Within these walls: researching the history of a house

Monochrome photographic print, unidentified Brighton street, 1890s. HA907273.3
Monochrome photographic print, unidentified Brighton street, 1890s. HA907273.3

All houses have stories to tell, about the people who lived in them and the age in which they were built. The development of Brighton, from a small fishing community to a fashionable 19th century resort, and now a cosmopolitan city, is in many ways reflected in its housing. The elegant Regency crescents, Victorian terraces and post-war ‘homes for heroes’ were all created to meet the needs of a growing population at a particular moment in time, and exploring their history provides a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Social change is just one aspect of house history, however. Perhaps more intriguing is information that relates specifically to your own home. Have you ever wondered when was it built, and by whom? What sort of person was it built for originally? What might their life have been like? Who was its first owner? With the resources available at Brighton History Centre and elsewhere, it is often possible to piece together a surprisingly detailed picture of an individual property, and the people who called it home.

Deeds and directories

If you own your house or flat, start by looking at your title deeds. If you are extremely lucky, these records will stretch back to the original buyer, providing you not only with a wonderful piece of history, but also a vital source of information relating to the ownership of your home. However, changes in the law mean these historic documents are not necessarily passed from one owner to the next and, while some old deeds have been deposited at County Record Offices, others will be in private hands or may simply have been destroyed.

The good news is that there are many other records that can be used to identify previous occupants of your home. Street directories for Brighton (and Hove), which can be consulted for the years 1799 to 1974, are a good starting point. These list the householder, though not necessarily the owner, of each property in a given street, along with a wealth of local information and advertising that vividly captures the spirit of the time. The 1900 edition of Towners Brighton Directory, for example, includes adverts for the Bedford Hotel, with its ‘commodious passenger lift’ and ‘electric light in all rooms’, and the New Ship Livery Stables, which offered care for ‘saddle horses, hunters and chargers’ right in the centre of town.

Search the census

Photographic print of Edwin Place, HA903202
Photographic print of Edwin Place, HA903202

Electoral rolls, which date from the 1850s to the present day, will also help establish who was living in your house at a particular time, but perhaps more interesting for those in older properties is the information that can be gleaned from census returns. A census is taken every ten years and, for now, material from the years 1841 to 1901 is accessible to the public. A typical census entry will include the name, age and occupation (an excellent indicator of social status) of everyone living at a given address, including children, members of staff (common among wealthy families in the 19th century), and any visitors who happened to be staying on census night. If you live in a Victorian house, you should therefore find a reference to it in the census records. And if you’re not sure when the houses in your street were built, consult the Encyclopaedia of Brighton, which traces the development of the city, more or less street by street, from the 1660s to the 1980s. Similar information can be found on the living history website.House history is not just about gathering facts; it’s also about interpreting information and reading between the lines. You may find that the social profile of your street has altered dramatically since the houses were first built – the bijou terraces in the North Laine, for example, may be highly sought-after now but they were originally built for the working classes.

Local life stories

Monochrome photographic print showing Lewes Crescent, Brighton, 1980s. BH400152
Monochrome photographic print showing Lewes Crescent, Brighton, 1980s. BH400152

Much has been written about the history of Brighton but for house detectives, books dealing with specific areas, either from a personal or historical perspective, are most valuable. Local life stories portray the experiences of ordinary people, often with great humour and poignancy. In ‘Oh What A Lovely Shore’, published by QueenSpark Books, Leonard Goldman recalls moving to 5 Powis Square, a listed building in Clifton Hill, in the early 1920s. Just five years old at the time, Goldman recalled that ‘it must have been comparatively expensive, probably about a thousand pounds’ but went on to say ‘Even in a house like this, there was no running hot water … mother used to wash our hair in a zinc bath in the scullery.’Further insights can be found in more objective, academic works. In The Growth of Brighton and Hove, 1840–1939, historian Sue Farrant describes the residential development that took place in Brighton between 1870 and 1914 on land belonging to the Stanford family of Preston Manor. Unlike fashionable Hove, Farrant observes that ‘the Preston area was laid out as a middle-class town suburb, with villas and semi-detached houses on the main thoroughfares, and more modest, normally terraced housing in the side roads.’ Newly built properties were often advertised in local papers, another valuable research tool for house historians.Brighton has a rich architectural heritage, its buildings ranging in style from Regency townhouses to 1930s suburban developments. Visual material, such as old maps and photographs, brings individual buildings and streets to life, while original building control plans, many of which still exist and can be viewed, by appointment, at East Sussex Record Office, provide a tangible reminder that even the oldest houses were once new. It’s good to know that, in a world of constant change, our homes have endured and, with luck, will continue to do so. Just think; one day, our lives will become part of their history.

Leave a Reply