur historians have been gripped by the BBC's new series A House Through Time, which uncovers the past of a Victorian townhouse located in a prestigious area of Liverpool.

Presenter and historian David Olusoga traces the stories of the house's residents across more than a century of occupation, and weaves their lives into the fabric of Liverpool's fascinating maritime history.

So far, he's discovered links to the slave trade and the American Civil War, and revealed the social ascent of a former manservant who became a wealthy financier by utilising the connections he made while working at a Liverpool gentlemen's club.

The four-episode series has sparked curiosity from viewers keen to find out what secrets may be lurking in the depths of their own home's past.

Yorkshire academic Dr Emma Wells became a self-styled 'house detective' when she set up her own heritage consultancy specialising in home histories.

Dr Wells, from Bedale, would take commissions from both home owners and estate agents keen to uncover intriguing details about a property.

Information about an unusual past occupant, an interesting event which has taken place inside its walls or the discovery of an overlooked architectural feature all have potential to increase a home's value.

Her research can also provide guidance for the restoration of listed buildings.

For amateur researchers, Dr Wells - who is also an expert on medieval churches - suggests starting by acquiring the title deeds to the property. Old maps, tithe records and electoral rolls are also valuable tools for discovering the identities of previous owners.

She has previously run courses across Yorkshire to teach members of the public how to conduct their own research, but has recently scaled down her consultancy work to take on a full-time academic post at the University of York.

"One of the most interesting stories I have ever uncovered was a house constructed in the late 15th century for a cleric of York Minster. Hidden within one of the oak beams, and then sealed over, was a manuscript dating to the early 16th century.

"The document was a 'peccavi'; a confession of guilt (the word derives from 16th-century Latin, meaning ‘I have sinned’). In the 16th-century Catholic church, a confession consisted of the act of a penitent disclosing his sinfulness before a priest in the sacrament of penance in the hope of absolution.

"These were written documents acknowledging the offence and signed by the guilty party. In simple terms, this cleric was confessing his sins as he neared death, which included swearing ‘for vile things through my God’,using violence to settle an argument and even ‘lasciviousness’ and ‘adultery'. Not the sort of behaviour one expects from a man of the cloth!

"However, this small document helped confirm, along with the wealth of documentary and architectural evidence I had collated, that the house had been owned by the Church and inhabited by ecclesiastical occupants since its construction in the late 15th century, and, therefore, supported the reason for its initial siting close to the local parish church. It unlocked the key, so to speak."

Dr Emma Wells is an associate lecturer and programme leader for the PGDip in Parish Church Studies and the new collaborative MA in English Building History between the Department of Archaeology and the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York.

Dr Emma Wells' top tips for researching your home's past

- Work together: Your house is just one piece of the larger jigsaw that makes up your area. Talk to people in your neighbourhood; even contact your local history group to find out if anyone else has already got started.

- Deeds package: I always recommend starting with, if you have them, title deeds. These can help you trace the owners and occupiers of your house. If the deeds to your house are not in your possession, they should be with your solicitor or mortgage provider. There are also five surviving Registry of Deeds in the country (Yorkshire has two), so if some documents in your deeds package are missing, you may be in luck. Visit http://www.land-search-online.co.uk
- Stop and look: What is your house telling you about its history? What visual clues does it hold? Was it a worker’s cottage for a nearby mill? A former inn, converted church, chapel, or school? Converted pubs often retain their name up high on the parapet. Street names also hold many clues. Look for stylistic pointers as to when it was built and for whom – pay attention to chimneys, doors, fireplaces, ceilings, windows and stone/brickwork – there are a wealth of guides on architectural styles; Trevor Yorke’s are particularly useful. Get a rough estimate of how old your house is. The date when it was built may even be carved on the building. Also, is your house listed? The National Heritage List for England (NHLE) records a brief overview of the date of construction and significant features of every listed building in England.

- Local archives: Visit your local library and archive. It should have a vast amount of information to help you discover why and when your home was built. For example, local newspapers, printed maps and local study publications carry vital information, and will help you to piece together its brief history. As an initial step, you should also attempt to 'place' your house in the locality by finding out what parish/manor it was in - this will help you to use a wider selection of documents in your search. Historic maps, plans and views are also crucial for dating evidence, such as Valuation Office Survey maps (known as the “New Domesday” and accessed via the National Archives website), census maps, tithe maps and apportionments and enclosure awards and maps, while title deeds, newspapers, trade directories, census returns, wills and inventories, rate books, electoral rolls and estate maps, surveys and rentals can provide a great deal of information on past owners and occupants (likely to be two separate sets of people). Many of these documents can also be accessed online (though for a subscription fee). Try ancestry.com for census returns and electoral rolls. Many tithe maps and a few enclosures have also been uploaded to the internet, so always try a through Google search – you never know what you might find!

- And, finally, evidence should not be limited to documentation – visual sources such as photographs can also be fundamental in assessing how a building has changed – as an accumulation provides a most comprehensive history that may then be usefully understood and used.