Property History

Researching the history of your house or a specific property can be a complicated and involved process. This page is designed to help you on your way by outlining some of the more common sources.

Getting started

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You may find it useful to read a local or property history book or magazine (see what the Cornish Studies Library or your local library have for your area) or see below for a list of general reference books.

If you are able to consult your title deeds this can help with some basic facts and dates. If your property is mortgaged your bank/building society will hold them and they can usually be consulted for a fee.

If this is not possible, don’t despair, Cornwall Record Office (CRO) and the Cornish Studies Library (CSL) can help. Each service has some sources that you can consult including maps and plans, estate and family records, trade directories, census returns, parish registers and rate books.  

Please be aware:

Several buildings may have been erected successively on the same site so reference in documents to a property of the same name may simply demonstrate continuity of settlement, rather than prove that the same building has always existed on the same site. Documentary evidence indicating exactly when a building was constructed is usually non-existent.

The designation of individual houses by name or number was not in general use until the second half of the 19th century, so unless the property was a farm or used for a particular function, such as a school, mill or inn, it can be difficult to positively identify a specific building in certain records. Names and designations such as ‘Rectory’ for example, can also be moved between buildings.

The following sources may be of use:

Printed sources (available at CSL and local libraries)

Local history books and pamphlets may contain useful information about particular properties or sites in a location. The CSL has a fantastic county-wide collection of books and pamphlets and local public libraries also have collections relevant to their area. You can search the online library service catalogue for more details of all the collections.

Ordnance Survey plans (some available at CRO and some at CSL)

Ordnance survey plans covering Cornwall began in 1813 at the scale of 1” to 1 mile, but there are no large scale editions until circa 1880.  These are available in various scales including:

  • 25 inches to one mile, these detailed plans identify public buildings (schools, churches, public houses), show the outline of individual buildings and indicate footpaths, tracks and old mine workings.   
  • 6 inches to one mile, smaller scale than the 25 inch plans but they still clearly illustrate individual buildings and landscape features. 

Dates for large scale OS plans for Cornwall are circa 1880, 1907, 1930 (large towns only), 1960, 1970 and 1980.

Tithe maps and apportionments, c1840 (available as digital, microfiche or original copies at CRO, on microfiche at CSL)

A tithe map was produced for each parish in the county under the Tithe Act 1836.  These large scale maps show individual buildings and fields, each numbered separately.  The accompanying reference book or ‘apportionment’ lists the owner, occupier, acreage, value and description for each numbered plot. 

These maps are useful for establishing the existence of a property or other feature in the mid 19th century.  The information in the apportionment can also help trace earlier evidence (CRO reference TM/TA).

Other maps (available at CRO)

Most large-scale pre-1840 maps are private estate maps, commissioned by an individual landowner for their own use.  They can be very detailed and may include information on tenants and land use.  Post-1840 estate maps are also available.  There are not maps for every parish or manor in the county and they only show the land in a parish owned by a particular landowner.

Private estate records (available at CRO)

Pre-19th century deeds, leases, surveys, sale particulars, rentals and manorial records contain a wealth of information about properties, land use and tenants.  However, the service holds relatively few 20th century deeds and leases for individual properties.

District Valuation records, 1910 (available at CRO)

The Finance Act 1910 initiated a baseline survey of all land owned in 1909 against which all subsequent sale prices could be compared.  The records consist of ‘domesday’ books, listing the owner, occupier, property description and value of each property; ‘Forms 37’ listing all holdings for an individual; and marked-up 25 inch Ordnance Survey plans showing individual numbered plots (CRO reference number DV).

Other taxation records include land tax assessments, c1805-1948 (coverage varies for each parish, see index), poor rates (parish and Parish Council records, CRO reference numbers P and PC) and 20th century rating records (District Council records, CRO reference number DC).  Formats vary but they generally give the property name, owner and occupier.

Definitive statements, footpaths and rights of way, 1953-1957 and 1968 (available at CRO)

These two series of documents show footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way.  The paths are marked on six inch Ordnance Survey plans and are described in the statements (CRO reference CC/HF).  Legally, they have been superceded by the current records. Please see the rights of way web pages.

Local government records (available at CRO)

Records relating to planning, land use and fire safety contain information on individual properties.  These include:

  • Fire regulation plans for public buildings, 1915-1955 (CRO reference CC/FBP)
  • Village maps, coastal surveys, land use and age of buildings surveys (CRO reference CC/PLU)
  • Truro borough building plans, c1880-192 (CRO reference DC/CRK/888) [Please note some of these documents are very fragile so we may not be able to produce them.]
  • West Penwith area buildings plans, 1898-1938 (CRO reference DC/WP/295)
  • Planning decision books, whole county, 1950-1974 (CRO reference CC/PDR)
  • Restormel building plans, 1886-c1925 (CRO reference DC/RES/1249)

Trade directories (some available at CRO and CSL)

Usually arranged alphabetically by parish; entries include basic details of private residents and trades, shops and businesses, but do not provide complete lists of all inhabitants. 

Census returns (available online at CRO and CSL, also in Cornish public libraries)

From 1841 the census returns list every person in each household on the day of the census with name of the property, also occupants ages, occupations and (from 1851) place of birth. They were taken every ten years and are currently available up to 1911. 

Buildings used for a specific purpose

Information relating to buildings such as parsonages, school houses, public houses, chapels, mills and toll houses may be found among the records of the organisations which owned or managed them e.g. the parish church, education authority, or with bodies which had dealings with them e.g.  the Court of the Quarter Sessions. Houses formerly part of mining or railway buildings may be indicated on relevant plans. Both the CRO and CSL may have information about particular buildings and organisations. Please check the online catalogues using keyword searches (for example for place, building or street names) or the Parish or Subject Indexes at CRO.

Historic Environment Service sources

The Cornwall Council Historic Environment Service (HES) has compiled information on the historic environment of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. From quoits to castles, barrows to blowing houses, palstaves to pollen cores, the collection includes information on all aspects of the past from the earliest traces of human occupation to the end of World War II. It is known as the Cornwall and Scilly Historic Environment Record (HER) and, in addition to information on archaeological and historical sites and structures, it also incorporates collections of photographs (including aerial photos), maps, plans and surveys, and an extensive reference library. Information in the HER has been derived from a variety of sources including published and unpublished books and pamphlets, specialist journals, antiquarian authors, museum records, as well as reports of fieldwork, surveys and excavations undertaken by the HES and its partner organisations, and information sent in by landowners, farmers, and members of the public. Information in the HER is available to the public, although a charge may sometimes be made. For further details please see the HES web pages.

Nick Barratt. Tracing the History of Your House, The National Archives, 2001 [ISBN: 1903365228] paperback, price £12.99.  Written by an historian who is consultant to the BBC House Detectives series.  Available by post, on-line mail order or in person  from the The National Archives bookshop at Kew, and in person from the Family Records Centre bookshop in London.

David Iredale and John Barrett, Discovering your old house, 3rd edition 1991, reprinted 1997, 112 pages, price £4.50  A short basic guide to tracing the history of a house.  Available by post, on-line mail order or in person  from the Society of Genealogists bookshop in London.

Bill Breckon & Jeffrey Parker, Tracing the History of Houses , Countryside, 1st edition 1991, reprinted 1996, 192 pages, price £9.95  A comprehensive guide to tracing house history.  Available by post, on-line mail order or in person  from the Society of Genealogists bookshop in London.

J.E.B. Gover, A. Mawer, F.M. Stenton, eds.  Place Names of Devon,  English Place-Names Society, Vol. IX. Available for reference in the Westcountry Studies Library and in Devon Record Office.

John H. Harvey. Sources for the History of Houses,  British Records Association, Archives and the User series, No. 3, 1974  Available for reference in the Westcountry Studies Library (see above) [ref: LS:728.07/GEN ].