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COVID lockdowns spur interest in house history — so how do you uncover your home's secrets?

By Rosemary Bolger
Researching and documenting the history of a house makes a great house-warming present.(Supplied: Sally Spurr)

Australians have spent more time than ever at home in the last two-and-a-half years, so it is little wonder some have become curious about what has gone on within their own four walls.

National Library of Australia reference librarian Ella Morrison says the COVID pandemic has spurred an increase in interest in house history.

"With lockdown and people spending more time in their homes and examining the environments around them, we've definitely got an influx of house-history-related questions," she said.

The style and building materials can help establish when a house was built and provide other clues.(Supplied: State Library NSW)

Requests come from the generally curious, people who have recently moved and want to establish a sense of belonging or home renovators wanting to be sympathetic to the original design.

Some have other-worldly motivations.

"We also do get quite a few inquiries from people — whether they say it explicitly or not — that believe the house might be haunted, or [the] property might be haunted," Ms Morrison said.

"They're wanting to know more about the background of the house.

"We're not mediums but we give it a shot."

There are three main areas to investigate: the physical features and style of the house, former owners and residents and what was happening in the local area.

So where do you start and what kind of information can you find in the records?

Who's been sleeping in my bed?

This is the question that most captivates people.

Past president of the Royal Australian Historical Society Christine Yeats says the best place to start to find previous owners and residents is the land registry in each state.

"That can tell you when the block came into being, if a mortgage was associated with the title, the names of people who owned the land through time and the dates the property changed hands," Ms Yeats told ABC Radio Sydney.

Councils have historic rates books, which also list occupiers of houses and details about the property.

Old post office directories, the precursor to the phone book, school admission lists and electoral rolls may also hold valuable information.

Some of these records are searchable online and are usually free to access.

One of the best resources is Trove — a digitised collection of newspapers published up until 1955.

Christine Yeats recommends also looking at what was happening in the street and the suburb.(Supplied: State Library NSW)

Even if nothing newsworthy happened at the property in question, it is often the personal notices where you find something relevant.

"Particularly with the death notices, they'll say that the funeral party is leaving from a house, and they'll give the address of the house," Ms Yeats said.

"You never know what you might find," Ms Yeats says.

Kat — who did not want to use her last name to avoid drawing more attention to the house — had not thought too much about who had previously lived in her house in a New South Wales coastal town south of Sydney, until her children noticed about 20 years ago that people were stopping out the front to take photos.

It turned out the former world leader of the Exclusive Brethren, John Hales, had grown up there and members of the secretive religion were coming by the busload to see it.

Kat said Mr Hales had also paid a visit.

"He actually came in the house; he cried because it was just the same as when he was growing up," she said.

Style of house

Examining the physical characteristics of your house, from the type of roof and windows to building materials and their relationship with the garden can be revealing.

Ms Morrison said there were online resources by the National Trust, state heritage councils, as well as books on Australian house styles.

"So that's one way that you might like to date your house and learn more about it," she said.

Old photos are a valuable resource for house historians.(Supplied: State Library NSW)

Ms Yeats also suggests looking at deceased estate files in states that collect death duties.

"You can find, sometimes, the details about what was actually inside the house," she said.

"And that gives you an amazing sense of how that house might have changed over time."

Many houses have been converted from former shops, hotels and factories with evidence of their former uses left in the design and architecture. 

In the case of Sally Spurr's Wentworth Falls holiday house in the Blue Mountains, it was used as a golf club's headquarters for decades after the original clubhouse was gutted by fire in 1948.

Wentworth Falls Country Club set up a makeshift clubhouse after the original building was gutted by fire.(Supplied: Sally Spurr)

What is now a lounge room and bedrooms was a bar with poker machines until 1976.

It is also rumoured to have hosted an illegal poker den at one stage. 

Ms Spurr, who purchased the house in 2017, feels the history adds to the character of the house.

"It's interesting to stand there and wonder what it was like with the ching-ching of the poker machines," she said.

Sally Spurr cherishes the photos of her house from when it was used as the clubhouse for the nearby golf course.(Supplied: Sally Spurr)

Broaden your search

It is not all about the individual property, Ms Yeats says. She advises widening the lens to look at what was going on around the house in the local street or suburb.

This is where local historical societies play an essential role.

"They'll have those kinds of unpublished notes and the local folklore elements that, I think, is really interesting," Ms Morrison said.

While official records give detail about an area's colonial history, they do not reflect the Indigenous owners of the land.

However, Ms Morrison says there are still helpful resources available at libraries, as well as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

"It's a little bit more complex and complicated, but very rewarding," she said.

A thoughtful house-warming gift

The focus does not have to be your own home either — some people are curious about a house a family member grew up in or perhaps their favourite house in the street.

Ms Morrison said some were doing the research for a friend or family member as a house-warming gift.

It can be a meaningful exercise.

"We recently had an inquiry from somebody who was helping two elderly friends whose house was badly damaged in a fire, and they lost many of their precious belongings," Ms Morrison said.

"This person was trying to find some information about the house that she might give her elderly friends to kind of give them that sense of home back again."

Documenting your house history is also helpful to the next generation of local residents.

Ms Yeats suggests giving a copy to your local library to help future researchers.