Researching the history of houses

A Dartmoor Cottage by Samuel Prout (Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery) The British Isles boasts a great range of periods and styles of domestic architecture, starting with the handful of Norman houses still standing. Up to the 17th century the general run of houses used local materials, skills and traditions. While the houses of the nobility and gentry might be influenced by fashions from abroad or Court circles, the average person lived in a house characteristic of his region - what is known as vernacular architecture. From the 18th century local builders began to make greater use of pattern books - published designs which they could copy - bringing the same fashions to different regions. (Online examples are listed under Georgian.)

While rural houses tend to be detached, urban houses, packed into more limited space, began to push up against each other in the Middle Ages. Since they could not expand any further width ways, they piled storey upon storey. The possibilities for nuisance from neighbours and the risk of fire spreading led to early building regulation in cities. Gradually regulation came to dictate the materials that could be used and even elements of style.

Georgian developers made a virtue of necessity by building terraced houses to a uniform plan in towns. Rows of town houses could be grouped into impressive squares and crescents. Meanwhile country landlords might build a village row, and some started a fashion for the semi-detached plan, by building simple cottages in pairs. The concept was elevated to the middle classes around the late Georgian period in occasional pairs of suburban villas.

As the Victorian suburban belt spread out around the Georgian developments, terraced housing continued for the poorer end of the market, but detached houses for the affluent, and semi-detached for the middle ranks. In the 1920s and 1930s the semi-detached became the favourite plan among speculative builders, but also those built by local councils for rental under the 1919 and later Housing Acts.

See also country houses, farms, granges, parsonages and bishops' palaces.

For listed buildings see Gazetteers.

Studies and bibliographies

Research guides

Researching the history of your own house is so popular that good guides are plentiful:


Freehold property

Leasehold or copyhold property

The past owner is likely to be a large landowner, whose estate records should include maps, rentals, surveys, leases and accounts. Copyhold property was held by a copy of an entry on the manor court roll. The copies and/or the original rolls may survive. The National Archives hold numerous rentals, surveys and manorial court rolls, especially of Crown and ex-monastic property (see PRO Lists and Indexes vol. 25) For the estate records of private owners see family archives. Diocesan records cover the estates of bishops. The Bodleian Library holds the estate records of the Oxford colleges.

And see property taxation and valuation records.


The sources below help to build up a picture of who actually lived in a house, what they did for a living and their standard of living. They can fill gaps in knowledge where deeds of sale or lease are missing.


See also maps and images.