Sunday, 7 January 2018

A House Through Time

Have you ever wondered about all the people who lived in your house before you? Who they were, what they did, how long they were there? You may of course already know the answers - you may live in a relatively new house that's only had one set of previous owners (like the house I spent most of my childhood in), or in a house that has been in the same family for generations (like my dad's house in the Lake District, which was first lived in by my great, great grandfather). But generally, it's information a lot of us don't have.

Ours for generations

If you've bought your house, you will normally have met the previous owners to you, though not necessarily. The owner may already have moved out or be an absentee landlord, or the house may be a probate sale owing to its occupant's demise. There may be neighbours around to fill in some of the gaps in information, depending on the friendliness of your street. But however much or little you know about your house's previous occupants, everyone who has lived there before you will have left their mark somehow - their choice of bathroom or kitchen, a scrap of wallpaper several layers below yours, a wall built or knocked down, a forgotten box in the loft, a bush in the garden. Their ghosts live on, though not necessarily in a supernatural sense. For unless you completely gut the place, it will never feel entirely yours.

A House Through Time, written and presented by social historian David Olusoga, aims to chart the history of a single house, 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool, from its first occupants to the present day. He has gleaned information from archived documents and newspapers. It's an approach a bit like the one used in Who Do You Think You Are?, only without the celebrity starting point. Our starting point is instead a picture of fields, owned by the farmer after whom the street is subsequently named (though with a misspelling). The house was built in 1840, and was originally number 58, its number increasing to 62 as more houses were built piecemeal onto the road. Nowadays, it's a strikingly substantial Georgian-style (because technically it's Victorian) terraced property in what looks like a highly desirable part of town. It may have since lost a lot of its original features and fireplaces, but back in the day it had a drawing room, a maid, bespoke furniture, the works. The house was bought for around £1,000 by its first owner, Richard Glenton - a seemingly lazy and unambitious clerk in the Liverpool docks, which were then at their height. Glenton had lodgers to help him pay the bills on his meagre £50 annual income - the rest of his apparently lavish lifestyle being funded by the "bank of Dad"; a dad who had also got him his clerk's post in an extraordinary level of nepotism apparently quite normal for the time. Once Dad died, leaving his fortune to Richard's unmarried sister, Richard had to sell up and find himself a more humble abode. He sold the house to a couple called the Orrs, who had been in service but ended up the equivalent of millionaires in today's money. The husband, a former butler, worked long hours as the manager of the "newsroom" at an exclusive gentleman's club, overhearing conversations which enabled him to make shrewd financial investments.

Then the house was owned by Wilfred Steele, a cotton trader who experienced every extreme imaginable in his short life. Boom, bust, battle. He lost two young sons and ended up in a debtor's gaol, yet abandoned two stepdaughters to a miserable fate in a Liverpool workhouse. He benefited from slavery but fought in the American war against it, though the latter was probably for the money rather than the morality of the issue. David Olusoga quite understandably did not take kindly to this man, although many of the facts were speculative rather than pure.

I am very much looking forward to the next instalment. And the programme makes me want to find out more about our house in York. It was built around 1910, and for many of its recent years was a student rental property, before being sold to our vendors, who did a lot of crazy renovations, the majority of which we have had neither the luck, skill nor money to undo. We met said previous owners once - they were both academics, and like us, had moved to York from Crouch End in London, which seemed like a good omen. They spent the three months between us viewing the property and completing the sale chain-smoking and cooking greasy dinners, the aromas resulting from which it took us about ten months to eradicate. We never quite got rid of the dirt.

Edinburgh nights with Walter Scott
Our house has a name, Waverley, etched into the glass above the front door. But I have no idea when this was done or why. None of the other houses on the terrace have a name, though they all have the same Victorian tiled hallway floor. Was it Waverley after the Walter Scott novel, the steamship on the Clyde, or the great station at Edinburgh? I do know that the house was already called Waverley 50 years ago, since by chance last summer I met another previous owner. She happened to walk past when I was sitting on our new bench outside in the front yard and stopped to chat. She had bought the house with her husband but when they had two young children found it as impractical as we had with our young toddler, with its steep stairs, narrow rooms and deep draughts. They, unlike us, had got their act together and traded it in for a 1930s semi with a garden a few streets away. Their legacy was to remove a picture etched onto the glass behind the word Waverley, to knock the kitchen through into the toilet outhouse to create a downstairs bathroom, and to board out a storage area under the eaves to install a train set, where we now keep our suitcases and cat carrier.

The place I sit to learn about our house

Another previous resident turned up mildly stoned on our doorstep one night to say he liked what we had done to the front yard, since it was just a hole in the ground when he lived there. I am not even sure if he had the right house or why he had felt so compelled to knock on the door, though the story of the giant hole makes me wonder if there are more to the suspiciously diagonal cracks in our walls than my husband will ever believe.

And then there is the story of a certain school administrator who I discovered had a boyfriend who still lived with his parents in our house many years ago. "Ooh, the fun I've had in your lounge!" she merrily told me. Our lounge was his bedroom, as the family rented out the top of the house to lodgers working on the railway. I've never quite felt the same about the four walls surrounding our sofa since.

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