Historic House Hunting

‘A’ asks:

I was wondering if you knew where I could find out the history of the house I live in, in Royal Hill. It is a very old house and I would love to find old pictures and names of families who lived there.

The Phantom replies:

I’m no expert on house genealogy, but there are a few basic things you can do before getting in really deep and having to start trawling for clues…

Firstly, there are the censuses. They’re held once every ten years and go back, I believe, to 1801. The details are not released for 100 years, but once they are, they are in the public domain. Several are now online; the most recent, 1901, bust the computer system when it first arrived. Some, like 1901, can be searched free, others cost money. If you don’t mind a trek, nip over to Kew to see the original paper versions.


Royal Hill is one of the oldest roads in Greenwich, but I doubt if there will be many survivals from before the census began – my (rank amateur) guess is around the 1830 mark for many of them. There are free and paid-for census searches from 1841 onwards at:


The problem with the censuses is that they were (and are) a bit hit-and-miss. They’re full of clerical errors, spelling mistakes and downright lies and their major hiccup is that the census only shows who was where at one specific night on that year. So if people were away, or merely staying at a house, that doesn’t get reflected in the report. Even now there are some people who think it’s hilarious to tell posterity that they are Jedi knights or Vulcans. I daresay that the clerks of tomorrow will just create a simple shorthand for this category – wankers.

Another relatively simple, but even less accurate snapshot can be found in the electoral roll, produced mainly from the 20th century onwards (don’t quote me on this) with a few hiatuses during the war years. They are a bit fiddly as the boundaries kept changing, and they only list those eligible to vote – so minors are not counted, but it’s utterly fascinating stuff. At one point, my own tiny little gaff had ELEVEN adults living in it, and the next year two more turned 21 – a frightening thought indeed. Heaven only knows how many under-voting-age kids were there too. They must have slept in shifts. It’s easy enough to see these records – they’re at the Heritage Centre in Woolwich – a mildly annoying trip away these days.


There is a facsimile Greenwich Directory from 1849 that seems relatively easily acquired – a sort of telephone directory from before the days of Alexander Graham Bell. I had a quick peek in my copy for you, ‘A,’ and sadly your house number isn’t there. But many people are just listed as living in Royal Hill – only a few actually have numbers. They mainly appear to have been artisans and professionals – shopkeepers, dressmakers, coach-drivers etc. I am puzzled by Number One which has several people listed, including, among others, a butcher, a stationer and a vicar – must have been a cosmopolitan household indeed. It’s entirely possible that there are directories from other years available too – ask the guys at the Heritage Centre.

But there are easy things to do too. Ask your neighbours about more recent inhabitants. Look at the deeds of the house (if they still exist – many don’t nowadays after a slightly short-sighted decision a decade or so ago to make some house deeds ‘paperless.’) Look in the attics, and under floorboards when you decorate – even in the garden as you dig – I have a growing collection of oddities I’ve fished out from under – well – all sorts of places in my own home.

There are several good places to continue your search and some great books to be had out there. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/househistory/ has some hints and also a couple of books available which might help. You’re possibly luckier than some in that Royal Hill has been documented a lot over the centuries; you should be able to find plenty of stuff.

As for photos, again at the Heritage Centre, they have large boxes of photos in alphabetical order of streets. I think you will find quite a lot in there. They are incredibly helpful people, and often find themselves sucked into the search too, almost as fascinated as you are…

Good luck – and do let me know how you get on!

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