Researching the history of your house

There are two main approaches to researching the history of your house. The first is to use the evidence of the house itself, such as its layout or architectural details, to learn something of the dates of construction and alteration of the building. The second is to use documentary sources such as maps, drawings and written records, which may refer to the building at different times in the past.

Architectural details from houses of known date can be used to help to assign an approximate date to other buildings with similar features. But there is often a time lag between styles being first introduced and used by the wealthy in London and the south east, and being adopted in remoter parts of the country or by the less well off.  Also many houses have been added to and altered over time and therefore contain details from different periods. However the following aspects may be useful:

PLANFORM - the plan, or floor layout, of a building, may indicate it's approximate age.  Early buildings were of single room depth. A typical medieval South West plan is the 'three roomed cross passage plan'. From late C17th buildings might be two rooms deep, but the single room plan often survived for humble buildings into the C19th. Plan is especially useful for houses where features such as windows and fireplaces may have been completely altered at a later date, for example a house with a medieval cross passage plan but Georgian windows.  The position of the stairs within the building may also be significant.

ROOF - construction may indicate approximate date as carpentry techniques changed with time. For example cruck trusses and wind bracing are almost certainly medieval. Roof coverings such as slate and pantiles were not widely used before the development of the rail and canal networks, but they often replaced thatch or stone tiles so they may not be a reliable indicator of original age.

WALLS - stone construction changed little with time so gives little indication of age. Brick bonding varied more with time, for example Flemish bond was introduced in the late C17th and Rat Trap bond may relate to periods of brick tax.

DOORS - the shape of doorways changed with time and the construction and decoration of doors themselves may provide useful evidence.

WINDOWS - the overall shape and proportions of windows changed with time. Early windows were either of oak or stone with mullions. The shape of the mullions may give some indication of age. Later windows usually had timber casements and the pattern of glazing and the thickness and moulding of glazing bars may suggest age. BUT original windows were often replaced later so may not be a reliable indicator of original age of a building. 

CHIMNEY - medieval houses originally had no chimneys but they were often inserted at a later date. It is usually possible to distinguish between an inserted chimney and one built with the house suggesting a date from the early C17th. The design of fireplaces in houses may indicate date, but later fireplaces were often inserted into earlier openings.

BEAMS - nature of chamfering and pattern of stops may be useful indication of date.

PARTITIONS - position, type, and decoration may suggest age.

PANELLING- type and decoration can indicate age, but panelling was often inserted into an earlier room

STAIRS - the position and type of stairs and nature of strings, handrail and balusters may be helpful.

It is rare for dated records of the construction of a house to survive although for larger houses builders' and craftsmen's accounts may survive which would enable a fairly precise date to be assigned to the building. For most houses they and their owners were of insufficient importance to leave behind such records. Therefore when researching your house's history you are dependent on records compiled for all manner of purposes which may incidentally provide you with evidence for the age of your building. One difficulty in using such records is that building names often change with time and may even be known by different names at any one time. In Somerset the following sources may be useful:

MAPS - Maps can be used to show the presence of a building on a particular site, but may be misleading in cases where newer buildings replace older ones on the same site.

OS maps came late to Somerset; the 1st edition was surveyed in 1882 - 1888 and published in 1884 - 90, scale 6" and 25". The 2nd edition was revised in 1900 - 1903 and published in 1901-1906.

Other printed maps which cover the whole of Somerset and may show individual properties are Day & Masters' map of 1782 and Greenwood's map of 1822.

Tithe maps are large-scale plans which show individual buildings and were compiled for many parishes following 1836 Tithe Act.

Enclosure maps were drawn up following Parliamentary Acts of Enclosure of common land. The maps for Somerset date from 1720.

Other maps may include plans of proposed public works such as roads, canals & railways and for Somerset they date from 1791.

Estate & parish maps were occasionally drawn up by landowners for various reasons. They are of variable dates and quality.

LISTS - Lists were compiled for all manner of reasons. Useful types include tax returns such as those relating to Land Tax (from late C17th), Window Tax (1696-1851) and Hearth Tax (late C17th).

Fire insurance records may still be kept by fire insurance companies.

Glebe terriers are inventories of land and property belonging to the church.

Census returns date from 1841 and list the address of houses on a street by street basis. 

OTHERS - For some of the larger manors and estates records may survive which describe the management or running of the estate and may describe buildings on the estate.

Wills may describe the property of the deceased. From 1529 to 1740 wills were usually accompanied by a probate inventory. This was a list of the possessions of the deceased and often refers to the rooms of the house in which the objects were located. Unfortunately virtually all Somerset's probate records were lost in an air raid on Exeter in 1942.

Sale particulars, often advertised in newspapers, may be useful.

Property deeds may trace ownership back over a long time but more usually they stop fairly recently.

Some reference sources include:

Traditional Houses of Somerset -J. Penoyre 2005

How Old is Your House - P Cunnington 1980

Discovering Your Old House -D. Iredale2002This is one of many Shire Books that may assist research

Your Somerset House -D. Shorrocks Somerset Archive and Record Office 2005

Period House Fixtures and Fittings 1300-1900 -Linda Hall 2005

Victoria County History and British History on line

Pevsner Buildings of England series.

Reports of the Somerset Vernacular Building Research Group have been prepared for a considerable number of historic houses in the county. These often give an interpretation of the development of a building. Available along with many other sources, maps etc at Somerset Heritage Centre