Historic houses have an enduring appeal for their owners. For some it is the romance of oak beams and curious inglenook fireplaces; for others it is the pleasing proportions of a stately Georgian manor. And what of the past generations who lived there? Who were the previous occupants? And how much have domestic arrangements changed over the years?
Ellen Leslie, a professional house historian, uncovers the stories behind a property to reveal the lives of its past owners and the way a building’s function may have changed over the years. “I can learn an awful lot about a house by walking around it,” she says.
Clients commission house histories for a variety of reasons. It could be a conservation architect wanting to find the evidence to support planning applications before making alterations; or a homeowner wanting to be better informed about their home’s construction. House histories are also a valuable marketing tool — a unique story can help to sell a property.
Melanie Backe-Hansen began her career in house history when she was recruited by Chestertons to research the provenance of some of the more characterful properties it was handling. “Over the years the history of a house can be forgotten,” she says. “I discovered that one of our Mayfair properties had been the home of Benjamin Disraeli. And another house was owned by Diana Caldwell, who had played a role in the White Mischief murders in Kenya during the 1940s.
Since 2012 Backe-Hansen has been freelance and has published a book House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door. One of her most recent projects was to write the history of an early 19th-century terrace house in Highbury, north London, which the owners restored, returning it to use as a single family home after it had been converted to offices. “I found one of the first owners was William Henry Poland, a City furrier who later became [Sheriff of London]. This was his country retreat as in those days Highbury was surrounded by fields. By the 1860s the house was occupied by one of London’s earliest omnibus pioneers, John Wilson,” Backe-Hansen says.
Another project was to research a grade II listed, late 18th-century terraced house in Kennington, south London, that is being restored. The original owner turned out to have been an Irish ship’s doctor in Nelson’s navy who made a name for himself by campaigning for more humane treatment of Napoleon in exile on the island of St Helena. After leaving the navy, the ship’s doctor used his home to establish a private medical school. By the turn of the 19th century the property had fallen on hard times and become a boarding house for actors.
Sometimes friends and family will commission a house history as a gift.
A house history can take weeks of painstaking research, studying old maps and property records, trawling through census returns or tax records in the National Archives. The result is a bound and illustrated book presenting the social history of the house and the surrounding area, as well as profiling the lives of past owners.
Finding original images of the house or past owners is the icing on the cake. “I see my work as a jigsaw puzzle, where individual pieces don’t necessarily make sense until they are linked,” says Leslie, who has a master’s degree in historical research from Birkbeck, University of London. She inherited her father’s love of art and eye for detail. “My father was a conservator of old master paintings and my family lived in numerous old houses over the years, so I grew up with these influences,” she says.
There is no set price for a house history. The process can take weeks, sometimes months. “My fee reflects the amount of research required, from a few hundred for a day spent in the archives to several thousand pounds for a bound history,” Leslie says. Occasionally house histories can reveal shocking stories. When Leslie researched a water mill in Buckinghamshire, official documentation and contemporary newspaper reports charted the Victorian mill owner’s slide into bankruptcy. A series of suspicious fires and insurance claims finally led to the man’s death certificate. “Having been declared bankrupt, the miller fell into the nearby river, drunk; no one knows if it was deliberate. Suddenly finding evidence of his death, I drew an audible intake of breath. The client took the news in his stride,” she says.
By Francesca Steele
It isn’t easy re-creating Tudor style. When Melanie Brown, the founder of the interior design company Design Direction, was asked to lead the refurbishment of 15th-century Borthwick Castle, just outside Edinburgh, she began working on a painstaking project that lasted two years. During that time she spent six months sourcing 150 Scottish regimental buttons for state-room chairs and oversaw the highly complex reassembly of several key furniture pieces, including a hand-carved oak bed made for the last room that Mary, Queen of Scots stayed in before her imprisonment by the English.
Pieces were brought in from all over the world, including tapestries and antique Turkish hemp.
Today the castle, built in 1430 for Sir William de Borthwick, a Scottish ambassador to England, is a high-end hotel that can be rented privately. It is decked out in Tudor colours (ochre, bronze, emerald green, purple and red) and is packed with artefacts. The Red Rose room, with its baronial Tudor bed carved with the tree of life, “makes it feel like it is always Christmas”. Brown says: “I wanted the house to feel authentic, not touristy. It’s sumptuous and cosy, in the way that Mary, Queen of Scots would have known it.”