Researching a Location’s History

For many teams just capturing paranormal activity and learning a minimal amount of a location’s history is enough. However, other teams, like API, prefer to do a more in-depth study of a location, its history and the people who used to inhabit it. Without the many years of stored up energy and emotions from previous inhabitants a location would just be an empty shell of cold wood and stone. It is those who used to live, love, laugh, cry and daydream in a building that give it a sense of still being alive and active with shades of the past.

Although researching a location’s history might at first seem daunting with just a few tips you’ll soon be adding flesh to the bones of your locations.

There are lots of stories on the internet about haunted locations but these alone cannot give you the most accurate history of a place. Over the years stories change and become embellished, often becoming very different from the original telling of the story. To gain a more accurate description of a location and its former inhabitants you need to search primary resources. The first place to look is the main County Archives for the area, as well as the larger libraries.

Census records are a prime source for determining who lived or worked at a location during the years of 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901. The 1911 census has not yet been released for public viewing. Most census records can be accessed through a pay-per-view or subscription service. Ancestry UK is one of those services. However, some census records are available for free online, as well as at some libraries. FreeCen is run by a group of people who are slowly but surely transcribing every UK census and then offering it free to search and view online. Another free site which offers the 1881 census is Family Search Org, run by the LDS church. Although many of their vital records are questionable the census records are very good. For years in-between the census enumerations check tax rolls and electoral rolls.

Chances are there will be an old burial ground or churchyard not too far from your location. It is always a good idea to see if the people who once inhabited your location are buried locally. Gravestones often provide vital information, such as birth and death dates as well as familial relationships. You also gain important clues from reading the other gravestones. You might notice that a particular year had a rather large number of deaths in comparison with other years. This could indicate either an epidemic of some sort, like cholera, or a disaster of some sort, like a mine cave-in, fire, flood, etc… This kind of information gives you a fuller view of life in general for the people who lived and worked in or near your location. You might also consider looking into the possibility that the person you are seeking information about left a will. Generally wills went into final probate within a year of the will writer’s death, unless there were contestations to be dealt with through the courts.

Check all of the outside walls of a location. There’s a good chance that somewhere a date of construction will be carved into a wall, under an eave or on a cornerstone or keystone. Always ask if the owner or manager of a location happens to have the old deeds to the place. These offer a wealth of information and sometimes include the original building and floor plans. There are some good sites out there which offer advice about researching old buildings. One of these is Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles. There is also the BBC Family History Page. If you know the name of the house that you are investigating you might find it through a search of the DiCamillo Companion – Houses Database.

Old Business and City Directories also offer information of use. Not only can you find a basic idea of how long a building has stood in its spot, you can also trace the name changes of streets over the years, or even changes of name in your location if it was a building used mostly for business purposes. The Historical Directories site, hosted by the University of Leicester, is one of the best resources on the internet, and it is absolutely free to search and view.

Old newspapers, which can be found at most major county libraries, also offer a lot of useful information. If you suspect that a crime was committed in the past at your location, or that it suffered from fire, etc… it is very likely that the event has been recorded in a newspaper or some type of annual register.

You might wish to verify the birth, marriage or death dates based on information gathered during your investigations. There are a number of very good sites for locating this information. One very inexpensive site is Find My Past, which offers a wealth of records to search through. For those teams operating on a tighter budget I recommend FreeBMD, which allows you to search for births, marriages and deaths recorded after Sept. 1837. For vital events that occurred BEFORE Sept. 1837 you will need to search through old parish registers, which could be a bit more difficult to locate. Generally it helps to know where the subject in question was born, married or died, and which church they belonged to at the time of the vital event. Over the past few years a volunteer group has been transcribing old parish registers and making them available for free on the internet. The records are far from complete as this will be a long-term project that could take many years to finish. It is still worth having a search through their site, called FreeReg. If you are unfamiliar with where to locate a particular parish register you might wish to try looking through Britannia Parish Churches. Another site which you might find of use is GENUKI Church Database. To help you further understand parish registers and the information they contain make sure to visit Parish Registers. Also available for free download is the Parish Locator Program.

Local residents of an area are also a wonderful source for information as long as you bear in mind that not everything you are told will be completely accurate. This doesn’t mean that people are deliberately trying to mislead you, as this is not the case. It simply means that memories can be very selective or a story is being re-told that has been around for a very long time, often with a number of changes and embellishments through the passing years. By all means use the stories you collect from interested local residents, but also make sure to double check it if possible. We’ve met many local people who were warm, friendly and very happy to share their memories and stories of a place.

There is a wealth of information available out there that will help you to fill in the history of your location. You just have to be willing to look for it. For more research ideas be sure to visit our Research Resources page, found on the main menu of this site.

Written by Cindy Nunn