Our research generally involves a four-stage process:

Stage one:  basic and local sources

Local authority archives are the best place to start tracing the history of a property.  They have an extensive collection of local, family and community history sources: including books, pamphlets, directories, newspapers, journals, maps and plans, prints, drawings, photographs, local government records, electoral registers, census returns, parish records, air raid damage reports and more.

Essential reference

The first step when tracing a London property should be to find the street in the London County Council’s Names of Streets and Places in the Administrative County of London.  This includes Ordnance Survey map references, administrative district, street name changes and dates of changes to numbering and names.  If the street is older than mid-19th century, it will not show earlier changes.

Maps and plans

The next step should be to locate a large-scale map of the area. The Ordnance Survey series, started in the 1860s and 70s in London, gives an indication of the site, size and shape of individual houses, and layout of the surrounding streets. It is best to start with the most recent edition, then work backwards, identifying the property and any changes of street names or buildings, or changes of administrative boundaries. If the house is built after 1860, it is possible to obtain a rough date of construction, which can be confirmed from other sources.

If they cover the area, earlier maps of London, such as Richard Horwood (1799-1819) and John Rocque (1746), or any local maps, are invaluable for older properties.

Directories

Working backwards through the Post Office Directories (Kelly’s) will give a chronology of the development of the street, and will indicate any street name or numbering changes.

After 1841 Kelly’s introduced an alphabetical list of streets, giving names of occupants and sometimes occupations, as well as the official and trades section. There may be local directories for the area too.

Parish rate books

Check which parish the house is located in, bearing in mind that this may have changed over time. Consulting the parish rate books, again working backwards, is a useful way of finding a possible construction date, the names of ratepayers, and also the size of the property compared to others, often useful to identify the house where there is no numbering. Rate books are often the only sources to identify occupants for older properties before 1840. However there is no information about people other than the ratepayer.

Photographs, prints and newspaper cuttings

Old photographs, prints and book illustrations will give immediate visual information about the street or area. Newspaper cuttings are often useful too.

This first stage will establish a rough date of construction, development of the area and the names of some occupants.

Stage two: history and ownership

Published histories

Local archives have a wide selection of published histories, which will often provide information on landownership, as well as development, social character and history of the area, possibly with a description of some individual buildings. If the property is in a conservation area, this will very likely be comprehensively covered.

Manor or estate records

The property may have been part of a manor or estate and these records can be searched for on the National Register of Archives. Both the London Metropolitan Archives and National Archives have collections of family and estate papers, including deeds. Some may have been deposited at the local archives.

Middlesex Deeds Registry 1709-1899

The Middlesex Deeds Registry, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, includes all of pre-1965 London north of the river, excluding the City of London. All sales, leases of more than 21 years, mortgages and wills affecting land had to be registered. After 1899 compulsory registration in the national Land Registry was introduced to the new county of London north of the Thames, so the MDR ceased to be comprehensive. There is an alphabetical list of vendors at the start of each year, so the name of the owner or leaseholder is essential. The deeds or leases will yield much information about the house, not just the parties involved in the transaction.

Fire insurance policies

Fire insurance companies began to be established from about 1680 as a result of the great fire. London Metropolitan Archives hold many volumes of policy registers. The information that can be gained from these includes the date, name and often address of the policy holder, and any tenants. The building material is often described, whether any work is done from the house, and fire hazards (such as stoves in outbuildings), including any potential fire hazards from the neighbours. The policy holder may be the head leaseholder, not the owner, and on the earliest policy could be the builder, giving an idea of the date of construction. 18th century builders were usually members of the City of London’s Tylers’ & Bricklayers’ Company, records of which can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Taxes

Land Tax was introduced in the 1690s and listed the names of owners or proprietors of land in each parish. After about 1780 the names of owners and occupiers are both given. Of less use are the Window and Hearth Taxes introduced in the late 17th century. 1798 Land Tax Redemption is another good source.

1910 Valuation Office Survey

The records of this survey are held at the National Archives (IR58 series) and give a detailed snapshot of all property between 1910 and 1915. Each property was given a hereditament number, which can be found on the relevant plan map. The field book entry usually includes the names of the owner and occupier, whether freehold or leasehold, details of tenancy or rent, and recent sales. It can also have a site plan and a description of the rooms, fixtures and fittings and state of repair. Certain inner London plans are missing, which means a trawl through several field books (essential to have the name of the civil parish).

The second stage will provide information on ownership, occupancy and details about the house.

Stage three: occupancy

Electoral registers and poll books

It is first necessary to establish the electoral constituency, ward and polling district. Working backwards through electoral registers will provide names and dates of occupancy; however not every adult in the house was historically always able to vote, and the rest of the household is not included. From 1928 women over 21 were given the vote. There are limited registers during the world wars, when voting was suspended at various times.

Census returns

The census returns 1841-1911 give a great deal of information, increasing each decade, about anyone staying in the house, but are every ten years and give only a snapshot of a particular night (no mention is made of absent occupants). After 1851 the census will record each person’s relationship to the head of the household, marital status, age, gender, occupation, place of birth and disability, as well as the property address and enumeration district, and civil and ecclesiastical parish. Census returns are available from local archives, or online, with the exception of the 1911 census which is only online.

Other sources

The parish baptism marriage and burial books, Ancestry.co.uk, the British Newspaper Archives, and directories such as The Medical Register, are useful to add detail.

The third stage will provide a list of occupants with information about individual people.

Stage four: local government records

For Victorian housing, drainage records held at local archives are a good source of information, often with detailed architectural plans. Council minutes include planning and construction of building developments, particularly Council housing. For a more detailed account of a property’s recent history, the local planning department has a publically accessible register of applications.

The final stage will provide more detail about historic and recent planning.

Summary

For researching house or estate development in London, the sources outlined above should prove invaluable.

When investigating a house of any period, it is important to corroborate facts with other evidence, and to work backwards from the known to the unknown. It is vital to be aware of changes to street names and house numbers; otherwise it is possible to research the wrong house entirely.


Archives:
www.cityoflondon.gov.uk London Metropolitan Archives (London records)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk The National Archives (England, Wales and UK records)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/
(Catalogue describing archives held locally in England & Wales)