Northumberland, History Society

View of Belford
Picture by Jane Coltman
View of Belford Picture by Jane Coltman

Gill Blanchard is a professional genealogist and house historian, and undertakes work for clients wishing to find out more about their own house or houses their ancestors lived in.

In the past many people used their home as their place of work, which adds another factor to the research.

A knowledge of basic architectural terms is helpful and she often calls in specialists in timber, bricks, etc, to provide more expert advice.

We were taken through many and varied sources of historical documents which can be used.

Perhaps the more familiar of census returns can also be the one with most pitfalls. For example, the numbers on the left side of the enumerator’s sheet do not denote house numbers, but the number of the household in sequence. Working out the route followed by the enumerator may help identify the property.

Many houses in rural areas do not show a house number even in the 1911 census, and it was not unknown for houses to be renumbered.

It is important to check a building with a modern map to ensure it is the correct one, then pinpoint it on an older map against permanent landmarks. Aerial maps can identify landmarks in developed areas where individual houses are difficult to pick out.

Entries from the Doomsday Book can be downloaded from the National Archives. These give the name of the landowner in 1086, though, sadly, not for Northumberland as it was considered for the enumerators too far North and wild for comfort. However, if your ancestors lived in a mill you may find it mentioned.

The modern day equivalent is the Land Registry, begun in 1862 and compulsory for change of owner since 1990.

If you have no deeds to refer to, it is possible a copy is available at the local Record Office. Otherwise deeds of nearby properties may shed light on yours. They are rarely catalogued so much searching through solicitors’ bundles may be required, but you may find wills and marriage certificates tucked inside.

Other useful sources are the National Farms Survey 1941-44, held at the National Archives at Kew, which may be downloaded for a fee, and land valuations for 1910, normally kept at record offices. They consist of notebooks with names of owner and occupier, which match with a numbered property on a map.

Gill often does research for Who Do You Think You Are? TV series, and by using old maps and measuring distances she identified the house in Norwich in which Mary Berry’s ancestor lived.

Local authorities hold minutes of council committees, which may contain references to buildings erected from the 19th century. Where slum clearances took place and there is nothing left, do not despair for there could be engineers’ reports, letters of objection and newspaper reports to look at.

Other sources are electoral registers (street indexes are available for larger towns), adverts in newspapers for houses for sale or rent, and trade directories.

Tithe maps are under-used, but can uncover fascinating details after 1836 and are available in record offices. They list owners and occupiers, and are available online.

Estate maps, for example that of Belford Hall on display at Belford Museum, often name tenants of properties. Manorial records may also mention individual 1780-1832 probate records and Poor Law records.

This talk attracted a large audience and clearly had a wide appeal. The speaker has an in-depth knowledge of the subject, as well as many years of practical experience. No doubt some of the audience will make their way to Berwick and Woodhorn Archives to investigate the relevant resources.

Our next meeting, the last of the current season, will be on Saturday, May 20, at 9.45am for 10am, at Bell View, Belford, and will be our AGM, followed by a Members’ Stories session. The topic this time will be left open so you have a completely free choice of what to contribute.