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. Your local library may have some of these for your area. Alternatively, see below for a list of general reference books. You could also visit your local community archive and see what they hold. 

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 or solicitor may hold a copy. Deeds can be consulted or copies obtained for a fee.

If this is not possible, don't despair, Kresen Kernow might be able to help when it opens in 2019. Our collections include these sources:

  • maps and plans
  • estate and family records
  • trade directories
  • census returns
  • parish registers
  • and rate books

While we are closed you can still search our catalogues. We are also running a limited enquiries and copies service while we are closed.

Please be aware:

Several buildings may have been built successively on the same site. In such cases references in documents to a property of the same name may simply demonstrate that a building has been here for a long time, 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 quite rare.

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

The following sources may be of use:

Printed sources 

Local history books and pamphlets may contain useful information about particular properties or sites in a location. Kresen Kernow will have a wide collection of books and pamphlets. Local public libraries also have collections relevant to their area. You can search the online library catalogue for more details of all the collections.

Ordnance Survey (OS) maps (available at Kresen Kernow from summer 2019)

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

  • 25 inches to one mile. These detailed plans identify public buildings such as schools, churches and public houses. They also show the outline of individual buildings and indicate footpaths, tracks and old mine workings.   
  • 6 inches to one mile. These are smaller in scale than the 25 inch plans. They still clearly illustrate individual buildings and landscape features. 

The main dates for large scale OS plans for Cornwall are about 1880, 1907, 1930 (large towns only), 1960, 1970 and 1980.

Tithe maps and apportionments, 1840-41 (available at Kresen Kernow from summer 2019)

A tithe map was produced for each parish in Cornwall under the Tithe Act of 1836.  These large scale maps show individual buildings and fields, each numbered separately.  The accompanying reference book or ‘apportionment’ lists the following  for each numbered plot:

  • owner
  • occupier
  • acreage (size)
  • value and
  • description

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 (catalogue reference TM and TA).

Estate maps

Most large-scale pre-1840 maps in Kresen Kernow's collections are private estate maps. These were 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 will also be available at Kresen Kernow.  There are not maps for every parish or manor in Cornwall and they only show the land in a parish owned by a particular landowner.

Private estate records 

Pre-19th century documents contain a wealth of information about properties, land use and tenants. These include:

  • deeds
  • leases
  • surveys
  • sale particulars
  • rentals and
  • manorial records

However, there are not many 20th century deeds and leases for individual properties in our collections.

District Valuation records, 1910 

The Finance Act of 1910 initiated a baseline survey of all land owned in 1909 against which all later sale prices could be compared.  The records consist of:

  • Domesday’ books'. (These list the owner, occupier, property description and value of each property)
  • Forms 37’. (These list all holdings for an individual)
  • Marked-up 25 inch Ordnance Survey plans. (These show individual numbered plots (catalogue reference DV).)

Other taxation records include:

  • land tax assessments, c.1805-1948 (coverage varies for each parish, see index)
  • poor rates (parish and Parish Council records, catalogue reference P and PC)
  • 20th century rating records (District Council records, catalogue reference DC)
Formats vary but they generally give the property name, owner and occupier.

Definitive statements, footpaths and rights of way, 1953-1957 and 1968 

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 (catalogue reference CC/HF).  Legally, they have been superceded by the current records. Please see the rights of way web pages.

Local government records 

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

  • Fire regulation plans for public buildings, 1915-1955 (catalogue reference CC/FBP)
  • Village maps, coastal surveys, land use and age of buildings surveys (catalogue reference CC/PLU)
  • Truro borough building plans, c.1880-1927 (catalogue reference DCCRK/888) 
  • West Penwith area buildings plans, 1898-1938 (catalogue reference DCWP/295)
  • Planning decision books, whole county, 1950-1974 (catalogue reference CC/PDR)
  • Restormel building plans, 1886-c.1925 (catalogue reference DCRES/1249)

Trade directories 

Directories are usually arranged alphabetically by parish. The entries include basic details of:

  • private residents and trades
  • shops and
  • businesses

They do not provide complete lists of all inhabitants. 

Census returns 

From 1841 the census returns list every person in each household on the day of the census. Details include

  • the name of the property
  • occupants' ages
  • occupants' occupations and
  • (from 1851) place of birth

They were taken every ten years and are currently available up to 1911. These can also be accessed for free in public libraries as well as through various fee-paying sites.

Buildings used for a specific purpose

Buildings used for a specific purpose include:

  • parsonages
  • school houses
  • public houses
  • chapels
  • mills and
  • toll houses
Information about these may be found among the records of the organisations which owned or managed them, for example the parish church or local education authority. Bodies which had dealings with these organisations may also hold information. These include the Court of the Quarter Sessions. Houses formerly part of mining or railway buildings may be indicated on relevant plans. Kresen Kernow may have information about these particular buildings and organisations. Please check the online catalogues using keyword searches (for example for place, building or street names).

Historic Environment Record sources

The Cornwall Council Historic Environment Record (HER) 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 HER 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 HER web pages.

Nick Barratt, Tracing the History of Your House, The National Archives, 2001 

David Iredale and John Barrett, Discovering your old house, 3rd edition 1991, reprinted 1997

Bill Breckon & Jeffrey Parker, Tracing the History of Houses , Countryside, 1st edition 1991, reprinted 1996