Delving into the history of your house can help you answer questions such as:
- How old is my house?
- When was it built and by whom?
- Who has lived here before me?
- What was there before?
- Was my house used for something different in the past?
- What major alterations or extensions have been made?
Where to begin
The best place to start is the building itself. Have a good look at it – size, features, location, construction materials, ornamentation. These can give you a feel for its age, how it might have changed, different uses.
Talking to neighbours could also bring clues – when an estate was built, who were the builders, previous occupants and so on. It’s worth keeping detailed notes, making sketches, and taking photos which you can compare later with historic sources.
Historic England offers further advice on resources for researching the history of your house, including its own extensive archive collections.
Architecture and building guides
There are a number of guides to help you understand and interpret the architecture of your house, such as:
- David Iredale and John Barrett ‘Discovering your old house’
- Anthony Adolph ‘Tracing your home’s history’
- Nick Barratt ‘Tracing the history of your house’
- John Pilling ‘Oxfordshire houses: a guide to local traditions’
- N.W. Alcock, ‘Documenting the history of houses’
If you don’t already have deeds or other papers from when you when you bought your house, they may be retained by your solicitor or mortgage company or, if you are a tenant, with your landlord. These records may include sales particulars and Land Registry documents and can provide information on the age of the house and when it was built, its previous occupants, the features and extent of the house and attached properties, and the value of the property at various times.
Many property sale catalogues can also be found in our catalogued Archives and Local Studies collections, and in our list of Sales catalogues 1764-2008. You can identify these by searching for the keywords "sale catalogue" and the parish or place-name on our online catalogue, Heritage Search.
If you cannot obtain deeds or other personal papers, there are plenty of other ways to find out about your property.
Most modern houses and many older ones are now registered with the Land Registry. You can apply online for current and previous copies of the land register for your property as well as any other documents for your house – including old deeds - which the Land Registry may hold. But bear in mind that not all properties have been fully registered and information is not always complete.
For older properties, deeds and related records may be held elsewhere, especially if they once formed part of an estate or belonged to an organisation such as a church or local authority, and it is worth looking for evidence of this in published local histories – for example, the Victoria County History.
If the estate or organisation still exists it may have copies of the deeds, or its records may have been deposited at Oxfordshire History Centre.
We hold several collections of solicitors’ and estate agents’ records with thousands of deeds, sales particulars and other property records, for example: Stockton & Fortescue, Cooper & Caldicott. But note that that many collections have not been fully catalogued and it may not be easy to find relevant records.
Deeds are complex legal instruments with many different forms and it is not always possible to relate them to modern properties. Reference guides are available to help you understand and interpret deeds, for example:
- A.A. Dibben ‘Title Deeds’ (1990)
- N.W. Alcock ‘Old Title Deeds’ (1986)
- Nottingham University’s online guide
Building lists and surveys
Many older properties with some historic or architectural interest have been surveyed and recorded or listed. Historic England maintains the National Heritage List for England which can be searched online. The same listed building data can also be searched alongside records of archaeological sites, findspots, and scheduled monuments, including coverage of the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record, on Heritage Search.
Surveys and lists of buildings can also be found in the publications or websites of local and national organisations concerned with the preservation and protection of the built heritage – for example:
and in the local volumes of the Buildings of England series:
- Jennifer Sherwood, ‘Oxfordshire’ (2001)
- Alan Brooks, ‘Oxfordshire north and west’ (2017)
- Geoffrey Tyack, ‘Berkshire’ (2010)
Oxfordshire History Centre holds many published and unpublished archaeological or historic building reports and surveys.
- Check Heritage Search books catalogue and digital publications for details of our holdings of catalogued reports.
Properties built or significantly modified in the last 100 years or so have been subject to building and, later, planning regulations.
For buildings up to 1948, you should consult the Rural and Urban District Council and Borough archives at Oxfordshire History Centre. Even if plans are not available, most of the plans registers have survived and will provide basic information, including dates, name of owner and building proposals.
For building work after 1948, contact your district council to see what planning records they have. Oxfordshire History Centre also holds some private architectural collections of plans.
Our Oxfordshire Buildings Index (pdf format 694Kb) derived from 19th and early 20th century local newspapers and Oxford City building plans, is particularly, although not exclusively, useful for Victorian Oxford.
A large number of historic images of houses, farms and other properties can be found on our online catalogue Picture Oxon
Tracing occupants of buildings
An alternative approach to trace the history of a house is through its occupants.
You can try to build up a comprehensive list of past owners and occupiers, rather like a family historian creates a line of descendants, by working backwards from the present. The key is to find sources which link owners and occupants to specific properties.
With some records where modern addresses are used this may be straightforward. In other cases, you may need to know the name of an occupant first in order to find out more about the house.
Trade and street directories such as Kelly’s, often include detailed street indexes for major towns such as Oxford, Abingdon or Banbury. Oxfordshire History Centre holds a comprehensive run of Kelly’s and other directories for Oxfordshire from the mid-19th century up to 1976.
Registers of electors
Electoral registers provide the most comprehensive records of occupancy and are available for every district in Oxfordshire back to 1832. We also hold microfilm copies of selective north Berkshire registers, 1839-1906, while the broader span of 1840-1965 Berkshire electoral registers is available via Ancestry Library. Registers are arranged in polling districts (or hundreds for early 19th Century). In theory they should provide you with a comprehensive list of occupants, how long each one was in residence and a date for when the house was first occupied or built. In practice available information can be greatly limited by the qualification to vote and the difficulty identifying a rural property unless you know the name of its occupants.
Land Tax returns
If you are lucky enough to trace occupation back to 1832, Land Tax Returns in the Quarter Sessions records could take you further back to the 1760s. These are arranged by hundreds and simply list all householders who paid Land Tax and were eligible to vote in county elections.
Rate books and valuation lists
If you are unsuccessful with directories and electoral registers you can try rate books and valuation lists, but bear in mind that they are not generally indexed or organised in any particular order. Modern general rate books and valuation lists (1929-1974) can be found in RDC, UDC and borough archives, although for 1932-1937 and 1946-1974 Oxfordshire History Centre has only kept a sample one year in every five from each district. Older rate books are generally found in Poor Law Union and borough collections from about the 1860s until 1929, and even earlier records may be found in parish and borough archives where lists of ratepayers are given in the account books of surveyors of highways, overseers of the poor, and church wardens.
Once you have a basic list of occupants, the national census returns from 1841-1921 are a wonderful way of finding out more about them. You can discover whole families as well as servants and visitors sharing their household, and find out their ages, occupations and place of birth. You can search 1841-1921 census returns online at Oxfordshire History Centre using websites such as Find My Past and Ancestry Library. You can search by personal name and address, although current addresses (house names, numbers and street names) are not necessarily the same as in the past.
Taking coverage later into the 20th century, the 1939 Register provides a valuable snapshot of the population on the eve of World War Two; the register is searchable on Find My Past and Ancestry Library by name, address, and map.
Ordnance Survey maps offer a useful tool for establishing the existence of your property at particular dates. Although the earliest surveys of Oxfordshire were carried out in the 1800s-1810s, culminating in the 1830s Old Series 1-inch maps, the most useful maps are the detailed 25-inch County Series – four editions were published between c. 1872 and 1939, followed by the postwar National Grid Series and, since the 1990s, born-digital mapping. Oxfordshire History Centre has comprehensive coverage of the county, including all published and intermediate editions. Our mapping platform on Heritage Search offers free online access to large scale historic Ordnance Survey maps, 1876-1996. Many historic Ordnance Survey maps can also be consulted online via the National Library of Scotland.
Where properties are older than the first large-scale Ordnance Survey editions, there are earlier printed county maps (pdf format, 339Kb) which may identify significant outlying properties – Oxford City: Hoggar (1850); Berkshire: Rocque (1763); Oxfordshire: Jefferys (1767), Davis (1797), Bryant [2 parts: north, south] (1824).
As a result of national legislation three significant land and property surveys covering the whole or most of the country were carried out in the 19th and early 20th centuries creating an unprecedented comprehensive record of land and property ownership and occupation throughout the country.
Open fields and common land in just over half of the parishes in Oxfordshire were reorganised through Parliamentary Enclosure Acts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In each parish it was necessary to compile detailed records of land ownership and rights of way, usually in the form of a schedule or list of owners, occupiers and properties sometimes linked to large-scale maps.
Find out more about enclosure records
Tithe awards or apportionments
The process of tithe commutation – exchanging payment in kind for cash by all land-holders to holders of church livings – reached a peak in the 1840s-50s and produced records in many parishes similar to enclosures, including maps and schedules with significant details of property ownership, occupation, use and value.
- Find out more about tithe records
- View Oxfordshire tithe maps online (alphabetical listing)
- View Oxfordshire tithe maps online (clickable parish map on the Heritage Search mapping platform – select the feature layer ‘tithe links’)
District Valuers Survey (Mini Domesday)
A comprehensive survey of land and property ownership throughout the country was made between 1912 and 1915 known as the District Valuers Survey. Individual properties or ‘hereditaments’ were marked on 25-inch Ordnance Survey maps and cross-referenced to schedules or valuation books, containing details of ownership, occupation, nature, use and value of the property.
Oxfordshire History Centre holds all original district valuation records (books, forms and maps)
- View Oxfordshire district valuation maps online (clickable parish map on the Heritage Search mapping platform – select the feature layer ‘District valuation records’)
A number of other property surveys – usually local and private – have been carried out at various times, mostly since 18th century. During the 19th century plans of public utilities e.g. canals and railways, were deposited with the Clerk of the Peace; these sometimes contain details of neighbouring properties.
To extend your search even further, you could consider looking at: