Finding the history of your house
uncovering suburban mysteries
21 October 2016
Earlier this year I purchased my first Canberra house, and can understand the curiosity people have about the history of their homes. The Ask a Librarian team often receives questions from people interested in this topic, and my own experience has undeniably made these types of question very interesting to me:
I would like to find out when my house was built and what kind of name I can use for it.
I just want to know when it was built and how old it is.
I work in a pub which was named after a farm in the early 1800s. I was wondering if you could help me find any more information about it.
We’d like to know who lived in our house before us. We are experiencing strange occurrences and trying to find out if there was a criminal history.
I recently visited the site of my childhood home and was disappointed to see that the house had been demolished. I would love to know the history of the house and when it was demolished.
Where do you start?
Fortunately there is help at our FAQ How do I trace the history of my house? This lists a number of useful Australia-wide links. The National Library does not keep unpublished documents relating to title deeds or house ownership, so it is often worth starting in your own state. State Libraries or State Records and Archives offices may have guides or title searches for researching house or land records.
Using my own house as an example, Access Canberra’s title search revealed the first owner of my house on the original lease. The original mortgagee was a widow, who I found out later was raising at least one child.
Colonial, Federation or Post-war Modern?
Some print resources are also listed on the Library’s FAQ, and you can find many others. For example Australian house styles by Maisy Stapleton & Ian Stapleton (1997) can help pin down the type of house you are dealing with, perhaps ‘Federation’ or ‘Arts and Crafts.’ The book discusses architectural features of houses from Colonial times, and includes regional variations.
Sometimes new owners might be considering refurbishment or redecoration, and want any changes to be in keeping with the original features of the house. When you have found the period and style of your home, you can search the Library catalogue with the subject heading Architecture, Domestic -- Australia -- Conservation and restoration. Books often include information about the architectural style and exterior, gardens and landscaping, and interiors and furnishings, down to the style of light switches and door handles to use.
Back in Canberra, my house was built relatively recently in 1963. A 1963 house may seem a little unexciting compared to an early Colonial or Victorian cottage, but bear in mind that these were boom times for building in Canberra, as seen in this 1962 video at Splash ABC. I could also learn more about my suburb and street name from Planning ACT.
Nostalgic, curious or concerned?
House questions frequently come from people who are nostalgic, just curious or concerned about a shadowy past. These people like to go back to the beginning, to look for real estate sales plans and advertising.
Australian maps for family historians, a research guide produced by the Library’s map staff, is another avenue (pun intended). This has information about parish, town and country maps, and how to find maps relating to ownership. The page on Using real estate or sales plans could be useful for home owners.
Trove newspapers, as always, have a wealth of information regarding real estate, including prices and descriptions of homes.
Newspaper articles are also a good way to find out if anything significant has happened in your street, but you may be happy to find that your house was in fact a home for a nice quiet family. Help with finding newspaper articles is found in our Getting Started web page on newspapers.
For my own house, I could search for the address in the Canberra Times, as Trove includes dates for this newspaper up to 1995. Here I found the name of the builder who built the houses in the cul-de-sac and advertised for labourers to ‘apply on site.’ I also found an advertising page from L.J. Hooker with ‘Open for inspection’ dates at the end of 1963. The advertisement included stunning descriptions of architect planning and master-building. Some of the features mentioned were stainless steel sinks, fully tiled bathroom and fly screens. I might now dispute the claim of ‘ample power points,’ and the ‘wrought iron railings’ have long since disappeared. All this for £6,610.
Also in the Canberra Times advertisements, in 1965 the house owner offered a few things for sale, including a child’s bicycle with training wheels for £6. No doubt it would be possible to find out more, but I felt that she has done well, paid off a mortgage, possibly by herself, and raised a small family. This was enough to satisfy my curiosity.