Finding the history of your house

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.

Brick cottage, Tasmania

Stacey, Wes (1941-), Brick cottage, Marlborough Street, Longford, Tasmania  ca. 1970, nla.obj-151986122

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 The National Library does not keep unpublished documents relating to title deeds or house ownership, so it is often worth starting in your own state.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.

Timber house, Gulgong

Stacey, Wes (1941-), Timber house with art nouveau decoration, Gulgong, New South Wales  ca. 1970, nla.obj-152167580

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.  

Mosman Heights Real Estate plan

Mosman Heights, Mosman : overlooking Pearl Bay, harbour & ocean / for auction sale on the ground, Saturday 30th January 1909 at 3 p.m., Richardson & Wrench Ltd., auctioneers, 98 Pitt St, Sydney, in conjunction Richardson & Co., 107 Pitt St. nla.obj-230306923 

Trove newspapers, as always, have a wealth of information regarding real estate, including prices and descriptions of homes. 

Real estate sales 

What the agents are doing – Real Estate sales. (1926, April 18). Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 - 1930), p. 13. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article128127763 

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.

Canberra house and gardens 

Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), [Dwelling, Canberra, 3]  between 1910 and 1962, nla.obj-159041256

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. 

Not sure where to start your research? Stuck somewhere along the way? Ask a Librarian or try our FAQs.

Comment: 
Thanks so much for sharing this blog post. I live in Dulwich Hill on Old Canterbury Road and found out the lord mayor of Sydney use to live in my house with his family. Where would I begin to locate the original plans of my home? Would love to hear from you. I run my business from home, being the founder of https://top10insydney.com
Comment: 
Hello Senka, depending on when your house was built you may be able to find plans, or the name of the architect, in building and development records via the City of Sydney: http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/learn/search-our-collections/house-and-building-histories/building-application-records. Another place to try is your local library, particularly if they have a local history area. They should be able to give you specific research advice for your area. Good luck!
Comment: 
Thanks so much for the advice. Really appreciate it.
Comment: 
I would like to know when my house was built in Canberra
Comment: 
Hi Penny, You may be able to start a general search in the Canberra Times in Trove Newspapers; you never know your luck with finding real estate sales advertising. Otherwise you can try an Access Canberra Title Search which will incur a cost. You can always go to Ask a Librarian if you would like us to help you start. Good luck!
Comment: 
I live in a old home in Highclere on the NW Coast of Tasmania. It once belonged to the family of Brett Whiteley, the Politician. It was apparently the former Service Station, Post Office and Telephone Exchange for the area. It has had many renovations over the years and I would love to know how it looked prior to this. I would also like to know about the former owners ect.
Comment: 
It's difficult to answer in any detail here, but Ask a Librarian may be able to help. LINC Tasmania has a page on their website: Finding the history of Tasmanian buildings, so you could make a start there. It might also be worth contacting Burnie LINC for some local history expertise. Post Office records can be quite detailed, so you may be lucky in finding a photo.
Comment: 
Hi how would I go about finding when my home was built ? I live in Beechworth Victoria from what I have been told it was a miners cottage !
Comment: 
Hi Dorothy, As you are in Victoria, you might want to take a look at the State Library's research guide, Researching buildings and houses, on their website. Depending on the age of your house, the newspapers on Trove may give you some background, try the Ovens and Murray Advertiser (1855 - 1918) and The Chiltern and Howlong times and Ovens register (1914-1918). You could also try a local history society if your house is very old. Good luck!
Comment: 
I am researching family history and have found to my surprise that my family have a history in Melbourne during the gold rush. I want the history of an Abbotsford property Ashton Lodge, Cnr Johnstone Street and Patterson Street, Collingwood Melbourne that was auction in February 1863 I need to know the owner and the purchaser and also the reason for the mortgagee sale. Can you show me where to look.
Comment: 
Hi Rosalind, Unfortunately we can't answer specific questions on the blog pages, so Ask a Librarian (a free service) is the best place for you to get some more details. In this case, the State Library of Victoria might also be a useful resource. I hope you can find what you need.
Comment: 
Hello im trying to find the history of my house that I purchased 30 year's ago im told it was moved from bendigo during the 1800s the property is 72 stradbroke ave swanhill Victoria any help would be greatly appreciated
Comment: 
How interesting! It's possible that we may be able to find some leads for you, and the best way to start would be with Ask A Librarian (see the link on the page above). The State Library of Victoria or even the Bendigo Historical Society might also be able to find some information.
Comment: 
I'll like to read it ,very unique to me
Comment: 
Our house was built as a war service home after WW1 and I was trying to find out if it had a name?