Researching your site (3) - maps, illustrations & written sources


As part of my research into the development and past use of the property or plot of land, I will examine all the readily available maps and plans which show it – or part of it, and analyse any differences which they record.

This is done chronologically, usually working from the existing known site layout backwards to as early as possible, and is known as a 'map regression exercise'.

For convenience, I will usually present the results in the opposite order, to show how the site has developed. Where possible I add a block of colour identifying the area of the modern property, as it is frequently very difficult to find it when all the recognisable points are missing!

Next, I repeat the exercise with available photographs and other illustrations, trying to recognise features across the different sources.

This can be difficult when trees have been planted or felled, windows moved and outbuildings extended.

Some of these differences will be irrelevant but others will provide clues as to how buildings have been extended, altered, moved and adapted to changing uses of the premises.

At the same time I gather together any past mentions of the site – or the land beside it – from old documents and published descriptions, using these references to complement the regression exercise. Some sites may have numerous documentary references, others might only be mentioned in a recent press cutting, but all may help in understanding what has happened on the site in the past, and how the modern proposals could affect any surviving remains.

The reliability of these sources varies, and part of my work is to assess how plausible or complete the different records are – are they showing a misleading picture by deliberately or accidentally omitting details which are significant, or are they showing features which were never as depicted?

Where the site has had an address, Trades Directories can provide further information. These served much the same function as modern telephone directories and online directories, enabling potential customers to find where a trader operated from and helping the trader to deliver the purchased goods to the correct address. They can be available from the end of the eighteenth century until the later twentieth century. Their usefulness varies considerably – the earliest are often a short list of names for a village, giving no clue to their address and only indicating that the person had wealth or status. Later editions, particularly those produced by W. Kelly, gradually incorporated addresses, with additional historical background, the discovery of archaeological remains, and the construction of public buildings. The most useful tend to be the latest, with property numbers and names, arranged in street order.

For all these sources, the basic questions are the same. When was the building built? Does it still exist, or has it been replaced? Does it exist in its original form or has it been changed – and if so, how much of the original remains? Why was it built – and (if possible) – for whom? Does its site share older boundaries? What was the site used for before? Is there evidence of large-scale groundworks (quarrying, cellars, etc.) that may have removed any buried archaeological remains that were ever present?

Although my aim is to compile a complete record of the development of your site, this cannot usually be achieved within the brief timescale usually available. Further information is almost certain to come to light however long the research lasts, but the cost-effectiveness of the trawling of potential sources diminishes after the first bursts of information. NPPF acknowledges the problems and advises that the research should be proportionate to the planning proposal. For instance, it is seldom appropriate to transcribe original documents (although I have some experience of early handwriting/palaeography and limited Latin knowledge) and it would usually be disproportionate to travel to distant county archive offices to view documentary records.