Property: Who's Been Living in My House? ; It Takes Time and Effort, but Digging Up the History of Your Home Can Introduce You to Some Colourful Old Characters

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Anyone who has ever lived in an old property - and up to a quarter of the housing stock in our major cities is Victorian or earlier - cannot have helped wondering who occupied the building in the past and how they lived; what scenes were acted out within its walls; how it came into being and what was there before.

An opportunity to delve into this history arose when we acquired the freehold of the late-Victorian house in south London, in which we had leased the garden flat for years. The solicitor handed over a stout manila envelope bursting with documents: leases, plans, planning applications and two ancient conveyances, written in flowing italics, with many a "whereas" and "witnesseth" picked out in Gothic script, on stiff imitation parchment encrusted with stamps and wax seals.

Each was illustrated with a beautifully drawn plan showing the house in relation to neighbouring properties. I realised later how fortunate we were to have these; only title deeds are required to prove current ownership, and many older conveyances have been lost or are in solicitors' collections or local archives.

The earlier of the two, dated 12 July 1898, related to the original sale of the house; at the end, a schedule of deeds listed earlier conveyances that established the vendor's claim to the property - and offered the tantalising prospect of a paperchase back through history. The first of these, dated 2 November 1874, referred to an indenture made between William Beckwith Towse and Alexander Maclean Barrow of the one part and George Keen of the other. The latest, dated 29 September 1890, was between Eliza and Julia Keen and Henry Fisher.

The name of George Keen rang a bell. I already had a facsimile of the 1870 Ordnance Survey map of the area; on the back, the publisher had reprinted part of a street directory of the period, and there, at Cedar House, Herne Hill, was listed one George Keen.

Armed with the names of Keen and Fisher, I set off for the local studies library. Every borough or county has one, usually staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated people battling against underfunding and neglect. In our case, the search was complicated by a 1900 boundary change, which meant the relevant documents were divided between Lambeth and Southwark.

Turfed out of the library at closing time each Monday, I'd carry my spoils - slimy photocopies of census returns and xeroxes of old maps - to the Globe pub in Borough market to pore over the ink- blotted 19th-century scrawl. What gradually emerged was a family and business saga worthy of Mrs Gaskell, set against the changing landscape and society of Victorian England.

Herne Hill is a creation of the 19th century; John Roque's map of 1762 shows nothing there but fields. But after the building of Blackfriars Bridge in the late 18th century made it accessible to the City of London, it developed rapidly, and by the 1830s Herne Hill was lined with large villas. John Ruskin, who lived at no. 28, described his neighbours in his autobiography Praeteriter (1885) as "for the most part, London tradesmen of the better class... they had a cortege of footmen and a glitter of extensive pleasure grounds, costly hothouses and carriages driven by coachmen in wigs".

One such villa was Cedar House, occupied for much of the second half of the 19th century by a wharf owner called George Keen and his family. Born in the City of London in 1799, Keen probably grew up within sight of the Bermondsey wharves, and married his wife Julia by 1826. They were then living in Southwark, probably close to Keen's place of business; their elder daughter Julia was born there in that year, followed by her younger sister Eliza in 1829.

By 1832 the firm of H Keen and Son was trading at Pickleherring. By 1840, George Keen had set up in business on his own at 30 Shad Thames, moving to Cole's Upper Wharf - next to Horselydown New Stairs and the Rose and Crown pub - by 1849. …