Lost and Found: Uncovering History One House at a Time

Old houses were built to last with solid old growth timber, plaster walls and copper plumbing. They are more decorative with high ornate ceilings, elaborate windows and polished timber floors. An historic home is more than a place to live. They have a living history in which new owners suddenly find them selves immersed. Some owners wonder who lived here before? Who built it? What were they like?

Many house hunters love old houses and here that often means Queenslander style homes. Built of similar materials in similar styles, how do you deter mine the differences? The process can be likened to detailing a family tree which is the more common project to undertake than finding the history of a house but as anyone who has done so can attest, it becomes a long-term hobby.

Could there be an easier way? With a science degree, a love of architecture and over fifteen years as an historian, Marianne Taylor is a self-confessed “tragic history nerd” uncovering the secrets of houses Australia wide.

She is one of a kind—the only house detective in Australia. Officially though her title is “architectural historian”.

Notably trained as a scientist with honours in chemistry, Marianne had an early love of history which led her to volunteer at the National Trust and the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. Finding a passion that captivated her, she studied further to achieve a Graduate Diploma of Local, Family and Applied History through the University of New England, choosing heritage conservation, archeology and architectural history subjects as her focus areas. Work experience with the Environmental Protection Agency led to a temporary position and consequently a full-time position. Three years later in 2010 she undertook the enormous role of Heritage Strategist for Queensland Rail, overseeing the preservation of more than 500 sites including the restoration of Roma Street Train Station and a slew of tunnels, bridges and signals. The role was a proud achievement for our House Detective but aspirations to set up her own business could be suppressed no more and she relaunched herself as a private consultant who now is 80% focussed on uncovering the secrets of private dwellings.

Her first job, Bermeysyde at Highgate Hill, confirmed every hope Marianne had that she had made the right decision. At first inspection she found an original gas light fitting still in situ, the old copper boiler and an underground cool storage cupboard. That the house had been extensively changed over the years since 1895/6 when it was originally constructed only incentivised our House Detective who then determined the core of the house, established the probable floorplan and figured out that access between floors was via a veranda staircase. Gratifyingly, after her work on the house was completed a photograph emerged which confirmed her report. Initial success and curious owners led to more work and 2022 was to date her busiest year.

Marianne branched out interstate then nation-wide to larger homes and rural properties, establishing a greater skill set. If inner city homes have very sketchy details of extensions recorded in the city archives, rural properties pose a far greater problem. Marianne has had to adapt, improvise and overcome on some projects but also acknowledges the role of luck. On a recent project in Bellingen she was turning up blanks until the granddaughter of the original owners surfaced after a single well directed message with a helpful family tree. A long term memory of the house provided a first hand account to assist her on her way.

Marianne is very generous with her knowledge and advises everybody to “have a go” at analysing a house. Her advice is to start by looking at the architectural style which will give you a rough idea of when it was built but the most concrete evidence will come from the Titles Office. The subdivision of a larger land parcel will indicate the intention of housing construction but this may happen over time and repeatedly. Several blocks may be owned by one person though when these are further subdivided there is a clearer indication that construction is imminent and often within a year or two a single dwelling will result. From here postal records census recordings, aerial photos, sewerage maps and building approvals start to tell a story.

It is her scientific background, double checking and evaluating, assessing of evidence, methodical referencing and lateral thinking that fill in the gaps. Using a professional eliminates some of the emotional aspect of investigation. Owners can be invested in small details they believe to be true on hearsay but are not able to be proven.
Marianne advises that easiest houses to research are the ones of wealthy families or very socially active families as their lives are reported in the newspapers and accessible through Trove. Trove makes fascinating reading with lengthy descriptions of dresses and floral decorations. Articles report bridge parties and bon voyages for extended over seas tours and make enchanting reading of a slower, grander time for present home owners.

The interest people had in their dwellings intensified during Covid when the family home became the focus of daily activities. Marianne was called to investigate increasingly more homes that were wider afield, necessitating the mastery of interstate data bases and evaluation of found evidence. Has she ever been completely stumped? No, she has never been able to find nothing about a house although sometimes luck has been pivotal. The investigation of a house seems as varied and fluid as the lives of old houses themselves. Never knowing where a project might take her or what she might find, there is one constant—Marianne does all her best thinking in the shower.

The House Detective offers a program on her website advising on the basics if you would like to try your own research or she available for consultation.

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