Does your house have any heirlooms – items that ‘belong’ to the house or have strong associations with the building? Family heirlooms used to be property that descended to the heir of an estate, although nowadays it would probably be treasured objects passed down to whichever member of the family seems least likely to throw them away. But buildings often have their own stash of goodies that are passed, sometimes unknowingly, from one occupier to the next.
The most obvious building heirlooms are deeds. They can tell you more about the history of your house than any other source, revealing not only the names of former owners and occupiers, but also how the property descended, what it was called, its land, and tales of gifts, mortgages, debts and many other stories.
Other building heirlooms may be physically attached to the property. Take wallpaper for instance. Removing an old cupboard may reveal traces of old wallpaper, perhaps painted over, which when peeled away carefully can take you back through decades of decorating fashion applied to the very walls of your house.
Newspapers are sometimes found stuffed into cracks or under floorboards and not only provide entertaining reading but also indicate when works were being carried out in that part of the building. A Midlands Evening News from October 1900 inside a lathe and plaster wall panel gave us an approximate date that the room had been replastered – and possibly last decorated – as well as entertaining us with a story of a Wolverhampton glass dealer recovering damages from a cattle drover whose bull had pushed its head into her shop window while being driven to market.
Other artefacts might include shoes found in chimneys or between floors, and unknown tools and gadgets whose purpose has long been forgotten. Outside, it is not at all unusual to discover old bottles in sheds and outbuildings as well as in the soil itself. Outdoor structures may have been former privies or pig sties, and specimen trees may have been planted to commemorate a particular person or event in history.
One of our building heirlooms is a fragile old photograph of a distinguished-looking gentleman found in a cupboard. What will you leave in your house?