Basics of building history research

There are plenty of guidebooks to the architecture of Ireland and the UK. But are they accurate? Secondary sources like these interpret the evidence. Maybe they are right. Maybe they are wrong. Any good historian aims to go back to primary sources (documents, drawings, photographs) and make a fresh evaluation.

For a building historian that includes investigating the building at first hand. Take a camera and drawing equipment along to note down what you see. To help you there are published guides to recording and interpreting the fabric of buildings. Looking at similar buildings that are well-understood and intelligently displayed can help educate the eyes.

Starting points

The Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury c.1795 by Michael J. Rooker (Tate Gallery)A university library is good first port of call; it should hold useful reference books, including gazetteers and official inventories, and scholarly journals which will give leads to other sources. Online bibliographies should give information on what has been published in scholarly sources on a building or place. Listed building descriptions for England, Northern Ireland and Scotland can be read online. Any historic building open to the public is likely to have at least a brief history online; see Historic Buildings to Visit.

Visual aids

To dig deeper, search first for a series of local maps. That may give a rough date for the builing (between two maps), or show any alterations to the building's footprint and changes of name or house number. If you find that, say, Twelvetrees Grange was once called Blackbottom Farm, it helps the search for images and documents. Start with OS maps, which show in which parish the building lies, if you are unsure. Then you can search for any earlier maps of the parish, as well as parish history.

Collections of maps, plans, photographs and prints can be found in archives, museums, galleries and local studies sections of public libraries. Local record offices often housebuilding control plans and architectural plans for council buildings.Some image collections can now be searched online or can be located via an illustrations index: see finding aids for historic images.

Local sources in print

The local library shouldhave town, parish orcounty histories, which can be tracked down throughbibliographies of local history.These should tell you which local authority the building came under. This is crucial preparation for the search for records. For example a building now within a city may have come under a parish authority at the time of building and so appear in rate books or on the tithe map for that parish. Some useful information on the place of building can be found online through A Vision of Britain, Scotland's Places or Ask About Ireland.

Landmarks such as castles, churches, public buildings, theatres and other places of entertainment and inns are likely to feature both in local histories and local guidebooks. The Gentleman's Magazine (1731-) carried a wealth of topographical information sent in by contributors; many of its issues have now been digitised and will appear in Google searches. The topographical content 1731-1868 was helpfully arranged by county in a series of volumes edited in the 1890s by G. L. Gomme as The Gentleman's Magazine Library, available on CD. Major Victorian buildings may feature in The Builder. The first ten volumes (1843-1852) can be read online. There is an online index to The Builder and The Building News.

Local directories could tell you who lived in a house, or ran an inn, or whether the parish church had a major Victorian restoration. The Universal Directory of Great Britain (1791) was the earliest national directory of England and Wales. City directories mainly start in the late 18th or 19th centuries, although there are earlier ones for London, and county directories mainly from the mid-19th century. An increasing number of directories can be read online. There is a collection for England and Wales at the Digital Library of Historical Directories. A number for Ireland are online at Failte Romhat and Library Ireland. The National Library of Scotland has digitised around 700 Scottish directories published between 1773 and 1911. Most of Scotland is covered, with a focus on Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. If the directory you need is not online, you may find it in the relevant local library. The Guildhall Library holds directories for the whole of the British Isles. The National Library of Ireland has extensive holdings of countrywide trade and social directories. There are severalpublications listing local directories.

Local newspapers often carried advertisements for property for sale or to let, but this wealth of material is inaccessible unless there is an index. See local libraries for details of some newspaper indexes and archives, particularly those online.

Reading manuscripts

Medieval deed To get the full story, you will need to delve into documents. Primary documents are often termed records and kept in a record office. Much that is relevant to building history, like deeds, surveys,taxation records, building accounts and probate inventories, must be read in manuscript. Given time, practice and frequent resort to handwriting guides and dictionaries, any intelligent person could eventually transcribe a medieval document. Even so they could find it difficult to understand. Anyone just starting in research would be well advised to cut their teeth on Georgian and later buildings.


Some useful records for earlier buildings have been published in calendar form. Material from the National Archives and its Irish sisters the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and National Archives of Ireland is calendared in a number of series. The Historical Manuscripts Commission and the Irish Manuscripts Commission have published series of calendars of private papers. National societies specialize in particular types of record, (for example the British Record Society focuses on wills and inquisitions post mortem), while local record societies concentrate on those of their county or city. Most of these series are listed in various useful volumes and more recently online. (See Texts and Calendars.) Other primary sources useful for building history have been published independently.

Historical and architectural context

The Uniting of the Kingdoms by the National Archives gives an entertaining overview of the history of these islands. The ebb and flow of power partly explains why you may find documents in England on a Irish, Welsh or Scottish building. We need an even wider perspective when looking at architectural influences, which have flowed into the British Isles from the Continent, and even further afield if we consider the origins of Christian symbols and the church plan. A general study of the type and/or period of the building you are researching will help fit it into the wider picture. Is it typical of its type or is it a rarity? What was the thinking behind it? See the style and building type sections of this site.

Writing up your findings

Share your discoveries! Whether you are researching for an academic essay, a professional report or just for fun, don't forget that others may be interested. A scholarly or professional document will save your research for posterity. Here's how to do it. Then spread the word through: