GENEOALOGY is a fascinating subject, leading thousands of ordinary people to investigate their family tree and spawning the popular TV series, Who Do You Think You Are?, where celebs go back to their roots (with a Kleenex at the ready).

It seems our interest in the past is insatiable, so it should not be a surprise that we are also interested in unearthing stories about where we live.

Emma Wells is an expert in this field. The self-styled ‘house detective’ specialises in ‘through-the-keyhole’ investigations, shedding light on the history of all kinds of properties, from the grandest house to the most modern of new builds.

“Every home has a story,” says Emma, a graduate of the University of York, who has a Phd in buildings archaeology from Durham University.

Her specialist area of research is medieval churches, but another branch of her work is providing ‘house histories’ for clients, detailing everything from the people who once lived there to interesting architectural details.

“The potential benefits of discovering a house’s history are numerous,” says Emma, who now lives near Bedale. “In the past decade, many estate agents have begun to recognise the opportunities provided by the services of house historians.”

The uncovering of a colourful story to do with a property – perhaps an interesting resident once lived there, a historical event happened there or nearby – or an unusual architectural feature, can all increase its sale value, says Emma.

“A house history can be of interest to future owners, or a family heirloom that can be passed down through generations, whatever type of home you have,” she says.

If a building is listed, says Emma, research can prove invaluable in the process of guiding considerate renovation and repair too.

Even new builds can benefit from historic investigation: Emma can discover what was on the land before and uncover potential stories relating to people and events.

Besides working as a heritage consultant on planning and conservation matters, Emma also takes on private commissions to research private homes. Her findings can be published in a range of publications, from the simplest documentary report through to a glossy, coffee-table book, with prices ranging from £500 to £2,000.

Researching her own property, she was amused to discover a reference to “these houses being among the most vile and filthy in the Dales”.

She assumes this reference predates her two-up, two-down cottage, a former mill worker’s home at Birstwith that was built by John Greenwood, who was heavily influenced by the model villages built by Sir William Amcotts Ingleby at Ripley and Sir Titus Salt at Saltaire.

Many people have the deeds to their own homes and this can provide a fruitful starting point for any investigation, says Emma, who is a Latin scholar as well as skilled in palaeography – the reading of old handwriting. “You have to be to read the old documents,” says Emma.

Other resources she relies on include tithe maps (recording land ownership), Ordnance Survey maps (documenting how the area has changed) as well as the electoral roll (noting who lived at a property at a certain time).

Emma teaches occasional courses on researching the history of your home – the next is on Friday at Bedale Hall, with another lined up for Harrogate in May.

Emma says buildings hold an endless fascination for many of us.

“People talk about walls speaking, about the secrets they hold and the people who lived there.

“By researching the history of a house, you can find out the answer to the question: ‘If I walked down here 100 years ago, what did these people do and what was it like?’”

And unlock the mystery of how we used to live.

• Find out more at

• Emma’s course, Unlock The Secrets of Your Home, is on Friday from 10.30am to 4.30pm at Bedale Room, Dedale Hall, priced £50. To book a place, phone 01677 422289 or email:

She will also be running another course in Bedale in January, as well as one at Harrogate’s Mercer Art Gallery on May 8, 2014. Check her wesite for more details.


Spotlight on the past

I PUT Emma’s talents to the test by handing over a thick wad of dusty documents to my own home – a Victorian semi in Fishergate, York.

Armed with some old deeds and maps of the area, and a quick scan online, Emma found some enlightening facts about my house and the surrounding area.

The land was originally owned by a local charity – the Arlish and Chambers, which still exists today. It leased the land to various people, notably Ambrose Walker, who was one of the main developers of Fishergate and Fulford Road in the Victorian era.

Emma estimates my house was built between 1878 and 1880.

Ambrose Walker lived nearby in Manor House, which now forms part of Saxon House, a guest house on Fulford Road.

Today, just yards away from Saxon House, is a derelict building whose decorative windows are in fact part of the old façade from York’s Theatre Royal, designed in 1834-5 by John Harper.

These were once located in the gardens of Manor House, but moved to Chelmsford Place (on Fulford Road, opposite the Priory Hotel), during a redevelopment of the site.

Finally, says Emma, the area holds further significance in York’s history because in 1880 York Tramways Company opened a horse tramline from Castle Mills bridge to Fulford, with steam trams to Fulford, with stops in Fishergate – right on my doorstep.