House-hunting in the past

My historical characters lived where they lived, to the extent that I can discover it. I’ve blogged about holmes-museumFrancis Bacon’s houses before; his whereabouts are mostly well known. It doesn’t look like I’ve written about Lord Burghley’s also well-documented houses, although I read a lovely article about Cecil House on the Strand before Francis and Tom went there in Death by Disputation. I’ll write an article about the Cecils’ magnificent homes one of these days.

I’ve also been to 221B Baker Street in London to visit the Sherlock Holmes museum. It was fun, if jammed. You shuffle through the place in a long queue. It’s much smaller than the rooms you see in the movies, but then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could imagine what he liked. The museum owners are constrained by London real estate realities. I chose to enlarge the place somewhat myself in my books. The museum’s rooms are too small for a man of such expansive behaviors. Holmes was endlessly leaping up and bounding across the room in the stories. You’d bound yourself right out of the window in this museum.

The characters I invent originate in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, because why not? Tom is from the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. I’ve been there and it truly is outstanding! Unfortunately, that was back when I had a film camera and I horribly mangled the pix, but we’re not here to talk about scenery anyway. Suffice it to say that Lady Alice Trumpington grew up in Orford, a real place that really had a real castle. My Professor Moriarty is from the made-up town of Miswell (pronounced ‘mizzle’) in the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire. Angelina is from the East End of London, not a beauty spot by most people’s standards, but far more delightful to her than the wilderness beyond the bounds of London.

Country houses


Mary Arden’s Farm

The first stop for housing in the countryside is the National Trust website. They remodeled their site a couple of years ago, turning it from a very useful resource into an irritating long scrolling parallax site, but it’s still the place to start. Don’t bother scrolling through the front page. Click on Days Out and scroll down to the middle, where it will let you browse Houses and Buildings. Eventually you’ll find lists of houses in various places.

No; heck. I’m taking it back. Their website is now completely useless. It seems to have been designed so that stoned people can find something to do with their wretched in-laws that gets everybody out of the house for a few hours. Sigh. If you already know which house you want to visit, you might be able to figure out when it’s open from the NT site. You won’t learn much of anything else.

So here are few other resources:


Apsley House, yellow drawing room

Or you can just google “elizabethan houses in england” or the like. These sources will all yield stately homes — houses of the upper crust. The National Trust does have a few humbler dwellings, like Thomas Hardy’s birthplace, which is a substantial thatched cottage.

There are whole restored villages you can visit, in person or online, like the Gainsthorpe Medieval Village, or Mary Arden’s Farm near Stratford-upon-Avon. If you ever get to go, these places give you a powerful sense of how ordinary people lived.

I go to England every couple of years and visit lots of these places, which is great if you can spare the time & money. (Earn those frequent flyer miles!) But if you can’t, it’s still worth grazing around the web looking for stately homes for your period of interest. Wikipedia has articles about many such houses, with references. You’ll at least find out who built it when, which is vital information.

You can often find lots of interior images. A good example is Apsley House in Mayfair. This house is too grand for most of my characters, but not for the people whose parties they sometimes attend. There are lots of photos of the interior in Google images. I thought about this house when staging some scenes inside the home of my aristocratic villain in Moriarty Meets His Match. And swiped several decorative details.

Another resource, especially for floor plans, is Pinterest. I LOVE floor plans! They make it so much easier to move people around the house: upstairs, downstairs, sneaking down the hall in the middle of the night, climbing in the library window. You can’t write farce without a floor plan, Gentle Readers. Go to Pinterest and search for “floor plans historic houses.” You’ll like what you see, I guarantee!

Choosing your neighbors


Saffron Walden

Now you’ve find a few good houses. They’re correct for your period of interest and you’ve got a boatload of images to reflect upon whilst writing. But are you sure you want your people to live in that exact house? Who lived in the neighborhood?

When I was doing the research for Death by Disputation, set in Cambridgeshire, I got curious about the surrounding area. I wanted a small town for my Puritan preacher and his large family to live; someplace where he could preach his radical sermons unmolested by the authorities, close enough for Tom to walk to from his college in town.

Naturally, my first step was to study some maps. I found this site — Free Map Tools — which lets you draw an X-mile (kilometer) radius around any point you choose. Bless you, Free Map Tools people! Now I can easily see which towns are within a five-mile radius of central Cambridge.  

Most of those towns were there in 1586, of course. They all have Wikipedia pages, which usually include pubs and churches, many of which were also there in 1586. But you can learn even more, if you really want to get real. You can find out which towns were dominated by Catholic gentry and which by non-conformists. You could, if you were slightly demented on the subject, trace a path of houses in which Catholic students could find a safe refuge for the night on their way from Cambridge University to the dastardly College of Rheims, where priests were trained and sent back to conspire against the queen. Or not, as the case may be.

I got hopelessly hooked on the British History Online site during this period. More fun than a yard full of Labrador puppies! (OK, maybe not quite.) Search for the town that piques your interest, like, for example, Saffron Walden, a lovely town in Essex, south of Cambridge on the train. They have an exceptionally fine historical museum too. The guy at the desk lived in Houston for a time. Small world.

Now you can find out who built which house when, going all the way back to Saxon times, if you’re lucky. Who lived in it next? What religion did they practice? How did they make their money? Who did they marry? You can get a wonderfully comprehensive sense of a community through these records and a strong sense of what county politics must have been like.

BHO is one of the best historical resources online, if not THE best. Next time you’re sitting at your desk with your sandwich in hand and nothing fun to read, go there and visit any place that strikes your fancy. The historical detail is so rich, it will give you endless new plot ideas. (Oh, maybe that should be posted as a warning note…) 

London habitations


From the Agas Map, 1561. Note the houses with space behind them. These are either churches or rich men’s gardens.

You can get down and dirty in London neighborhoods as well, in that very same indispensable BHO, but it’s not my first stop when house-hunting for my characters. First, I have to know roughly which neighborhoods were inhabited by which sorts of people during my period of interest. Everybody lived everywhere, more or less, in Elizabethan London. Grand houses with long gardens stood beside tall tenements filled with humbler folk. You’d find more sailors and foreigners down by the river and more Flemings near the Dutch Church (Austin Friars) in Broad Street Ward, but otherwise, you can scatter your fictional people liberally around the town. Stylish people like actors and Anthony Bacon had lodgings in Bishopsgate.

How do I know this? Mainly from Liza Picard’s most excellent Elizabeth’s London, first stop for general orientation. I try to catch snippets about who lived where in this and every book I read, gathering them into a file about places. That’s more important for the Victorian period, when everyone most emphatically did not live everywhere. Neighborhoods began sorting themselves by class and income sometime in the long eighteenth century, I think. Between the death of Francis Bacon and the start of my Victorian series in 1885 anyway.

Another resource for Victorian neighborhoods is the Victorian Dictionary, Lee Jackson’s monumental labor of love. He’s got snips and clips from articles written in the period, commenting on virtually every aspect of society.

Searching for respectability



Now you know that middle-class professionals might be comfortable in Bayswater. But things changed pretty rapidly during the Victorian period and Picard’s books are very broad. I like to be sure I’m getting these things right. It’s easier to keep your lies straight if you stick to the truth as much as possible. So now you turn to the good old BHO and look up Bayswater.

The record begins in 1380. It’s fascinating, but I don’t need the whole history, so I skim on down to c19. I learn that “[w]idespread speculative building was carried out by Edward Orme, a print seller of Bond Street, who in 1809 acquired the former Bell at Bayswater.” In the 1830s, “[a]rtistic and literary figures were attracted to a district which was still semi-rural.” Residents include the composer Eliza Flower, painters Charles and Edward Landseer, and painter Augustus Egg. It’s hard to imagine the semi-rural aspect.

But I’m shopping in 1885. Let’s move on. “During the late 19th century Bayswater’s social character grew more mixed.”Aha! “At no. 23 Porchester Gardens the ‘first instance of effective electric lighting of a private house’ was provided in 1879 by the engineer Rookes Crompton (1845-1940), who lived there.” There were rich Jews and English bankers, important because Moriarty lives in rooms in a house owned by a banker’s widow. I also happen to know that A.E. Housman lived at 82 Talbot Rd, Bayswater, because I discovered him in a book about the Patent Office. Since my Moriarty also works at the Patent Office, I knew this was a viable location for him.

“Hotels, boarding or lodging houses, and apartments also multiplied, notably in Queen’s Road and Kensington Gardens Square… The most striking increase was in Eastbourne Terrace, the edge of the district, where railway travellers were responsible for the street’s conversion into a row of apartments and hotels by 1902. The population, which by 1870 included many rich foreign born citizens, grew more cosmopolitan, with the consecration of a synagogue in St. Petersburgh Place in 1879 and of a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Moscow Road in 1882.”

OK, you get the idea. 

The perfect home for the discriminating character


Terrace in South Kensington

Once you get to the Victorian period, you’ll find many houses that are still there. They cost a bit more, mind you. You could lease a 14 BR house in Grosvenor Place, 6 sitting rooms, with good stabling for 800 guineas. That’s in Mayfair, my friends. 800 guineas = 16,800 shillings = L840. My notes don’t say, but I’m pretty sure that was rent for one year. The average rent in West London nowadays is £700 – £800 a month for a one-bedroom flat.

But why compare? Our people are imaginary. They must have whatever they desire, within the bounds of their story circumstances. So I’ve moved my Moriartys into an end terrace in South Kensington that looks exactly like this one offered at the estate agent’s Zoopla. I’m still waiting for them to post the bloomin’ floor plan. Five bedrooms, four baths… Oh, wait! I guess it’s been updated a tad.


Flanders, Judith. 2003. Inside the Victorian Home. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Hewish, John. 2000. Rooms Near Chancery Lane: The Patent Office Under the Commissioners, 1852-1883. The British Library.

Husselby, Jill and Paula Henderson. 2002.  “Location, location, location! Cecil House in the Strand,” Architectural History, Vol. 45 (2002), pp. 159-193.

Picard, Liza. 2003. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Procter, Adrian and Robert Taylor. 1979. The A-Z of Elizabethan London. Harry Margery, Lympne Castle, Kent.

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