How to trace the history of your house

Whatever the age of a house, whether a 16th century farmhouse or cottage, an 18th century mansion, a Victorian villa or a 1930s estate house, there may be sources in the Surrey History Centre to help trace its history. Tracing the history of your house takes time and patience but can be a very rewarding and absorbing hobby.

You will probably want to find out both the date of the building of the house and of later rebuildings or alterations, and the names of the owners and occupiers and how they lived. The nature and range of material available for this may vary from place to place and century to century. Sources for a 16th century timber-framed house, where architectural evidence may provide the only clue to its dating, will differ widely from those for an early 20th century terrace house for which a building bye-law plan may provide a date and name the architect.

The aim of this research guide is to help with the planning of your research in advance but not to describe individual classes of documents in detail. Our staff will be able to provide more advice and suggest specialist reference works. If your house is a conversion of a building once used for other purposes, eg, a school or public house, contact Surrey History Centre for advice about relevant records.

Where do I start?

It's a good idea to start with what you know for certain and work back gradually step by step. The large scale manuscript tithe maps and accompanying apportionments are particularly useful as a starting point.

Read any printed histories of the area in your local library, including the Penguin Buildings of England series.

Discover more about the sources below by background reading, and look at the topographical indexes in Surrey History Centre.

Establish whether you, your solicitor or mortgage company hold the title deeds of the house. The modern deeds and abstracts will give a short description of the house, its position, the dimensions of the plot and names of the recent previous owners. Registration of title has been compulsory in Surrey since 1952. Pre-registration deeds, now not needed to prove title, have consequently often been lost, but provide valuable information if they have survived. If they are not with the modern deeds they may have been deposited in the Surrey History Centre, or they may remain with the solicitor who acted for the vendor when you purchased. Under the Land Registration Act, c.3, 1988, the land register is now available for public inspection. Telephone 020 7917 8888 for more details and ask for their leaflet "The Open Register: a guide to information held by the Land Registry and how to obtain it."

The site

Start with the large scale Ordnance Survey maps at 25 inches and 6 inches to the mile. The earliest date from the 1860s and 1870s. Surrey History Centre has a good selection for the County to the 1970s.

Larger town plans on a scale of 60 inches to the mile were also published for some urban areas in the 1860s and 1870s.

Surrey History Centre holds some other printed maps of the County on a smaller scale, eg Rocque, c1762, Bryant, 1823 and Greenwood, 1823. These indicate the existence of individual large properties but small houses may not be shown, and the accuracy of pre-Ordnance Survey maps cannot always be guaranteed.

Of the manuscript maps available in the History Centre, the large scale mid-19th century tithe maps and their accompanying apportionments, generally some 20 or 30 years earlier than the Ordnance Survey, are particularly useful. These indicate by way of plot numbers, ownership, occupation and land use, often giving field names, and this information can provide a lead into other sources.

The following plans will also be useful if they exist for your area: 19th, and occasionally 18th, century inclosure maps and awards, providing details of the inclosure and allotment of common land; parliamentary deposited plans, mainly 19th and 20th century plans of public undertakings such as railways, but often giving details of land ownership and occupation in the immediate vicinity; private estate plans, sometimes attached to title deeds; plans of housing developments eg by private developers, local authorities, or bodies like National Freehold Land Society (which bought land in Surrey for its members); and plans attached to sale particulars.

Title deeds will often provide, in narrative form, a description of the site of the house and the adjoining land, often by means of field names. It may be possible to relate these to maps, particularly the tithe map if names remain constant.

Manorial Records are a useful source of information if your house was originally held of a manor. These consist mainly of rolls or books, some dating back to the 16th century, occasionally earlier, which record the transfer and conveyance of property at the manorial court. Rentals and surveys may also have survived. See the Manorial Documents Register to find the locations of manorial records relating to Surrey.

The building

If the house is of special architectural or historical interest it may have been 'listed' by the Department of the Environment. Lists are published for each local authority area and contain short historical and architectural descriptions. These lists should be available in local libraries and many are held by Surrey History Centre. Surrey County Council's Environment Department (Conservation and Archaeology Section), and the District and Borough Councils hold complete sets and are often able to advise owners of listed buildings.

Examine architectural evidence to obtain rough idea of the period and style of the house. The Domestic Buildings Research Group of Surrey, which specialises in recording timber-framed buildings, may be able to give advice.

Look also for photographs of the house, or if it is an old one, sketches or prints. The Surrey History Centre has a collection of prints, photographs and watercolours including microfilm copies of early 19th century watercolours by John and Edward Hassell held in various repositories including the British Library (these have been indexed in Surrey Archaeological Society Collections vol 75, 1984). There are also photographic and print collections in Lambeth Archives Department .

Estate Agents' records, including journals of auctions, records of estate management, valuations and sale particulars can be useful.

All the large scale maps already described will be useful for determining the shape of the house, occurrence of alterations and additions, and the existence and position of outbuildings.

If the house is an important one, building accounts and architects' plans may have survived, but this is rare for the small home, particularly if it is more than 100 years old. For the more important house it is always worth investigating sources in the .

From the late 19th century various laws required house builders to submit to the local authority site plans for drainage, and more detailed plans and elevations of proposed buildings; these building regulation plans, and from 1948, planning applications, are found amongst local authority records. However please note that there may be some restrictions on their use. Changes in the use of a building or its conversion to flats may be traced in post 1925 valuation lists and amendment sheets, also amongst local authority records.

Remember that names or numbers of houses are not always given in the records and if they are, they may change. Registers recording these alterations (mainly 20th century) may occasionally be found with the records of the local authority.


Schedules of fixture and fittings, many giving the layout of a house, are often contained in lease agreements, but more detailed lists of house contents may exist in the form of inventories made for probate or leasing purposes. They provide a useful guide Surrey History Centre has some probate and other inventories amongst deposited family papers, but records of the probate courts for the County are held elsewhere. Relatively few inventories survive. A union index has been published by the Surrey Domestic Buildings Research Group.

Building regulation plans also show the interior layout of a house. Sales particulars occasionally contain photographs of interiors of houses.

Owners and tenants

From a series of title deeds you should discover successive owners. They may also name tenants, former owners and occupiers, and sometimes adjoining neighbours as well, which is useful when trying to identify property in early rate books.

Electoral registers will list occupants. Before 1928 not everyone was qualified to vote so earlier lists (starting in 1832) should be used with care, remembering also that house names and numbers are not always noted. Pre-1974 electoral registers may be seen in the Surrey History Centre, as can most post-1974 registers. Boundary changes often lead to confusion as to the present whereabouts of electoral registers. Always telephone to check whether we hold the relevant register.

There are collections of 19th and 20th century printed county and town directories in the Surrey History Centre, the Guildhall Library in London, and Kingston Museum Local History Room and Archives (for the area of the present Borough).

The so-called 'Domesday Books', records compiled in the course of valuations made under the 1910 Finance Act, are deposited in local record offices and are useful for discovering names of owners and occupiers, as well as the situation and extent of individual properties. Related documents are in the National Archives.

For the 19th century and earlier it is often useful to start with the names listed in the tithe apportionment and then to move backwards to the land tax returns, 1780 to 1832, and rate books such as the Poor Rate and Highway Rate. It is not always easy to identify property just from rate books as descriptions are often imprecise. It becomes easier if the names in the tithe apportionment and the last available rate book are the same. It is then possible to move backwards by rental value (and position in the book reflecting the collector's route!). A change in rental value may reflect alterations or additions to the house.

Also, investigate other taxation records held locally, e.g. for lighting and watching, and those amongst Central Government records in the Public Record Office e.g. The Hearth Tax (edited by the Surrey Record Society, vol. xvii, 1940).

The census returns for the present administrative County may be seen on microfilm in the Surrey History Centre. These list in varying detail, families, their origins, ages and servants, and are available at ten year intervals from 1841. (Census returns less than 100 years old are closed for public inspection).

Oral history

Documentary research can be supplemented by discovering more about an individual area or house from residents with a long standing connection with the neighbourhood. Some local history societies are recording the memories of older residents on tape.

Background reading

  • Aslet, Clive. The arts and crafts country house: from the archives of Country Life. Aurum Press Ltd, 2011
  • Backe-Hansen, Melanie. House histories: the secrets behind your front door. The History Press Ltd. 2011
  • Barratt, Nick. Tracing the history of your house. National Archives, 2006.
  • Blanchard, Gill. Tracing your house history: a guide for family historians. Pen and Sword Family History, 2013.
  • Breckon, Bill. Tracing the history of houses. Countryside, 2000.
  • Cornwall, J. How to read old title deeds. Birmingham University, 1964.
  • Dibben, A.A. Title deeds . Historical Association, 1968.
  • Greysmith, Brenda. Tracing the history of your house. Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.
  • Harvey, J.H. Sources for the history of houses. Archives and the user no 3. British Records Association, 1974.
  • Holman, J. Index of Surrey Probate Inventories 16th to 19th centuries. Domestic Buildings Research Group (Surrey), 1986.
  • Pevsner, N and Nairn, I. Surrey. Penguin Buildings of England Series. Second edition, Penguin, 1971.
  • Stephens, W.B. Sources for English local history. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Style, Colin, House histories for beginners. Phillimore, 2006.
  • Tindall, Gillian. Three houses, many lives. Vintage, 2012.
  • Publications of the Surrey Record Society, the East and West Surrey Family History Societies, the Surrey Archaeological Society and other local history societies in the county.

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