01 March 2023
Are you curious to know who inhabited your house or flat before you lived there? Would you like to find out how many people have called your house home, their ages and what they did for a living? Read on for our top research tips.
Unless your house is a new-build, the chances are that it’s been lived in by someone else apart from you. Exploring the lives of the past residents is a great project, allowing you to use a mixture of online and offline resources to take a trip back into your home’s history.
The below resources will help you get off to a great start.
1. Electoral registers
Electoral registers are helpful if whoever lived in your house before you was eligible, for example women were only featured after 1918 (and then only if eligible to vote). National Library of Scotland has both historic and modern-day electoral registers. Find out more about consulting the printed electoral registers at the library here.
For the rest of the UK, FindMyPast has worked with the British Library to digitise the 1832-1965 electoral registers or you can explore these for free at the British Library’s reading rooms in London. See the Library’s webinar on exploring these records here.
Note that with this type of record you’ll need to use the address rather than names, as the electoral registers are not indexed.
2. Your title deeds
Your house title deeds, usually kept by you or the solicitor/mortgager who handled the sale of the property, should have details of each buyer and seller during the history of the house and may even record details of who owned the land the house was originally built on.
3. Ask around…
To find out about inhabitants within living memory, why not ask your neighbours? Try to find out who’s lived on the street the longest and ask if they’d be willing to have a quick chat (at a distance during lockdown of course!). Or you could try asking on the community pages of your town or village’s social media sites.
4. Street and trade directories
For properties dating to the early 1800s onwards, trade directories can help you to pinpoint former inhabitants or even point to a change of use – perhaps your home was once a shop! These directories, which are usually kept at local history libraries and record offices, list the inhabitants of an area’s streets at yearly (or less frequent) intervals.
5. The census
The census is a great source of name, age, occupation and place of birth for the inhabitants of your home in years gone by. The first census of use for this purpose is 1841 and they have been taken every ten years since (with the exception of 1941). Because of privacy rules, the most recent census you can access is 1911.
Visit the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh to explore the Scottish census. National Library of Scotland also has some indexes to the 1841-1911 censuses carried out by family history society volunteers.
Explore the census online at family history websites such as Ancestry, FindMyPast and The Genealogist and you can view England, Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man censuses free of charge at The UK National Archives in Kew, and at FamilySearch centres around the world.
6. The 1939 Register – your house’s inhabitants at the eve of World War II
The 1939 Register was taken on the eve of World War II and works as a 'census substitute' in the respect that it gives details of who lived at each address, their year of birth and occupation. For the background to this register click here. The 1939 Register for Scotland is not currently available online but you can order an official extract from National Records Scotland - details here.
For England and Wales, FindMyPast has a great house history page here that allows you to type in your postcode and be taken through to a page that shows who was in your house when the 1939 Register was taken.
You can then see the name, age and occupation of each inhabitant and also browse the households of other streets within that same postcode area – for the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Please note, subscription charges or pay-per-view costs may apply for some of the websites mentioned, although some do offer a free trial to new users and you may also be able to access the site free of charge at your local library or family history society.
Originally published December 2020. Reviewed March 2023.