Our homes have stories to tell; we just need to listen

Knowing the history of a building can transform your relationship with it

Police commissioner Sir Robert Peacock reviewing some of his police officers

Police commissioner Sir Robert Peacock reviewing some of his police officers

 

My Australian father-in-law once presented me with a scrolled history of his side of the family, tracing all his ancestors back to the “second fleet” to have arrived Down Under.

It wasn’t that he was proud of this genealogy and heritage – quite the reverse, he was completely uninterested in it. The family tree had been meticulously traced by one of his relatives and presented to him, but he would have tossed it into the bin if I had not salvaged it for posterity.

My father-in-law perhaps felt this family history to be meaningless to his current life, or even felt slightly oppressed by it, wishing to assert his own individualism rather than to be under the spell of hordes of unknown “ancestors”.

Yet I incline to the view that the more you know about your background the greater insight and appreciation you can gain for aspects of your own life.

The same also applies to buildings. Some buildings have plaques placed upon them to record the important historical personages who lived there – I have a building in the UK that was once lived in by the historical character who was partly a model for both the TV hero “Sharpe” and the comical fictional adventurer “Flashman”. Amongst the many extraordinary real-life exploits of Sir Harry Smith (1787-1860) was being present at the burning down of the White House in Washington in 1814.

It may be 160 years since Sir Harry last lived in the house, but learning about the details of his life – as I have done from a shelf full of books about him – makes me appreciate details of the house I would have otherwise missed.

The three stone steps in the garden hardly catch the eye, but they are the place where once he mounted his beloved horse Aliwal, an animal with which he travelled all over the world from India to South Africa, which was a veteran of famous battles and was once as nationally famous as its owner.

Secret histories

Yet nearly all properties have their own “secret histories”. Another building I once restored was a large Victorian house which had lost all original features and was now divided up into six modern flats. It was nice enough, if somewhat characterless, but then I happened to discover on a local history website the fascinating story of its former owner.

A police commissioner with the wonderful name Sir Robert Peacock once lived there and had apparently liked to have scores of his police officers parade up and down, Monty Python-esque, in the park opposite while he contentedly observed them from his windows. There are some incredible pictures of the parading policemen and Sir Robert himself in his peacock-style, admiral-like commissioner’s hat.

After learning that, the house suddenly acquired a historical character and warmth that it had previously been lacking.

Even the most modest houses have their own distinctive characteristics if you look into them. I once lived, for about 10 years, in a modest three-bed semi-d that could easily be mistaken for a council house. It was not the prettiest house in the world, and was located on a street lined with much larger Victorian town houses and so was something of an ugly duckling.

A surveyor once came to value it and remarked to his surprise how – most unusually – it had concrete floors not only on the ground floor but also upstairs. “This house is built like a tank,” he wryly observed.

Post-war austerity

But looking into it I discovered that the house had been built in 1948. Almost certainly a Luftwaffe bomb had destroyed the original Victorian houses which had stood on the site, and in the age of post-war austerity these more modest but extremely sturdy buildings had been constructed.

My ugly duckling home with its concrete floors had been built with the threat of another wartime air-raid in mind, and after realising that I forgave its squat appearance and came to think of it instead as my little fortress against the world.

All our buildings have their own little stories to tell if we actually open our ears and minds to the rich social history that contained them, linking us back to the historical eras in which they once flourished.

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