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Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Monday, 3 May 2004 09:55 UK

Who once lived in my house?

By Margaret Ryan
BBC News Online

Actors Doon Mackichan and Michael Maloney, who star in the radio adaptation
Ever wondered who once trod your floorboards? Novelist Julie Myerson did, and wrote a book about the tales she uncovered from her home's 130-year history. How best to follow her lead?

When Julie Myerson began stripping wallpaper in her Victorian terrace house in Clapham, south London, she became fascinated by the clues to the property's history - and the tastes of its past inhabitants - which layered its walls.

"We uncovered about 10 layers of wallpaper, and it was like unpeeling different eras," she says. So began a search of the past, going back to when 34 Lillieshall Road was first built on a cricket pitch.

While trawling the 1881 Census, Ms Myerson unearthed parallels between her own life and that of the first owner of the house - Henry Haywood, also a writer, who had three children about the same age as her own.

So inspired was she that she kept digging. She trawled local archives, bought copies of wills, cold-called people whose names matched former residents, and wrote countless letters. The result of her research is a book about the generations who have lived at Number 34.

It has proved to be a search which has captured the imagination of many. "I've never done anything before where my mum, the taxi driver or whoever I speak to about it says 'what a good idea'."

House detective

To follow her lead requires patience and determination. But the results are certain to be compelling.

Street scene
It's like doing a jigsaw without having the picture on the box
House historian Dr Nick Barratt
House historian Dr Nick Barratt, who has written a guide for people wanting to trace their home's past, compares the search to detective work.

"You have to experiment with finding sources, use architectural clues and make best guesses.

"It's like doing a jigsaw without having the picture on the box. It's fascinating to find out how an area has changed. You can learn about the local area's history through bricks and mortar."

Much information can be uncovered through internet searches and from the records held at local libraries and archives, as well as national sources such as the Public Records Office in Kew, west London, or in Scotland the National Archives of Scotland.

Mr Barratt advises starting with the house itself - estimate its age by seeing how it fits in with other properties in the street.

Electoral lists and rate books are good sources of information, as is the 1910 Valuation Survey. This contains a wealth of information, including maps and assessment books, which give details of whether the property was freehold or leasehold.

Title deeds may also prove useful, although many no longer exist or are not readily available. Another useful tool is the Tithe Apportionment Surveys of the 1830s, compiled to list payments made to the Church which include details of past occupants.

The 1901 Census website allows users in England and Wales to search by address as well as by names, but this site may only be of limited use - not all homes are numbered, and so may not be listed. Such is the wider interest in local history - be it family or house history - that the site crashed when it first launched in 2002 due to unexpectedly high demand.

First sight of snow

As for Ms Myerson, she uncovered tales of intrigue, heartache and happiness in her Clapham home's rich history. The father of the first owner worked for Queen Victoria, and was important enough to feature in Her Majesty's journals.

Julie Myerson
With three teenagers, five cats and a dog, our own imprint is on the house
Julie Myerson

But what most intrigued her most was the extraordinary lives of so many ordinary people.

"I am not a historian. I was more interested in people and there are stories about birth, death, marriage, sex and love."

What also fascinated her was the way the house reflected social change in the area - in the 1950s, for instance, it was home to the first black family to move into the street.

Former residents she managed to track down were only too willing to share their memories. Some even came to visit, and recalled memories as they wandered through the rooms they once lived in.

Among the anecdotes recounted were stories of wedding receptions and carol concerts. And a woman from Jamaica recalled touching her first snowflake as four-year-old leaning out of an upstairs window.

Keen response

Through sifting through wills, Myerson traced a descendant of a woman who had lived in the house in the 1880s.

She also used a document called Kelly's Directory from her local archives office to find lists of former inhabitants. Armed only with names, she then said spent hours sifting through directory enquiries in the hope of striking gold.

She was amazed by the response from people anxious to share their history, even when they were not the names she was searching for.

As for living with the repercussions of finding out so much about her home, she has no regrets.

"The rooms did feel crowded with ghosts. But with three teenagers, five cats and a dog, our own imprint is on the house."

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