Local Studies

Search | Home page
Property and house history
Sources for property and house history can be found in the larger local studies libraries and record offices.

It is rare to be able to piece together a detailed history of smaller properties. A start should be made with the deeds and an examination of the architectural style. Take care to distinguish the name of the property from the existing fabric of the house. A house may have been rebuilt several times since the name of the property or estate was first recorded in medieval sources. It is also advisable to check the deeds of the property at the outset, if a detailed investigation is to be undertaken. Even if these do not go back very far in time, they may provide evidence of the break-up of a larger estate or point to earlier deeds or manorial or estate records which may survive in record offices. The division into types of houses which follows is used as a convenient way of introducing the various sources and the sections overlap to a considerable extent.

1. Larger named properties

The following sources should be checked:

(a) Library catalogues for published books and pamphlets (see Source guide S11, section 8).

(b) Bibliographies (see Source guide S11), especially the Devon Union List.

(c) Surveys of historic buildings. The Devon volume of Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England series, extensively revised and extended by Bridget Cherry (1989) is available in all main local collections. A compendium of Pevsner's Buildings of England compiled by Michael Good on CD-ROM (1995) allows searches to be made by type of architectural feature, place, period or artist. A copy is held in Exeter Reference Library. The Department of National Heritage's Lists of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest are available for all Devon in Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter. The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments has so far only covered Dorset in detail. Todd Gray's book The garden history of Devon: an illustrated guide to sources (1995) gives details of sources in libraries and record offices for over 200 houses and estates in Devon.

(d) Place-name dictionaries. The most comprehensive of these is The place-names of Devon published by the English Place-Name Society in 1931. They give early forms of the names of properties and their etymology. Many of the Public Record Office documents referred to in these dictionaries have been published (see Source guide S35) and are available in Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter or large general reference collections. Domesday Book is often referred to in connection with place-names and some editions have sections identifying place-names.

(e) Periodical indexes. These may refer to articles of relevance. The Transactions of the Devonshire Association have cumulated indexes to the first 100 volumes. Country Life publishes occasional cumulated indexes to town and country houses and gardens. See Source guide S11, section 2 for details of other periodical indexes.The Burnet Morris Index in Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter is useful for details of properties. Check in the place section under the name of the parish. Illustrations in The Builder are covered in the Builder illustrations index 1843-1883 compiled by Robert Thorne and Ruth Richardson (1994). There is a county index. A file of The Builder is available in Exeter Reference Library but it is best checked once the date of building, alteration or restoration is fairly closely known.

(f) Local or county histories and guide books. These may mention the property. Check in the place section of the Library catalogues and bibliographies to see what is available. see Source guide S12 for more details.

(g) Parish cuttings files. Most Devon parishes have such a file in Westcountry Studies Library and many branch libraries. See Thematic guide T1.

(h) Illustrations. Prints are listed in Devon topographical prints, 1660-1870 by J.V.Somers Cocks. The major local studies collections hold topographical prints, photographs, postcards and some original drawings. About 200 larger houses are illustrated in Devonshire: historical, descriptive, biographical by F.J.Snell. There is an index to illustrations on p.207. The microfiches of the Francis Frith collections of Devon photographs, containing 15,000 scenes is held, and a listing is available. Books of historic illustrations can also be useful. See Source guide S21. Illustrations of over 2,000 English country houses in 107 volumes of country views published between 1715 and 1872 and in other sources are index in the Country house index compiled by John Harris (2nd ed 1979).

(i) Sale particulars. Some sale catalogues of estates are held by most of the larger local studies libraries but there are also considerable collections in DRO. The Devon Gardens Trust is engaged in indexing this class of material in record offices for information on garden history.

2. Smaller properties

(a) Trade directories. These are particularly useful for urban houses when street numbers are given or there is a street arrangement, which can be found for larger towns from the 1870s. A union listing of trade directories in the main Devon libraries is available. See Source guide S14.

(b) Maps and plans. Useful for establishing approximate dates of construction or variations in the ground plan. There is coverage of Devon at a scale of one inch to a mile or larger from 1765. For details see Source guide S22.

(c) Tithe apportionment surveys. These are held in Devon Record Office. Produced around 1840 they include a large scale plan for each parish with plots numbered referring to a schedule with details of owner, occupier, area and valuation. See Source guide S22, section 4. Devon Record Office may also have other manuscript plans of the parish.

(d) Census enumerators' returns. Microfilms for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and (on fiches) 1891. Staff have compiled a parish index and there are street indexes for some larger towns. Using information from other sources, such as the tithe apportionment or electoral registers you should be able to locate the property and identify the occupiers. See Source guide: S34.

(e) Electoral registers. The main run of these from 1832 is in Devon Record Office. Libraries also have partial runs. See Thematic guide T3.

(f) Rate and tax records. The Land Tax for 1780-1832 is in DRO, with other tax and rating records. Transcribed and published records are available for many such lists - see Thematic guide T3. A collection of rating and other records transcribed by C.A.Fursdon is held in the Westcountry Studies Library with microfiches in other major local studies collections. Unlike the Land Tax, many such records only list names of persons with no note of the property.

(g) Newspapers. Advertisements can give details of properties for sale or to let. . In Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter the Exeter Flying Post has been indexed from 1763 to 1885. Relevant entries can be found under the headings Houses, Farms, Manors and Fields. There is also an index to property names for 1763-1835. See Source guide S15 for details of other newspaper indexes.

(h) Other records. These vary depending on the type of property. Charity Commissioners' reports contain information on almshouses. Insurance records cover industrial and private properties. Insurance policies may give a valuation of the property. Probate records may be of value, especially if inventories are attached. Most Devon probate records were destroyed in 1942. Published transcripts and indexes are available. Some inventories have been published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society (new series, vol. 11). Tracing ownership of a property may involve genealogical research, see Thematic guide: T33.

For most houses the precise date of construction cannot be ascertained and architectural evidence will have to used. A local study is Devon building: an introduction to local traditions, a collection of essays edited by Peter Beacham (rev. ed., 1995).

Further reading:

Brunskill, R.W. Illustrated handbook of vernacular architecture (3rd ed, 1987)
Harvey, J.H. Sources for the history of houses (1974).
Iredale, D. Discovering your old house (1977).

Creator: Devon Library and Information Services
Title: Property and house history
Imprint: : Devon Library Services
Date: 2003
Format: Web page : HTML
Series: Local studies source guide ; S53
Coverage: Devon . Houses . Historical sources

Last Updated: 08/01/2009

Search | Home page