I’m always singing the praises of archives and the many delights they contain, but when you’re setting out to discover the history of your house one of the best places to start is next door. Neighbours and other local people can be a great source of information about previous occupiers of your house. Not only might you get names and dates of who used to live there, but also perhaps their occupations and anecdotes, memories and stories that are difficult to get from other sources. People who have lived in a town or village all their lives can provide material that you won’t find in the archives and, while you may have to take some stories with a pinch of salt, others can give you good starting points for researching further detail in documentary records such as local magazines and newspapers.
As far as personal records are concerned, archives can also come up trumps with diaries or letters that might concern former owners or occupiers. The owner of a Shropshire farmhouse with interests in one of its lead mines wrote copious letters, including some to his son, which were ultimately deposited with the business records and included some unusual content. One letter to his wine merchant declared he would die of a broken heart if he didn’t receive a quart of his best rum by return. As this gentleman began sliding into debt there came requests to various people to buy some of his farm stock and crops as he needed the money badly to avoid bankruptcy within a few days.
Litigation records such as witness depositions can yield stories about particular incidents into individuals and families. One lawsuit over a legacy of £50 gave insightful details of the behaviour of various family members by ‘friends’, neighbours and other relations that made uncomfortable reading. Wills too occasionally stray from the formulaic into the depths of family troubles or delights. I have seen tributes to caring daughters and a diatribe against a recalcitrant son who was the despair of his father and likely to send him to an early grave – which was presumably why he was writing his will.
And if you’re lucky enough to find any old photographs or postcards featuring local people, your neighbours may be able to identify them. So next time you’re talking over the garden fence or meet someone down at the local shops ask them if they know who used to live in your house. You may be surprised at what they can tell you.