The Isle of Wight Society

November 2021

Our houses through time

Do you know when your house was built?  Do you know who lived there before you? 

Many people may have been inspired by the recent series on television where the social history of a single house is researched from the time it was built.   Fascinating facts emerge about the people who lived in the house before the present occupants.

Some houses were built to house workers at local industrial sites.  The terraces in Alfred Street in East Cowes were constructed by the landowner who wished to employ brick makers and builders.  The 1871 census reveals that one of these houses was rented by a brick maker and his family, together with four lodgers, all brick makers. The house only had two bedrooms, so the accommodation must have been very crowded! 

Alfred Street, East Cowes

Tied housing was very common.  Farmworkers might be provided with a cottage if they had a family.  Otherwise, several single farm labourers would lodge with the farmer and his wife.

Large houses often had a gatehouse, where an estate worker’s wife would act as lodge keeper and open the gates when required, perhaps earning sixpence a week in Victorian times.   The coachman for the big house might have a cottage for his family.  Sometimes these cottages had many similar architectural features to the large house.  The large house may now have been demolished, leaving an ornate little cottage stranded in a modern housing estate.

The first thing is to research the names of the people who lived in your house.  This can be done by looking at the old Street Directories.  A set of these are held at the County Records Office in Newport, and local Heritage Centres may have copies of their area.  Once you have a name, you can look that person up in the Census records online.  

Prior to the 1880s, only the wealthier people are listed in the Street Directories, although there are also some Trade Directories.   But if you can look through the Census records from 1841 onwards, you will find it fascinating, and lead you on to researching more about the person in the County Press Archive on line.  During Lockdown some Heritage Groups have been transcribing Census Records for their area – making it much easier to look for your house.

Use old maps to establish an approximate date for your house.  You can do this at the Records Office, at local Heritage Centres and on line.  The Island population expanded rapidly in Victorian times, especially after the railways were established in the 1860s and 70s.  West Wight received their railway later, so many of the houses in Freshwater were built in Edwardian times. 

Can you produce a “House History Book?”  A copy of this should remain in your house, so that when the house is sold, the recorded history of the building stays with it.  Even if your house is new, and you are the first owner, start the details going for the next occupant to continue!

Sarah Burdett

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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