The company unearthing the history of Hertfordshire homes
PUBLISHED: 09:51 16 April 2019
With a growing fascination for how we fit into history’s arc, meet a Tring company dedicated to unearthing home truths
Have you ever wondered about the previous occupants of your home? Depending on its age, there could be dozens of families whose lives have played out – the good and the bad – between your four walls.
Fascinated as we are with property in this country, and with the success of personal history websites such as ancestry.co.uk and the BBC One Series Who Do You Think You Are? there's now a growing trend for finding out just who the people were who once called your place home.
Tring-based Benchmark House Histories does just that. Photographer Carol Fulton started the company in 2010, teaming up with house historian and genealogist Cathy Soughton. Together they've produced histories of properties ranging from cottages to castles, covering mills, vicarages, schools, pubs and the homes of famous historical figures. As well as beautifully bound books, they also produce large framed wall prints of a home's history, compiling details through meticulous research which usually takes at least six weeks.
'We like to compare it to doing a complicated jigsaw puzzle,' Carol explains. 'Where you don't know at the outset if you have all the pieces or what the finished picture will look like.'
The pair search through various local record offices as well as the National Archives looking at everything from maps, title deeds and old newspapers to electoral registers and census returns, finding out when the property was built, how it has been developed and, most interestingly, who its various occupants have been.
'We always endeavour to unravel more about the people who once lived there as it adds real human interest to the narrative,' Carol says. 'You never know what you will find.'
The finished product includes images as well as a written history, with illustrations, maps, old photographs, newspaper cuttings and even fragments of wallpaper and handwritten letters and diary entries included to bring the people and place to life.
Carol says the books are often commissioned as a gift, particularly for anniversaries, or requested shortly after moving into a period property. But there have also been some more unusual requests.
'On occasions we have had people ask if we can find any documentary evidence for apparent paranormal activity! In another case we were asked why there would have been a gas and fireproof strong room installed in the cellars. It turned out it was built to protect the family in the event of a German invasion during World War Two.'
Now based in Hertfordshire, Benchmark House Histories has worked on properties across the country, and of course sometimes research throws up unhappy stories. One project on a seaside holiday let cottage in Devon uncovered a suicide which took place in a bedroom of the house. 'The owners decided to leave that detail out of the book in case it spooked the visitors and they left early!'
Here in Herts, they've unearthed fascinating histories, including a recent project on the childhood home of Winston Churchill's wife Clementine, who spent her teenage years in a 1830s town house in Berkhamsted.
'We found out more about Clementine's time there and also about the original neighbouring property, Egerton House, an Elizabethan mansion which was knocked down and replaced with what is now the Rex Cinema.
'The house was once the home of the Llewelyn Davies family, friends of J M Barrie, whose character Peter Pan was named after their son Peter.'
Another Hertfordshire highlight was a history of a house in Ashridge where Charles de Gaulle lived with his wife, and from where he led a government-in-exile and the Free French forces during the Nazi occupation of his homeland.
'We managed to source some wonderful black and white photographs and film footage of de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne, taken in the house and gardens of the property.'
We are not all going to have had a president or prime minister's wife almost literally in the closet, but the history of even the most seemingly normal home can be fascinating, Carol says, and the trend to dig into it is on the rise.
'We have definitely noticed that people are becoming more interested in the idea of provenance – whether it's jewellery, art or a property – and people are keen to learn about the history; the story behind the object.
'Knowing where it comes from adds value – often literally, as estate agents sometimes include details of the property's history to add interest and help sell the house.'
Sales tools aside, these home historians create a very personal gift, and the reaction to receiving them can often be quite emotional.
'The books and framed histories do make unique presents – and they come as a complete surprise to the recipient. Nobody has ever guessed they were about to receive a house history!'
One of the most rewarding projects was investigating Carol's own childhood home, Robin Hood House in Little Gaddesden. Dating back to the 17th century, it was originally an inn called The Green Man (later the Robin Hood Inn), and over the centuries was transformed into a chaplain's house, a 19th century 'school for young gentlemen', and in the First World War was used to house Belgian refugees in the care of nuns. And since Carol's family has departed, it has transformed once more – it is now a care home.
This year is set to reveal yet more home truths, with the team currently researching what was once a local school mistress' house, originally commissioned by Hannah de Rothschild, at the time the richest woman in England.
'The wonderful thing about house history research is that you never know at the outset what you will find,' Carol sums up. 'They say every house tells a story. People often have a strong emotional connection to their home, and finding out its history – when it was built, who lived there before, how the property has changed over time – only intensifies this sense of belonging.'
Benchmark House Histories prices start from £550 for a wall-mounted history, with books starting from £1,750. Find out more at benchmarkhousehistories.com