The pleasures & pains of house histories

Sometimes the records can be frustratingly tantalising without ever providing the answer you want. It is at these times that the historian's task lies in a relentless pursuit through the archives looking for new paths to meander along, or bigger rocks to turn because you just never know - that next rock might be the one! And when you've gone as far as you possibly can (conveniently forgetting the agreed scope, fee and supposed number of hours) you can still tell yourself 'well, at least I've learnt something new about...' whatever the bigger story was behind this missing piece. Maybe historians need to be glass half full people?

This was the case recently when we were asked to assist with discovering the social and architectural history of a house in Brighton. Unusual features not in keeping with the rest of the house, and rate collectors less focused on their task then you would hope sent us into a cul de sac. On backing out and reorienting ourselves we would become fascinated by a particular tenant or new owner. There were several of these at one time in the life of this house and if the Sands & McDougall directories and and rate books don't match up it can be oh so confusing!

But when you come across a path you can follow for a while, picking up riches along the way, it is immensely satisfying. It can be pleasing to follow a family for a while and see the children grow and become the new owners, often with the parents still living in the house, or siblings moving no further than a nearby street. And when you read of extra rooms and changes to the land size in the rate books, or confirm a connection between the family and a longstanding business in the local high street, or discover the likely meaning behind the strange name they called their house, the story becomes populated with more than just facts. It takes on a colour and texture that gives this house a life of its' own, whether or not its a simple workers cottage or a mansion. 

We never did discover all the tantalising stories associated with this particular house, including the circumstances surrounding a fire and the purpose of an oddly shaped cellar that had been rediscovered only after a major renovation in the 1980s. But the search was fun and the story we were able to put together for the family enabled them to feel a stronger attachment to their new home, and to know the story behind some of the more interesting elements.