Inside every building is a story to tell, reveals house historian

House historian Pamela Speirs reseaching with old books and maps
House historian Pamela Speirs reseaching with old books and maps

Every house has a story to tell, its own unique history.

And one lady keen to unravel the secrets of the past is house historian Pamela Speirs.

Having completed a degree in history of the visual arts in the modern period in the late 1990s, specialising in architecture, Pamela has since turned her love of the past and local history in particular into a fascinating business.

As a house historian, she has been researching properties for a number of years.

She explains: “When I finished my degree an architect I knew asked me to do research on some projects - the first was an old pub in Gateshead which needed a report for English Heritage to support a grant application for its restoration.”

Pamela painstakingly pieced together the colourful history of the building - originally nicknamed ‘The Coffin’ due to its triangular shape - and its inhabitants, from the time work had begun on it in 1852. She prepared a report for presentation to English Heritage and the application for grant aid was successful.

An other commission involved researching a derelict mill buildings and a main house on the north Northumberland coast, Tuggalmill.

The new owner required chronological details of the historic development of the land and buildings to make a confident application for planning and listed building consent.

“I consulted specific records, mainly archival materials which were held by the Northumberland and Morpeth Records Offices which included tithe maps, estate plans, valuations and rental documents,” Pamela recalls.

“References to the estate were traced back to 1450 when repairs were carried out and to an indenture (sale) of land dated 1625. By 1847 the mill had ceased operating, and the original house was in such a state of disrepair that it was demolished, and a new house was built in the 1960s.”

Pamela also identified the various farmers and inhabitants of the property over the years by trawling through the census records. From these early projects, Pamela has developed her business and now offers a professional, confidential research service for a variety of house types and properties in north Northumberland, the Scottish Borders and East Lothian, tailored to clients’ particular needs.

“The research can be split into two distinct areas: firstly, the property, its structure and how it fits into its local area; and secondly, its previous inhabitants, who they were and their occupations,” Pamela explains. “Your house or property does not have to be listed or large and important, all types of properties have their own particular story to tell, the building itself and its past inhabitants.”

Her research uses primarily archival documentary evidence to determine a building’s history.

“What can be found out will depend on what information existed in the first place, and what has survived and is available now,” she says.

In the course of every project Pamela undertakes, she aims to find out when the property was built, who has owned and lived in it over the years, and how the building has been used throughout its history.

She also looks at the land that has been associated with the properties, and tries to uncover interesting facts or stories about the house, as well as summarising the relevant history and events that have shaped the area.

“People think we can go on the internet to do that, but they’ll only find what a particular archive holds in its catalogue,” Pamela says. “There’s nothing as good as getting the document out yourself and looking at it.

“I find out as much as I can about what clients know about the house already. Then I check local archives, and then national archives, such as the Edinburgh map library,” she explains.

“I love looking at old maps. I took a commission for a couple in East Lothian who lived in an old farm house and I found it on a map that dated back to 1630, which was really exciting. It’s a good idea to try and talk to people in the area who may remember things as well, memory can plays tricks but it can sometimes offer a starting point.”

Throughout the course of her research, Pamela collects any images relating to the property, such as old postcards, plans, maps and sketches, which she will analyse and interpret, and then include in her write-up to produce an interesting narrative of the property’s history, which is presented to the client in a bound report along with all relevant research material.

“It’s not a straightforward and easy job to do and there are sometimes pitfalls and dead ends that don’t produce what you had expected, and hoped for,” Pamela adds, “but overall I find the whole process stimulating and very rewarding.”

For more information about Pamela’s work visit www.yourhousehistorian.co.uk