Discover the History of your House - From your Couch

If you live in a house of some age and have even a fleeting interest in history, one of the most rewarding projects you can undertake is to research the story of your home and it's past dwellers. With the growing amount of information available online - digitized images, films and records - this type of research is immeasurably easier than it was only a few years ago. There's no need to bury yourself in government archives and library microfilm departments. You can do it over the course of a few evenings, from the comfort of your favourite couch if you have a laptop. 

So let's do a step by step walk-through of the research process. The approach relies entirely on publicly accessible materials or historical documents that can be sourced over the web and from our local government departments. In this part we will focus on the research method and in the second installment we will look closer at the information that I have uncovered for my own Auchenflower house - let's call it a case study.

Step 1 - The Style of your House

For vintage Queensland houses, the range of architectural styles can be broadly divided into five categories that represent an overlapping chronological sequence from the first free settlement of the mid 1800s to the early post-war era. A quick inspection of your house should be enough to give you a clue as to its approximate age, based on the following classification:

1. Primitive - this house style is perhaps irrelevant as it is now extinct from the Brisbane suburbs but we will include it here for the sake of historical completeness. Apart from a handful of well-built stone or brick buildings, residential houses erected from the first free settlements of the 1930s and over the following decades were typically rudimentary, one-room huts made of split or sawn timber slabs. They were temporary in nature and few have survived the Queensland insects and elements although the country side is scattered with remnants of their withered frames.!

2. Colonial and Victorian - includes designs used extensively from the late 1800's through to the turn of the century. The term "colonial" is often misused (in real estate advertisements) to denote anything regarded as old and grand so don't be misled. Perhaps the most easily recognizable Colonial style is the gabled cottages which are dotted around the earliest suburbs. They typically have steeply pitched roofs and are one room deep and two rooms wide with a stepped extension to the back. They are very distinct and represent the oldest type of still-inhabited houses in Brisbane, having gone out of fashion as early as the 1890s.

The second and more widespread type of Colonial building is the "pyramid" or "short-ridge" cottage which gave rise to the Queenslander style as we know it. Conspicuously perched on wooden stumps and often on hillsides, these houses were generally of a square configuration with an internal partitioning that allowed for a separate hallway, sleeping and living spaces. The street front had a formal veranda which sometimes extended around the sides of the house. The steeply pitched roofs, stepped verandas and often brick chimneys set these houses apart from later bungalow styles.

Colonial styles, including (from left) gabled cottage, gabled cottage with multiple extensions to the rear, pyramid roof and short ridge roof.
3. Federation - commencing in the last decade of the 1800's saw the adoption of the Bungalow as the new standard for residential housing. The style is characterized by low-pitched roofs that continue across the verandas, in other words the veranda roofs are no longer stepped down and separate from the core roof. Derivatives of the style include symmetrical and asymmetrical bungalows with various configurations of front-facing or surrounding verandas, porches, projecting gables and sleepouts. The permutations of style elements are endless. By the time of the federation most houses no longer had brick chimneys but were fitted with stove alcoves - corrugated iron boxes with small metal chimneys attached to the external kitchen wall.

Federation asymmetrical (left) and symmetrical (right) bungalows
4. Inter War - the 1920's to 1940's saw a continued evolution of the bungalow style, often with more complex street-facing facades incorporating three gables or wide double gables. The depression of the 1920's combined with depleting local timber stocks gave rise to a more compact and space efficient footprint with smaller verandas and fewer porches but the houses were was nevertheless decorated with ornate gable infills, bay windows, brackets etc. But by the late 1930s the vernacular Queenslander style was increasingly displaced by new design trends such as the rather plain "conventional" timber and brick houses that showed no particular regional variation. The new era also embraced cultural influences from the US including Spanish Mission and Californian Bungalows, and the revival of Tudor and other old British styles. Functionalist and Art Deco-inspired buildings also emerged in this period of great architectural diversity.

Inter-war styles, including (from left) Multi Gable, Double Gable, Art Deco and Conventional
5. Post War - a period extending into the 60's and beyond where minimalist aesthetics, widespread car ownership and artificial building materials converged to create new ideas of municipal planning and residential housing design. Thus began the era of remote automobile commuter suburbs, severed from the constraints of architectural tradition and public transport. Perhaps a few of these buildings will survive to celebrate their centenary birthdays, and at that point they may even be considered pretty or at least quaint. Or perhaps not.

This is only scraping the surface of Queensland's residential building styles but you can find another overview with pictorial guides here. Wikipedia also has good articles on some of the common styles. For a deep dive into the subject you can't go past the comprehensive Brisbane House Styles 1880 to 1940, A Guide to the Affordable House (Judy Gale Rechner, Brisbane History Group) and for non-Queensland regions the excellent Identifying Australian Architecture, Styles and Terms from 1788 to the recent (Apperly, Irving & Reynolds; 1989).

You should also look at the houses around you to establish the general character and age of your area. Beware that even demolition controlled areas will have modern houses, and in other cases the reverse applies where buildings have been relocated from older to newer neighborhoods. The progression of architectural styles had significant overlaps and an area developed in for example Federation days will include buildings with throw-back Colonial features.

Step 2 - Aerial Photos and Maps

McKellar's 1895 map of the Western Suburbs, as viewed in the
Queensland Historical Atlas
Historic maps, photos and aerial photographs can provide fabulous sources of information on the evolution of your suburb. There's a reasonable body of'material available on-line and it is growing constantly. The Trove (more on this below) contains several collections and, if they aren't available on-line, will point you to their location. Libraries can often post you a high-resolution digital copy for a small fee. The Queensland Historical Atlas and the State Library One Search engine are also good sources.

1884 estate map, sourced from Trove
The earlier maps can show you the evolution of your region, successive developments of suburbs and subdivisions and in some cases cadastral-style information including the original owners of the land. Later maps can shed light on the development of individual streets, changes to street names and the locations of any schools and other public institutions that may have disappeared over time. You may also come across old Estate maps, essentially advertising leaflets made for the original subdivisions of land, providing information on auction dates, allotment borders, public transport and other local amenities of the time.

As you search the online sources, use search strings that include the suburb name, "historical" and "map" to begin with. Watch out for changes to suburb boundaries over time and include a few surrounding burbs to cover this eventuality.

Another key information source is the Brisbane City Council "PDOnline" mapping service, which has a layer of aerial photographs from 1946 that can be zoomed and toggled on and off to compare with recent aerial photos.


Press the "I Agree" button on the bottom of the entry pate and then select "Online Mapping" on the next page. The map will open up and you can proceed with panning, zooming and selecting the items you want to look at on the left hand menu.

Aerial photos of the Torwood neighborhood, from 1946 (left) and 2009 (right). Sourced from
the BCC PDonline tool.
By zooming in on your house you can establish whether or not it was there in 1946, but also identify any extensions and other external changes undertaken since that year. Clicking the "cadastre" view will give you the Real Property Description for your lot which is required in the next step.

Step 3 - Title Certificates

Certificates of Title for a
property,covering all transactions 
from 1920 to 1981.
The Certificates of Title for your property will provide the foundation for all of your detailed research on the previous owners of your land. In Queensland all records of titles are kept electronically by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, and the friendly staff at the Titles Registry Customer Enquiry Service on Level 11 of 53 Albert St in Brisbane will guide you through the search process. Don't be shy - they handle plenty of inquiries from amateur historians.

You will need the Real Property Description (RPD) from the RPData site mentioned above or your council rate notice - normally this is all they require to get the search underway. Note that the RPD may be different to your mailing address.

The officers at the Titles Registry will search the sequence of certificates while you wait, working back in time from the current certificate. You should state up-front that you are undertaking historical research and that you want the search to cover all previous owners of the lot. Eventually you will reach the Deed of Grant, which documents the transfer of the parcel of virgin land from the crown to the first owner. Every separate piece of paper printed will incur a modest fee and for a colonial-era property may cost up to the $200-mark or so, depending on the number of previous owners.

You should beware that the certificates of title refer to the land, which may or may not incorporate buildings. In many cases the original owners simply sub-divided and on-sold the land without building a house. Look out for a first mortgage stamp on the sequence of certificates, which may indicate a construction year.

When you have all the certificates and the original grant of land, copy the information into your PowerPoint pack including names, transaction years and any information on the land area covered by the deeds. Make a separate slide for each transaction in chronological order - this will form the backbone for your research. Some of the older deeds contain layers of ornate handwriting that can be hard to decipher but again this is simply a matter of practice.

Step 4 - Search the Trove

We are very fortunate in Australia to have access to what is probably one of the best on-line historical archives freely available to the public in the world. The Trove project is run by the National Library and contains resources from all states. For historical research the database of digitized newspapers from 1803 to 1954 is particularly valuable and the body of information is growing by the day. This is indeed a great treasure, which you will appreciate during the course of your research.

The Trove start page - just type in your search terms
and watch the amazing range of hits from various sources

Search for the names of the people listed in the title certificates and any other information about these persons that you come across - addresses, street names, house names, occupations, companies, memberships of clubs and societies etc. Every new piece of relevant information will yield more names and terms for your search - keep pasting them into your chronologically ordered PowerPoint pack. The usual search rules apply but you should be aware of the following gotchas:

1 - Scanned and digitized document and newspaper texts are often incorrectly translated. Trove contains a facility that allows readers to correct the digitized text but the sanitized sections constitute a small proportion of the overall material. When searching, for example for the surname "Eriksson", you should also do few follow-up searches for likely permutations that may arise from the digitization process. For example "Erlksson and "Enksson". In my experience this can generate additional hits. The * wildcard can also be used for this purpose.

2 - You will gradually learn the conventions of language and writing for the eras that you are researching. For example - a lady by the name of Jessie Martin married to Sidney Martin in 1910 would always be referred to as "Mrs Sidney Martin" or "Mrs S. Martin". "Jones Street" would be written as "Jones-Street".

3 - Legal notices in newspapers generally referred to full names - for example "Jessie Evelyn Martin". Make sure to include the full names as well as abbreviations in your searches.

4 - The size and address of your house will influence the number of hits from the newspaper archives. Society in the late 1800's through to the first decades of the new century was strictly stratified and the daily lives of middle to upper-crust citizens subject to scrutiny and reporting. For example, Victorian society ladies would advertise if they weren't to be "at-home" on a particular day to receive visits. Well into the new century society families would broadcast any inter-state visits from prominent friends, where and when they would take holiday and other social trivia. Dwellers of the more modest worker's cottages were unlikely to receive this level of attention and it will probably show in your search results.

5 - Street names and numbers may have changed over time. Street numbers were rare before 1940 and most houses were referred to using house names, which also changed. If you run into a dead end, stop what you're doing and question your assumptions.

Step 5 - Search Ancestry.com

The second key resource is ancestry.com.au - a commercial genealogy service offering a wide range of databases relating to family history. The service can be tried for free for a 14-day period or, if your research requires it, you can subscribe on a monthly or yearly basis. I would consider this resource essential and well worth the cost. Again you can expect the size of the underlying database to grow steadily over time to yield ever more information on your subjects of interest. There is also a subscription option that includes international data, should one of your subjects have roots outside the country. Other genealogical on-line services may offer similar functionality.

Use the engine to track down as much information as you can on the inhabitants of your house, their birth place, year of marriage, spouse, children, address, occupations, year of death etc. Census records and electoral rolls will confirm the years and places of habitation and information on occupations that can be used for further searches in Trove. Take snapshots of the information and paste it into your PowerPoint pack as you go.

As with most other transcribed or digitized sources you'll need to be mindful of the accuracy of the text, and make some allowances for human and machine errors. Transcribed sources are particularly unreliable when it comes to non-English or uncommon names. For example, a search for an 1871 Swedish migrant to Maryborough, Cecilia Welander, revealed variations including Cecelie, Cecielye, Ciciely, and Cecileye. The surname had a few mutations as well. Make sure to include a few alternative spellings or use the * wildcard.

Users of Ancestry.com.au also create their own family trees which are often public. Perhaps one of the previous owners have descendants that can provide information? Why not ask them - using the integrated messaging service. You may well be able to fill some gaps in their research in return.

Other Sources

If someone contacted you out of the blue, told you that they are the current owners of your childhood home and asked for some history on it - would you be offended? I certainly wouldn't. In fact I would be delighted to share my memories of a place that I once loved, and in my experience so will most people. You will probably be able to trace down at least some of the past inhabitants, so why not give it a go and make contact? Facebook, LinkedIn and Google are good places to start. Descendants of past owners can often be traced and contacted using Ancestry.com.

The same goes for the senior members of your neighborhood. Old timers love to talk about the olden days - ask if you can record the conversation and enjoy the trip back in time. A beer or glass of sherry may facilitate the narrative. Documented oral histories are quite rare and for every day that passes the opportunities to capture them diminish.

Apart from the on-line sources there are plenty of archival materials that are yet to be digitized and made available on-line, and in some cases they may never be. Useful sources include:
  • Perhaps some of the past owners, or their extended families, made their marks in the Queensland history books? It's more likely than you may think. The Text Queensland website http://www.textqueensland.com.au/ contains an excellent collection of searchable Queensland history books including the mammoth Fox's History of Queensland (2,800 pages, published 1919-21) and Aldine history of Queensland (1,100 pages, published 1888). Also included in the collection is hundreds of articles from the Royal Historical Society of Queensland and other key sources. You can search all of this information and much more using the search box on the home page. 
  • The Text Queensland site also contains all published versions of Pughs Almanack (1859-1927) and Queensland Government Gazettes (1859-1900). Pughs is a government and commercial directory offering a wealth of information on people and organisations, and the Government Gazettes documented matters concerning government policy, transactions and appointments of the colonial era. These are huge bodies of information - totaling about 160,000 pages of text. Unfortunately the Text Queensland search engine won't pick up the digitized text in these documents so if you want to search them you will need to download them to your hard drive, which will take a few hours. But if you're serious about your research this will certainly be worth your while.
    Surveyor's field book for a
    1910''s house
  • Surveyor's field books for water and sewerage and accompanying detailed plans of your property - available from the Brisbane City Council archives in Moorooka. The field books, covering the period from the 1910s through to the 1960s, provide excellent outlines of the houses including verandas and outbuildings. The staff at the archive are very helpful and will guide you through the process, but make sure to contact them first to check opening times.
  • Parish maps - available from the State Library or Brisbane City archives. With a bit of luck, a parish map will include the details of the original owner of the land which should be confirmed by the Deed of Grant of Land.
    Brisbane Parish map, ca 1910
  • Council rates ledgers - available from the Brisbane City Archives. Note that most council boundaries have changed over time and you need to know which council record to search for a particular period. The rates ledgers may be able to tell you every inhabitant of the house, including renters. A "jump" in the council rate may indicate that a house was built that year.
  • Post office directories - available on microfilm or hard-copy at the State Library of Queensland.
  • Cadastral and survey maps, available from the State Archives or the Department of Natural Resources and Mines.
  • Following the introduction of the 1909 Worker's Dwelling Act, records of mortgages granted by either the Queensland Government Savings Bank, Queensland State Advances Corporation or the QLD housing commission, depending on the date of issue. The annual reports for mortgages issued are held on microfilm at the state archives. 
  • "Property cards", documenting any planning approvals for individual houses post 1946, available from the BCC archives.

Archive Digital Book CDs, available for a fee through Gould Genalogy, include Queensland Post Office and Telephone Directories, Polize Gazettes, Pastoral Directories, Education Gazettes and a host of other primary sources that are very useful for the serious researcher.

If you know of any additional sources please let me know and I will include them in the list. But - between the Certificates of Title, Trove and Ancestry.com.au you should be able to find enough information to make good headway into your research. As your pack of information grows you can begin to string together a coherent narrative and timeline. There will be gaps - of course - but we can always leave some for a rainy day or the next lot of owners.

Part two of this series presents a case study for our own house and the information that can be found using the methods and sources described above.

Enjoy your trip back in time and let me know how you go! I will update this page as new sources and methods come to light, so it may be worthwhile checking back.

3 comments:

  1. Hi there, I've had a quick read-through the above info (but I'll have a better look when the kids are asleep.) Would love to learn more about the history of my home - so any info on doing this is most welcome. Many thanks, Caroline

    ReplyDelete
  2. thank you for sharing! i am currently piecing together the history of our Greenslopes Queenslander - we are lucky enough to be merely the 3rd owners! and the previous owners lived here for 50 years!! so the dear old lady has given us a little information on what the house was like before they decked it out 60s style - carpet, wallpaper, false styrofoam ceiling!! eep! ...i'm itching to tear it all down & reveal the beauty beneath!

    but they exact year of construction is still a mystery. i have obtained all the title certificates (which are fascinating!) ...and i'm off to the BCC Archives tomorrow to find out more! i'm very excited!

    thanks again, and i am so glad to have found this blog!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Sophia - good luck and let us know how you get on! Perhaps we can showcase your house's history in this blog one day.

    ReplyDelete