Pamela Brooks, a novelist, journalist and local history aficionado, has spent a great deal of time in archives researching her previous books, including Norwich: Stories of a City and Norwich, Street by Street. Here she passes on her first-hand experience, practical tips and key websites to support your research. Pamela is also author of How To Research Local History published September 2006 by How To Books. She is based in Torquay.
This chapter looks at:
- the secondary sources of information about a building.
The Buildings of England series by Nikolaus Pevsner is the classic architectural guide to buildings in each county. There is a rolling programme of updates – the information does change between editions, so it’s worth checking the previous edition as well as the latest one. The building you’re looking at may be listed in some detail if it’s architecturally significant.
There’s a descriptive gazetteer arranged alphabetically by town/village name. For a major city the buildings are listed within street order and the significant buildings are listed along with:
- A note of when it was built.
- A description of the building.
- Points of interest, such as which architect worked on restoration or alterations.
- A brief historical note (for example, the North-West and South Norfolk edition refers to Nos 1–2 Prospect Terrace in Attleborough; it mentions that the clasped purlin roof was one of the last built in Norfolk).
For towns and villages only the significant buildings are listed. Only the larger towns have ‘perambulations’ (i.e. a street-by-street look at the architecture); smaller villages may have references only to a church and one or two buildings that Pevsner and his associates considered worthy of note.
In the case of Mill House in Attleborough, the Pevsner volume on Norfolk containing the town (Norfolk North-West and South) doesn’t mention the building at all.
VICTORIA COUNTY HISTORY
The Victoria History of the Counties of England (VCH for short) covers most counties. The series was originally started in 1899 and was dedicated to Queen Victoria, hence the name. The volumes are usually found in the ‘outsize volume’ section of the reference library and have a red cover. The most important section for looking at the history of a building is the topographical section, which deals with the cities, towns and villages within the county in turn and looks at buildings such as almshouses, manor houses and other important buildings. Some of the VCH are available online at British History Online www.british-history.ac.uk/.
In the case of Mill House in Attleborough, the VCH doesn’t mention the building at all.
DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT LIST
Department of Environment lists (i.e. ‘listed buildings’) are published for each local authority area and contain short historical and architectural descriptions of the buildings of historical interest. These lists should be available at your local council planning department, county council offices and most local reference libraries, as well as at the National Monuments Record in Swindon. There are three categories in the list:
- Grade I – buildings of national importance or of exceptional interest.
- Grade II* – particularly important buildings of more than special interest.
- Grade II – buildings of special interest that need preservation – roughly 93% of listed buildings fall into this category.
Mill House in Attleborough is not listed as a building of historical interest, despite its age.
STANDARD LOCAL HISTORY
Your local library should be able to advise you where to see a copy of the standard local history for your county. This may contain references to your building, but it depends on how much detail the history contains – you may find that your village, for example, isn’t even mentioned.
The standard local history for Norfolk is the 11-volume work of Francis Blomefield. However, the volume covering the history of Attleborough doesn’t mention Mill House or the mill.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gentlemen often wrote monographs – scholarly research on one particular subject, such as a building or a family or bridges within a town. It’s worth checking with your local library to see if there’s a parish history or monograph which might cover the geographical area around your house. Or there may be a short biography of someone who once lived in your property.
Local historians often set up websites with a wealth of detail about buildings and people. Family historians may already have transcribed some of the census records from your area, or lists of people within a certain occupatuion. A good starting place for these is Genuki www.genuki.org.uk/; though do note that the material is usually copyright, so if you’re planning to publish your research you’ll need to get permission to use their information.
There may also be websites with old photographs of the area you’re researching. For example, in the Norwich area there’s a superb website dedicated to the photography of George Plunkett, covering the city from 1930 onwards www.the-plunketts.freeserve.co.uk/; sadly, there isn’t one covering Attleborough. I was delighted to discover that there was a website devoted to the mills of Norfolk www.norfolkmills.co.uk/, which included photographs – but of the mills I knew about in the Attleborough area, four in Attleborough itself and two in Besthorpe, only the two Besthorpe ones had an entry, there were no photographs of the four Attleborough mills. There was, however, a reference to ‘Attleburgh Great Mill’, which gave me a lead to look up the original material in the newspapers.
There are several different types of directories available:
- Commercial directories – these list merchants and traders.
- Professional directories – these list mainly the gentry, wealthy trades-people and professionals, and may list addresses, but not occupations.
- General trade directories – these list both ‘private residents’ and trades.
- Specialist directories – these list tradespeople in specific industries.
- Town directories – these list information only for one town or city rather than a county or part of a county (for example, The Norwich Directory or Gentlemen and Tradesmen’s Assistant, printed by William Chase in March 1783).
- National and provincial directories these covered several towns within a region, or perhaps a county, or even, in the case of the Universal Directory of 1793–8, the whole country.
You should be able to find copies of street directories at your local reference library; your local record office may also have a collection. Some directories are available on CD and have the added bonus of being searchable. Sections may be available on the internet, either via family history sites such as Genuki www.genuki.org.uk/, or projects such as the University of Leicester Historical Directories access project www.historicaldirectories.org. Copies of directories or facsimile reprints are available through second-hand and antiquarian booksellers, but can be a bit pricey.
Most of the larger directories (for example, White’s 1845 Norfolk) contain general information about the county as a whole. These are worth sifting through as they might contain a reference to your particular building, particularly if you’re researching a former school, workhouse or other institution.
This is also where it’s useful to know the administrative district of the parish (see page 7 above), as some directories (such as White’s 1845 Norfolk) list the towns within their Hundred division. Usually there’s some statistical and general information about the Hundred and which union the parishes belong to. Then the towns and villages are listed in alphabetical order within the Hundred, each containing:
- a potted history;
- a note of important buildings, usually the church and schools;
- information about the post office and carriers;
- a list of ‘private residents’, i.e. clergy, gentry and some tradespeople;
- a list of tradespeople, sorted by trade.
There are a few problems you need to be aware of when working with directories:
- There are often gaps in a series of directories available at a library.
- Earlier directories aren’t as detailed as later ones – for example, they might list a tradesperson, but wouldn’t list a labourer or servant.
- The suburbs and villages tend to be less well covered than major cities and town centres, and entries for small towns and villages often don’t include street names.
- Directories were prepared up to a year before publication, so the information might be out of date; other directories simply reprinted lists that were out of date.
- Details aren’t always reliable – street numbering in particular can be a problem as it’s either unreliable or missing, particularly before 1890.
- There are fewer directories available after the second world war, mainly due to the rise of free post office and, later, telephone directories.
Street directories tend to be more useful in tracing a business than in tracing individuals. I found them particularly useful when trying to track down the millers in Attleborough – and then again when I traced back the occupants of the cottage, using the census returns to help guide me. See Appendix 3 on page 187 and Appendix 4 on page 198 for examples of using directories to trace a particular occupation or the occupants of a house respectively.