Learning to make House History

This article by one of our website’s original founders, Alan Warner, who describes the experiences and challenges when he moved from his familiar skill of writing, to the new and very different area of researching house histories. And how he was saved from embarrassment when the Cavalry rode in to save him.

Out of the comfort zone

It was quite a challenge when our local history website project moved into its second phase. Before the meeting in December, I had been very much in my comfort zone, interviewing long term local residents who had experienced the second world war and converting their memories into articles for our website, and eventually for Village News. But when it was decided by our small group of volunteers to move onto a new stage – researching the history of the most interesting older houses in our three villages – I had an uncomfortable feeling. As the main provider of content for the website (tringruralhistory.co.uk) I was expected to be the lead player in this new phase and this required research skills that were not in my repertoire. I was once criticised by a University Professor for writing first and researching afterwards, not the right sequence in her view.

The Starting Point

Our first step was to advertise in Village News for residents who would like their house to be featured but there was no initial response. So we thought that a good place to start would be to find out the listed buildings in our three villages; I knew a little about this from our time living at Red House Farm, a grade 2 lister on Potash Lane. So I googled the Historic England website and found out that, in addition to Red House Farm, the other listings were Manor Farm in Puttenham, Rose and Crown Cottage in Long Marston and the Half Moon in Wilstone.

We had already agreed that it would be important to involve the present occupants of these houses and I fixed meetings with Lis at Manor Farm and Abi at the Half Moon. My initial plan to research Red House Farm was changed when we received a welcome email from James Kempton who lives at the Rose and Crown, asking if his house could be the subject of research and if he could be involved. Thus our three houses for this initial research stage were established.

The Arrival of the Cavalry

At this stage I began to see a serious problem. I was leading a project in which I had limited skills and experience, meeting house occupants who would quite reasonably expect me to know what I was doing. My powers of bluff would be tested to a significant extent. But then a miracle happened; we received a message on our website that a professional house historian – Clive Reedman, whose family live in Wilstone – was interested in joining our team and leading this phase of the project. It took us about two seconds to make up our minds and an initial meeting was fixed to discuss how we would work together. This went very well and we agreed that Clive would take on the Half Moon, in which he was already interested, I would deal with Manor Farm and we would arrange a meeting with James Kempton to discuss the Rose and Crown. But most important to me and to everyone in our team, Clive would provide advice and support for all of our projects.

Not as easy as it seems

My early involvement in the Manor Farm history made me realise that this kind of research is not as easy as it is seems to be on the TV programme ‘ A House through time’. And the problems seem to be at both ends of the timeline; Historic England will give you an approximation of when the house was built – late 16th century in the case of Manor Farm – but it is highly unlikely that legal documents or land registration are available, particularly as most houses of that age start small and are extended over time.

It is not until the early 1800s that information is more easy to come by, with the passing of the Enclosure Acts and the beginning of national censuses. This information can be gained from websites such as Ancestry.com and Findmypast.com, though it is not easy for the inexperienced researcher. In almost every case the address column only shows ‘Puttenham’ and the handwriting is usually almost illegible. Clive taught me not to expect too much and to interpret the data, for instance the position of the entry on the census list can often tell you which is the address you are looking for.

At the other end of the research challenge is the difficulty of finding out about more recent occupants and happenings because the ‘100 year rule’ means that modern census data is not available. Of course you are more likely to find information from the memories of individuals but these can be unreliable and do not represent valid research. When researching Manor Farm for instance, we knew that the Farm had been owned by a former resident – Teddy Meyer – who rented out to several occupants in the 1960s and 1970s but it took further research of electoral registers to find the names. And, though there were lots of memories of Teddy and his links to the well-known Turner family, it has so far been difficult to find hard data on the exact timing of his ownership.

Digging Deeper

Following the advice of my new mentor, I soon found that there were many other sources of information on old houses and their occupants. Clive advised us that the first stage should be to construct a timeline; he created a ‘Dropbox’ into which he deposited more information and encouraged the rest of us to do the same. These other sources included registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Burial Records (less necessary in our case as we had access to Puttenham Church register), Newspaper reports, Trade Directories and Electoral Registers. The newspaper stories can be most enlightening; for instance we learned that John Deverell, occupant of Manor Farm in the late 1800s, was keen on litigation and several times sued fellow residents for seizing his hens!

These extra documents were however still mainly the last two centuries. To go back further we had to visit the Hertfordshire County Archives, based in Hertford. Here we were given access to documents from previous centuries and, in the case of Manor Farm, I was able to find more information about the Ives family who lived there in the 1700s, from the Poor Law records, Churchwarden’s accounts and minutes of Parish meetings. It proved that the Ives family went back much further than we had realised and that handwriting in the 1700s was much more legible than in the 1800s!

A Surprise Addition

While this research was going on, we received an approach from Neil and Yvette, current occupants of Dover Castle in Astrope who asked us if we would be interested in researching their house history. Dover Castle is also a listed building but we had missed this in our initial trawl because we had wrongly assumed that Astrope would be classified as being in Puttenham. Though our progress has so far been limited because of our initial focus on Manor Farm, we have already uncovered information on residents going back to mid nineteenth century. We have not however yet been able to establish any link with a ship called the Dover Castle as Neil and Yvette hoped we might reveal.

The End Product?

The key decision we are still to face is when to put together everything we have collected and say we’ve gone as far as we can and ‘that’s it’. The problem is that, because of the many sources and the inevitable gaps that are uncovered, the timeline keeps being refined and the finish line fades further into the distance. This is because new information often causes us to ask new questions which require further research and so on. For instance the extra information about the Ives family at Manor Farm only increased my curiosity and led me to plan to build the Ives family tree.

But soon I will have to complete my final timeline, supported by a narrative which explains the inevitable gaps and admits to the areas where assumptions and speculations have had to be made. All we can hope then is that the information is of interest to those who live there now and gives everyone involved a better understanding of the history of our villages in preceding centuries. So far, it has certainly done that for me!

One Comment “Learning to make House History”

  • Stuart

    says:

    a very interesting piece of writing. Thank you for your hard work.

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