David Olusoga on house histories: "Our homes are often the sites of great dramas and tragedies"
The first series of BBC Two's A House Through Time turned an unheralded Liverpool townhouse into a media sensation. Now, fresh from filming a second series, David Olusoga reveals why Britons are finding the history of their homes so captivating. Accompanies the four-part BBC Two series A House Through Time
What are the first things we do when we move into a new house? We immediately set about stamping on to it our tastes and our identity. We redecorate, organise the furniture and methodically arrange our books – the carefully collected volumes that we hope say something about us and our lives. This, and the frenzy of cleaning and scrubbing that precedes it, is about much more than personal taste and domestic hygiene. It is also an attempt to exorcise from our new private space the lingering presence of its past residents. In order to make the empty frame of an old house into a new home, we attempt to disguise an unavoidable truth: that until recently it was the home of other people, and before them yet more people, a line of strangers stretching back decades and sometimes centuries.
Our homes – the most private and intimate spaces in our lives, and the most expensive material objects we ever purchase – are, in some ways, things we can never truly own. Because, whatever it might say on the deeds, there’s no escaping the reality that we are merely the latest characters to appear on stage for an inevitably short cameo. People live for decades. Houses last for centuries. We are just passing through, and no matter how many layers of paint we slap on, or how many changes and alterations we make, we can never quite succeed in wiping away the traces of the lives that have been lived before us.
Some people find it unsettling to think too deeply about this, but there are others who have no desire to exorcise their home of its former owners and tenants and instead seek to commune with them. The television series A House Through Time, which I present on BBC Two, has tapped into that phenomenon, and perhaps played a small part in accelerating it. What the series demonstrates is that, for some homes, it is possible to excavate from the archives a full genealogy, a list stretching back in time of everyone who has ever lived there. The team behind the series uses deeds, land registry documents, wills, tax records, maps (lots of maps), business directories, the national census, local and national newspapers, birth and death certificates to build what is in effect the family tree of a single house. Fans of the series are fascinated by that process of historical detective work, and moved by the human stories that tumble out of the documents.
So many people were captivated by the stories of the former residents of 62 Falkner Street – the beautiful townhouse in Liverpool's Georgian quarter, featured in the first series of A House Through Time – that it has become an unofficial addition to Liverpool's list of tourist attractions. An endless stream of selfies taken by people who watched the series appeared on social media within days of transmission. Some people apparently took day trips to Liverpool specifically to see the house.
The history of one’s home is becoming a new form of popular genealogy. People who have already traced their families back through the generations and the centuries are now turning their attention to their homes. They want to commune with the ghosts of past owners and residents, to discover their names and something about their lives.
What those looking for the histories of their homes quickly discover is that, while the architectural history of our homes is fascinating, it is the flesh and blood stories of the former residents that really matters. The house, and its physical fabric, is the tangible link we have to them, but our true connection is a human one. What did our home mean to them? What role did it play in their lives? Were they happy within its four walls, or did misfortune overtake them? What scenes played out in the rooms we now call our own?
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Every house not only has a chain of former residents; it is also, inevitably, the site of a string of dramas and tragedies. We don’t have to go far back into our national past to find ourselves in an age where births, and also deaths, took place at home rather than in hospitals. That’s a fact that leads many house historians to chilling discoveries.
And our homes need not be centuries old for them to be the repositories of such dramas. We only have to go back 75 years – still within living memory – to meet people for whom homes were not just personal spaces but the refuges where they sheltered from German bombs. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed in the Blitz. Many houses carry the scars of bomb damage today. Those shrapnel marks and patches of repaired brickwork, combined with the documents in the archives, can transport us back to the nights when former residents cowered inside steel Morrison shelters in what are now our living rooms, or huddled together in Anderson shelters dug into our gardens.
Many homes were not just personal spaces but the refuges where people cowered from the Blitz
That most tantalising of questions – “Who lived in my house during the war?” – can be one of the easiest to answer, as in 1939 the government carried out a national register of every home in England and Wales. It was used to organise the issuing of identity cards and ration books, but eight decades later this special, one-off census provides us with a snapshot of Britain at the start of the conflict. As such, it carries the names of most of the 43,000 people who were to be killed in the Blitz, and lists most of the addresses that would not appear on the first postwar census. The comparatively easy, online exercise of looking up who was living in our homes in 1939 can be the gateway to deeper research.
Townhouse to flophouse
In the same way that the history of a house is much more than the architectural history of the building itself, the story of any single dwelling is something that spills out into the surrounding streets. The history of any individual address is intimately wrapped up in the history of the neighbourhood where it stands – then, as now, it is 'location, location, location' that counts. Both 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool, the house in the first series of A House Through Time, and 5 Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle, the subject of the second series, are homes whose place on the ladder of respectability and desirability has changed over time. The latter was built in the 1820s for Newcastle's booming merchant classes, who were keen to escape the noise and pollution of the overcrowded quayside area. Yet by the early 20th century, it was a lodging house in an area that had fallen out of fashion and into neglect, outdone in the desirability stakes by the emergence of newer and swankier Victorian suburbs situated ever further away from Newcastle's heavy industries.
A new Victorian railway line could condemn to decay any streets on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’
It is these rises and falls, these shifts in the fortunes of neighbourhoods and whole cities, that make the histories of individual houses so fascinating. The economic cycle, combined with the coming of the railways and the expansion of city boundaries, condemned once fashionable districts to precipitous declines. They became urban twilight zones, and houses designed for wealthy families were subdivided into lodging houses or tenements. The pattern was so common that foreign visitors to Victorian and Edwardian Britain noted with surprise that the poor lived, packed sardine-like, in elegant homes originally designed for the rich. And it didn’t take much for a once desirable residence in a formerly fashionable area to become a flophouse. A new railway line cutting across a Victorian city, for example, could condemn the streets on one side of the line to decay and degeneration. Literally on the wrong side of the tracks, such areas spiralled ever downwards – and this was only one of the mechanisms by which houses built for the rich became the homes of the poor.
What this means is that even some of the country’s grander Georgian and Victorian townhouses have humbler chapters in their pasts. Without giving too much away, the history of 5 Ravensworth Terrace begins as you might imagine, with lawyers and doctors – men of means for whom the house is a symbol of social status and material wealth. A century later, the address had little cachet. For those who lived in its rooms – as it was, by then, a lodging house favoured by Tyneside’s Irish community – it was not a ‘des res’, but simply a place to pass through.
What the two series of A House Through Time demonstrate, I hope, is something many historians are well aware of: that looking at the past through a highly particular and often narrow aperture can open up, counterintuitively, into a broadened and enhanced picture of the past. The history of a single life, a single year, or, in this case, a single house, can be unexpectedly wide-ranging.
The new series follows the story wherever the lives of the residents take us – to art galleries and factories, abandoned docks, faded seaside retreats, cemeteries hundreds of miles away, and even to one of the battlefields of the American Civil War. The best historical biographies do exactly the same. As well as allowing us into the inner lives of their subjects, they also take us into the worlds they moved within and introduce us to the tensions and obsessions of the age. The makers of Who Do You Think You Are? have been pulling off the same trick for 15 years, following leads and exploring the surprising hinterlands they take us into.
Yet while I understand all of this in principle, I am still struck by the fact that so many people turned on their TVs and laptops last year to spend four hours with figures from the past who were neither famous nor exceptional. A House Through Time presented the viewer with a string of individual lives, a collection of strangers who had nothing to link them together other than their connection to a single house in a single British city.
Why did this journey into the past – something that on paper seems so pedestrian and (literally) domestic – prove so popular and so emotionally engaging? If pushed for an answer I’d say that, when it comes to the big things – life and death, birth, marriages, childhood, love and loss, hope and despair – the lives of others become universal. We recognise the parallels with our own lives and our own families. And when arranged into a family tree or the history of a single house, they remind us of our place in a longer story. And that we are just passing through.
How to research your home’s history
Sarah Williams, editor of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, offers advice to budding historical house detectives
The history of a house is as much about its past inhabitants as its bricks and mortar. As David mentions, if your house predates 1939, you should be able to find who was living in it at the outbreak of the Second World War because a register was taken to provide the nation with identity cards and ration books. Next, use census records to trace who was living in your home from 1911 and all the way back, in 10-year increments, to 1841.
The 1939 register and census records are available on subscription websites findmypast.co.uk and ancestry.co.uk and may be free to access at your local library. To fill in any gaps, you can use electoral rolls, phone books and even rate books and land tax records, all of which are gradually being added to these websites.
Historic maps are also increasingly going online. The National Library of Scotland has put online OS maps from across the UK (maps.nls.uk), while there are local projects such as Know Your Place (kypwest.org.uk) for the west of England. For old photographs, try historicengland.org.uk or visit your local record office and see if they can help; they may also have building plans. Always check an archive's website before you visit, as they often have guides to their resources and you may need to order some records in advance.
For more house genealogy advice, go to whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster. His books include Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016)
The four-part series A House Through Time, presented by David Olusoga, airs on BBC Two from 8 April
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster