COVID lockdown sparks interest in home history – so how do you unravel the house’s secrets?

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.

Style and building materials can help determine when a home was built and provide other clues.(Provided by: State Library of New South Wales)

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.

A row of houses in Birmingham Gardens, photographed in 1955.
Christine Yeats also recommends looking at what’s happening on the street and in the suburbs.(Provided by: State Library of New South Wales)

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.


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