Australians have spent more time at home than ever in the past two and a half years, so it’s no wonder some people are curious about what’s going on within their four walls.
Ella Morrison, a reference librarian at the National Library of Australia, said the coronavirus pandemic had sparked interest in the history of houses.
“With the lockdown and people spending more time at home and checking their surroundings, we’re definitely going to have a ton of issues related to the history of the house,” she said.
Requests come from people who are generally curious, people who have recently moved and want to establish a sense of belonging, or home renovators who want sympathy for the original design.
Some people have otherworldly motives.
“We also did get a lot of inquiries from people – whether they explicitly said it or not – that they thought the house might be haunted, or [the] Property can be haunted,” Ms Morrison said.
“They wanted to know more about the context of the house.
“We’re not a medium, but let’s give it a try.”
Three main areas need to be investigated: the physical character and style of the home, the previous owners and residents, and what happened locally.
So where do you start and what kind of information can you find in the records?
who slept in my bed?
This is the question that fascinates people the most.
Christine Yeats, former president of the Royal Australian Historical Society, said the best place to find previous owners and residents was each state’s land registry.
“This can tell you when the parcel was formed, if there was a mortgage linked to the title, the name of the person who owned the land over time and the date the property changed hands,” Ms Yeats told ABC Radio Sydney.
Councils have historic rate books which also list the occupiers of the house and details about the property.
Old post office directories, predecessors to phone books, school admissions lists, and electoral rolls may also contain valuable information.
Some of these records are searchable online and are often freely accessible.
One of the best resources is Trove — a collection of digitized newspapers published until 1955.
Even if nothing newsworthy has happened to the property in question, you’ll usually find it in personal notices.
“Especially in the death notice, they would say the funeral party was leaving the house and they would give the address of the house,” Ms Yeats said.
“You never know what you’ll find,” Ms Yeats said.
Kate didn’t want to use her surname to avoid drawing more attention to the house, and she didn’t give much thought to the people who lived in her house in the coastal town of NSW, south of Sydney, until her children noticed About 20 years ago, people stopped in front to take pictures.
It turned out that John Hales, the former world leader of the Exclusive Brethren, grew up there, and members of the secret religion came by bus to watch.
Kate said Mr. Hales had been there too.
“He literally went into the house; he cried because it was the same as when he was a kid,” she said.
Examining the physical features of your house can reveal everything from the type of roof and windows to building materials and their relationship to the garden.
Ms Morrison said there were online resources from the National Trust, state heritage boards, and books on Australian house style.
“So this is one way you might want to date your house and find out more,” she said.
Ms. Yeats also suggested looking at the estate files of the deceased in states that impose death taxes.
“Sometimes, you can find detailed information about what’s actually going on in the house,” she said.
“It gives you an amazing sense of how that house might have changed over time.”
Many of the houses were converted from former shops, hotels and factories, and have left evidence of their former use in the design and construction.
Take Sally Spurr’s Wentworth Falls holiday home in the Blue Mountains, which was used as the golf club’s headquarters for decades after the original clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1948.
Until 1976, the lounge and bedrooms now consist of a bar with poker machines.
There are also rumors that it hosted an illegal poker room at some stage.
Ms Spurr, who bought the house in 2017, feels the history adds to the character of the house.
“It’s fun to stand there and wonder what the crispness of a poker machine is like,” she said.
Expand your search
Ms Yeats said it was not just about personal property. She recommends zooming in to see what’s going on around a local street or suburban house.
This is where the local historical society plays an important role.
“They’ll have those unpublished notes and elements of local folklore, which I think is really interesting,” Ms Morrison said.
While official records detail an area’s colonial history, they do not reflect the indigenous owners of the land.
However, Ms Morrison said the library and the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Institute still provided useful resources.
“It’s a bit complicated and complicated, but very rewarding,” she said.
A thoughtful housewarming gift
The focus doesn’t have to be your own home either – some people are curious about the house where a family member grew up or the house on their favorite street.
Ms Morrison said some were doing the research for friends or family as housewarming gifts.
This might be a meaningful exercise.
“We recently received an enquiry from a man who was helping two elderly friends whose house was badly damaged in the fire and they lost a lot of their valuables,” Ms Morrison said.
“This person is trying to find some information about the house that she might tell her elderly friends so they can feel at home again.”
Documenting your home’s history also helps the next generation of local residents.
Ms. Yeats suggested providing a copy to the local library to help future researchers.