How to Research the History of Your House: Local Libraries and Archives
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How to Research the History of Your House: Local Libraries and Archives

This guide offers useful techniques for anyone who wishes to research the history of their house, street or other aspects of local architecture. The guide outlines the major types of collections available and highlights sources that will help you uncover the fascinating history of architecture.

This guide offers advice for anyone wishing to research the history of their house, street or other aspects of local architecture.  It is impossible to anticipate everyone's needs, so I have used resources within my own locality as a case study. Hopefully, this will provide generic advice about the nature of source material available.

The major libraries and archives in North East England are listed below in alphabetical order, together with a brief discussion of their architectural holdings.

City Library and Arts Centre, Sunderland

The Local Studies department of the City Library contains over 10,000 books on Sunderland, as well as journals, maps, photographs, newspapers and official records. Sources useful for architectural history include:

  • Copies of local newspapers from 1831 onwards. Newspapers often reported on major building projects in Sunderland. If you know when a particular building was constructed, you can consult newspapers of the period to find valuable contemporary reports. Pay particular attention to the dates that construction was begun and completed.
  • A large collection of maps dating from 1723. This includes every Ordnance Survey map of Sunderland from the 1st edition of 1855 to the latest printed editions. Maps are invaluable for gaining a sense of Sunderland’s urban form and charting its evolution over time. They can help to pinpoint the date buildings or streets were constructed.
  • Trade directories such as Ward’s and Christie’s are crucial sources for local historians. They reveal which businesses were operating in the town and can reveal what individual buildings were used for.
  • The historian Graham Potts has produced comprehensive biographical files on many of the architects who practised in Sunderland. These detail each architect’s education and training, professional activity, completed buildings and publications. Also provided are details of any obituaries that have been published.

For more details see:

Archival photo of High Street, Sunderland

Ward's Directory, 1909-10

Durham County Record Office

Durham County Record Office houses the records of Durham County Council and other local authorities, churches, schools and colleges. There is a wealth of material pertaining to architectural history. A particular highlight is a collection of documents relating to St. Andrew’s Church, Roker, the most architecturally significant building in Sunderland.

Mural design, St Andrew's Church, Roker (1927)

Mural, St Andrew's Church, Roker

Living History North East

Living History North East is an oral history resource established in 1995. The archive also includes an extensive collection of historic photographs and film reels, most of which have been digitised.

Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Founded in 1900, Sunderland Antiquarian Society has amassed an extensive archive, including much material relating to Sunderland buildings. The archive is accessible to members and visitors, but an appointment must be booked as the society relies on volunteers. The society is currently based in Sunderland Minster.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Sunderland Museum has a vast collection of photographs of old Sunderland, including street scenes and views of notable buildings.[/l

Tyne & Wear Archives

The Tyne & Wear Archives in Newcastle house many documents relating to buildings and streets. There is an extensive collection of building plans, along with the professional papers of some local architectural firms, including C.H. Fowler, Simpson, Lawson & Raine, Cackett, Burns Dick & MacKellar, and W.H. Wood. The collection also includes the minute books of Sunderland Borough Council and important sub-committees such as the Building Committee.

There is more detail about the Sunderland collections at the Tyne and Wear Archives on the Access to Archives website:

Tyne and Wear Historic Environment Record

Based in the West Chapel of Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, this collection offers information on archaeological sites, finds, historic buildings and industrial and war time sites in Tyne and Wear. Excavation reports, desk-based assessments and other grey literature, books and journals, photographs and maps are also available.

Additional resources:

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Comments (8)

This is a great resource, and your other three articles on researching a home as well! I can definitely apply the ideas to my area. Also I really liked seeing the mural at St. Andrews Church, and love the way the sun jumps out against the blue sky.

100% perfect.

Excellent work.thanks

You have made this research a lot easier with your guides.Thank you.

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Michael, you're lucky having great local library who kept archives, I think we don't have it here but I'll try to look and one more thing.....Sunderland is lucky to have you.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Kathleen. St Andrew's is an Arts and Crafts building, so the standard of design is very high.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Martin, Abdel and Roberta. I very much appreciate your comments.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thank you, Ron. I do what I can to conserve Sunderland's historic buildings, but sometimes I feel it's a losing battle.