Researching the History of Your House

Guidance Notes

by Sue Flood



These notes are intended as a guide to the basic sources available for researching the history of a house.  Although based primarily on sources held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) at County Hall in Hertford, many items such as printed books, newspapers, directories and Ordnance Survey maps can be found in most Hertfordshire Libraries too.

Tracing the history of a house can be a difficult task, and sometimes changes in ownership, boundaries and names mean that the thread of history can be lost.  It is not always possible to discover the name of the architect, if any, or exactly when the house was built.  The best evidence for this is the architecture itself (see section 2 below).  Written documents, generally speaking, cover either the legal history of the site or the affairs of the families who may have owned or lived in the house.

If you have access to any title deeds, or other documents such as planning applications relating to the property, study them first for any clues as to dates of development or ownership.

1          MAPS

These can provide information on the situation and shape of the building and may provide a clue to its date of erection.  They can either be printed, such as ordnance survey maps, or highly coloured, manuscript items.

a) Ordnance Survey:

            1-inch scale     1805 onwards

            6-inch scale     various editions 1879-1937 and 1960

            25-inch scale   various editions 1879-1939

 Ashwell Museum has various O.S. maps, including copies of the 1877 edition 25-inch scale maps for Ashwell and the surrounding area.  Individual buildings can be clearly identified.

            Town Plans 10 feet to 1 mile:

                      Berkhamsted:           1877

                      Bishops Stortford:     1877-1879

                      Hemel Hempstead:    1878 (part only)

                      Hitchin:      surveyed 1851, published June 1852

                      St Albans:                1879-1880

                      Tring:                      1878-1879

                      Ware:                      1851 and 1880

                      Watford:                  1871-1873

b) Enclosure and Tithe Maps:

            These are available for most individual parishes in Hertfordshire and yield valuable information concerning size of site and the names of owners and occupiers at the time of the survey.  A list of those for Hertfordshire can be found at:

Ashwell Museum has copies of the 1841 tithe map for Ashwell.

  c) Other printed and Manuscript Maps:

            These are usually of an earlier date than a) and b) and can show a variety of details.  See:

d) Printed maps covering the whole county which may be helpful:

            Bryant, 1820

            Dury and Andrews, 1766 (also includes town plans of Hertford and St Albans)

[Both of these have been printed and are available to purchase through HALS]


a) The lists of buildings of architectural and historic interest published by the Department of the Environment give basic descriptions of the style and features of ‘listed’ buildings. 

The following also contain information concerning individual buildings:

Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England: Report 1910

English Houses, 1200-1800, the Hertfordshire Evidence : J T Smith (1992)

Selective Inventory : J T Smith (1993)

The Gordon Moodey papers (HALS Ref D/EGm) contain survey reports and drawings of many historic buildings throughout the county.

b) Photographs, prints, drawings and illustrations.  HALS holds a large collection of these items dating from as early as 1700.

3          OWNERSHIP

a) Directories, 1791 onwards:

            These may help in identifying occupiers, although not all properties are listed as a payment had to be made if you wished to be included. 

b) Census Returns, 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911:

            These give names and details of occupiers and their families street by street.  All can now be accessed on line.

c) Electoral Registers, 1832 to date (published annually):

            These may prove useful, but remember that they list only those persons with the right to vote.  After 1918 they are much more comprehensive and are arranged in street order, so making them very easy to search.

d) Names Index:

            Once you have found a name in connection with your property ask the archivist or librarian for any other indexes that may be available.  These may provide references to title deeds or other documents relating to owners or occupiers.  See:

e) Wills and Inventories:

            These may give details of property and its disposal.  They may also reveal from whom the land was purchased, or else that the property was copyhold.  Inventories of the deceased person’s goods, where these survive, often list items room by room thus revealing the layout of individual houses.  An index of the original will and inventories from 1415 to 1858, held by HALS, has been published].

f) Title Deeds:

            If the property was at any time part of a large estate, title deeds or other types of estate records may refer to your house.  References to these can be found by searching:

g) Manorial Records (dating from the 13th century):

            Where property was held by copyhold, changes in ownership will be recorded in manorial court books or rolls.  However do bear in mind that for the majority of the period before 1737, these documents are written in Latin.  References to all Hertfordshire manorial documents can be found at:


h) Land Tax Assessments, 1711-1832:

            These give names of owners and occupiers and the amount of tax payable. Descriptions of property are often very brief, but where identification is possible they can help a great deal in tracing changes in ownership of individual properties. 

            [These are available on microfilm at HALS]

i) Rate Books:

            Rates for various purposes have been collected in this country on a compulsory basis since 1601 (Act of Parliament 43 Eliz c2).  They are based on an assessment of the yearly value of property.  Rate books, therefore, contain lists of householders and/or owners with an assessment of their properties and the amount to be collected from them.  Houses are usually listed street by street.  The vast majority of these are now held at HALS under references such as DP, CP, UDC and RDC.

j) Public Houses:

            Victuallers’ Recognizances held at HALS for the period 1786-1828 list the names of landlords, and later records of the licensing magistrates also show changes in ownership of public houses [HALS Ref: PS].  The records of breweries can also contain many references to the public houses they owned.  See: 

See also Hertfordshire Inns (2vols) by W Branch Johnson and Hertfordshire Inns and Public Houses: an historical gazetteer by Graham Jolliffe and Arthur Jones (2nd edition 1995).

k) 1910 Inland Revenue Survey:

            This is held at HALS for most of the county (Barnet and Totteridge excepted) and the registers contain details of the ownership and occupation of both land and buildings [HALS Ref: IR].

4          OTHER SOURCES

a) Sale catalogues:

            These contain descriptions of properties to be sold and some may include plans or illustrations.  See:

b) Newspapers:

            HALS holds the majority of local titles covering the whole county including:

    Hertford Mercury , 1772, 1826-1830, 1832, 1844 to date

    Herts Advertiser and St Albans Times , 1858 to date

    Herts and Essex Observer (Bishops Stortford), 1863 to date

    Royston Crow , 1855 to date

    Stevenage Gazette , 1959-1998

    West Herts & Watford Observer, 1863 to date

    Welwyn & Hatfield Times, 1922 to date

c) Printed Books and Articles:

County Histories: Chauncy, Clutterbuck, Cussans,  Victoria County History

Sources for the History of Houses: J Harvey

A Guide to the Sources of English Architectural History:                                                                            H M Colvin

Documenting the History of Houses: N W Alcock

Tracing the History of Your House - a guide to sources: Nick Barratt

House Histories for Beginners: Colin and O-lan Style

Discovering Timber-Framed Buildings: R Harris

The Buildings of England - Hertfordshire: N Pevsner

How Old is Your House: P Cunnington

Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain: R W Brunskill

Tracing the History of Your House: B Graysmith

Be your own house detective: David Austin et al

Sources for the study of public housing: A Cox

Historic Farm Buildings: S W Martins

Transactions and Newsletters of the St Albans and East Herts Archaeological Societies, 1884 to date

Hertfordshire Past and Present, 1960-1974

Hertfordshire’s Past, 1976 to date

All of these books and many more are available at HALS and at libraries throughout the county.

For more information contact:  

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies,

County Hall,

Pegs Lane,



SG13 8EJ

Telephone:   0300 1234 049            Fax:   01992 555113


Web site:


An appointment is not essential but if you intend to visit HALS to look at large maps it is advisable to telephone in advance. 

HALS: revised Sep 2010








This page was added on 07/01/2011.

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