Scouring a 200-year old book of estate accounts may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but to me it’s a treasure hunt that can ultimately deliver the holy grail of house history – finding out when a house was built. So discovering that a house was part of a large estate whose records are neatly tucked away in an accessible archive is likely to result in me spending a prolonged spell exploring stacks of account books that may not have been touched for years.
Tracing the tenants of an old house can sometimes be easier than finding its owners, particularly if the property was part of a large estate. Some estate records contain rentals, accounts, and surveys, as well as leases, records of building works, and the activities of the land agent who had to hold it all together, all of which are fantastic resources for the house historian. Tracing a tenant back through these records can reveal what rent they paid, what other services they had to provide such as keeping a dog, delivering two ounces of pepper, a cheese, or a strike of oats at harvest, and so on.
In the days before house names became popular, many properties were known simply by the name of the person who lived there. The rental payments were usually listed in the same order within a parish or township, and once the tenant has been found, it can be relatively easy to go back through the records, picking them out each year.
A typical rental entry might be ‘Joseph Corbett for Bennett’s Tenement’. Pursuing Joseph Corbett back through the records might identify his predecessor as ‘Richard Bennett for Bennett’s Tenement, late Drews’ and, ultimately, to ‘Henry Drews for a newly erected tenement’. Such a find would send you scurrying to the estate accounts looking for ‘monies paid to workmen’ in the hope of finding the bill for the actual bricks and mortar.
Even if the property was not named in the rental records, sometimes their predecessor is named, often for years after they have left the property or even died. So for example ‘Thomas Edwards, late Sarah Wright’ might be preceded by ‘Sarah, widow of John Wright’ and before that ‘John Wright’. And if John Wright, Sarah Wright, and Thomas Edwards all had to deliver a fat capon to the estate office each Christmas, that might just clinch the deal.