RAHS Technical Information Service Bulletin No. 04: Researching Old Buildings

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This invaluable research guide is courtesy Carol Liston and the Royal Australian Historical Society

by Dr. Carol Liston

The history of a building has many facets. It is the story of the bricks and mortar exterior; the fashionable trends that influenced its design and decoration; the people who built it and the families who lived in it; its interior arrangements, facilities and atmosphere; its environment and its grounds; and its visual impact on the neighbourhood. With patient research these aspects can be pieced together to produce the history of any building.


The building itself is an important witness about its life cycle. Careful observation of exterior and interior should be the starting point of your investigation into the history of the building.

What is it made from? Are the building materials simple or sophisticated, hand made or machine made? Is there evidence v of alterations, such as windows blocked up, extra rooms or the plumbing added later? Look at the details from skirting / boards to ceilings, windows to door knockers. Each part is evidence of the technology and skill which produced the building. Search for dates recorded on the facade of the building or a manufacturer’s name and design registration ^ number stamped on the cast iron of the verandah.

Map reading is an important skill in locating information about the building and its occupants. Before starting your research make sure that you can identify the site on a map.

Observe its physical setting, either first hand or by photograph. Look at the topography. Is it on a hill, near a road or close to trees. Be familiar with its setting so that you can identify the background in old photographs, look for evidence of the gardens, old fence lines and the original drive way.


Become familiar with the architectural styles and decorative flourishes of the building industry in Australia. Most local libraries have a range of books that can help identify architectural style.

Particular styles dominated certain decades, reflecting taste and technology, identifying the style of an historic building establishes an approximate period of construction and helps to focus your search among the variety of historical records. Whilst experience is needed to assess the finer details, with the aid of a reference book it is reasonably straightforward to distinguish a Colonial Georgian building with its balanced symmetry (1788-c. 1850) from a Victorian building with its ornate decoration (c. 1840-1900) or a Federation or Edwardian building with its red Marseilles tiled roof (c. 1890-C.1914) from a Californian suburban bungalo (c. 1914-1939).


Consult a local history book. Local libraries usually have a collection of literature about the history of their district and may have histories for other areas as well. Read about what was happening in that area at the time you think the house may have been built. This should tell you about the people who settled there and when buildings were erected. Knowing when neighbouring hotels, stores, churches and schools were built puts all buildings into their historic context. Perhaps the local history will also describe the planning of the town and the naming of your street.


Armed with this general background work, you can now search for specific information about the previous owners of the building. All land in Australia was originally considered Crown land until “alienated”, that is given away (granted), sold by auction or by conditional purchase or leased. Even if the land was sold, the first title will always refer to the land as a grant by purchase.

The Land Titles Office of New South Wales (previously known as the Registrar-General for Lands) has records which detail the ownership of all land from the earliest land grant up to the present day in New South Wales. Other states have similar departments and record collections.

There are two types of land title in New South Wales. The original system used when Australia was first settled is referred to as Old System Title. This system was later replaced by the Torrens System which was designed by Robert Torrens in Adelaide in 1857 and introduced into New South Wales in 1863.

If you are tracing the history of your own house, title details on the Valuer General’s notification will provide a useful starting point at the Land Titles Office. Otherwise you can get the current title information about the building from the town planning department of your local council. If the building that you are researching is not in your own area, staff at the Land Titles Office can assist you to identify it from maps. If you cannot get to the Land Titles Office, the Office can arrange, for a fee, a search on your behalf.


The older method of registering iandownership in New South Wales is Old System Title. Some land in New South Wales is still held under Old System Title but most land has been converted to the Torrens Title System.

Old System title arose from the common law process of registering deeds with the court to ensure their legality. This process was encouraged in colonial New South Wales by an order in 1800 and registered documents survive from as early as 1802. Registration of land transactions was formally established in New South Wales by law in 1825 at the same time as the other important record system, the parish registration of baptisms, marriages and burials, was introduced. Registered deeds had priority over non-registered documents if there was any legal dispute so most transactions were registered. These records were originally kept by the Supreme Court but later the Registrar General became their custodian.

Old System deeds are thej;ecords of private transactions involving land granted or sold by the Crown before 1863. Proof of ownership to land under Old System was a complex iegal process requiring a copy of every document relating to the land after it was alientated by the Crown.

Old System records for New South Wales are kept in the basement at the Land Title Office in Sydney. Land Grant Indexes from 1792 to 1862 and registers of Land Grants are part of the Old System records. They are shelved in an open access system. Transactions after the land was granted are indexed by the seller’s name in the Vendors’ Index (Sellers’ Index) from 1825. The Vendors’ Index is arranged alphabetically and chronologically. Registered mortgages are also indexed as sales. There is no Purchaser’s Index until the 1890s.

Researchers interested in a portion of land and its buildings must approach the system through the name of a landowner. If the name of the landowner is not known, the portion of land must fi rst be identified on a Parish Map and the name of the original grantee discovered. The Vendors’Index can then be searched to find when the grantee sold the land and to whom. The Vendors’ Index is searched again under the name of the second purchaser and this procedure is repeated for every sale until the land is converted toTorrens Title. In assembling the pattern of land ownershipand mortgages, care must be taken that the correct portion of land is traced whenever a large estate is subdivided.

The Vendors’ Index lists the names of the Vendor and Purchaser, the Book Number and Document number of the deed, the nature of the transaction, i.e. whether sale or mortgage, and gives a brief description of the land, such as 60 acres, Parish of Gidley, County of Cumberland.

Discharge of mortgages are endorsed on the Vendors' Index in red ink. Conversion from Old System to Torrens Title by a Primary Application under the Real Property Act of 1863 is often noted underthe last deed in the Old System chain, giving the Primary Application number or the volume and folio reference of the new Certificate of Title. Once this note appears, there will be no further references to that portion of land in the Old System. The searcher can continue to trace the land ownership through the Torrens System to the present day.

Old System deeds are filed in numbered books on open access shelves in the same basement room as the Vendors’ Index. A photocopy service is also available.

The Old System deed is usually called an indenture. It records information about the owners, the price paid for the property and any mortgage arrangements. Because of the need to prove a chain of title, the indenture may refer to earlier registered deeds, to wills and marriage settlements, insolvency proceedings, legal decisions and newspaper advertisements for the sale of property.

Buildings are rarefy mentioned within the deed but building activity can usually be assumed if there is a substantial increase in the price of the land from one sale to the next or if there is a change in the pattern of mortgages. Sometimes there is a small map indicating the bdundaries of the land and improvements such as buildings and roads may be marked on the plan. An example of an Old System deed, including a plan of the allotment, is shown in Figure 1.

Original land grants and records of church and school lands are part of Old System. As well as land records, Old System deeds may include marriage settlements and mortgages, extracts from wills, the management of deceased estates and trustee arrangements for women. Changes of name are also registered under Old System.

Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania before 1824), Port Phillip (Victoria before 1851) and Moreton Bay (Queensland before 1859) prior to self government were part of New South Wales. Early land transactions for these colonies appear in the Vendors’ Index but the actual deeds have been transferred to the appropriate states.

Common phrases encountered in Old System

Fee simple — freehold; absolute ownership without conditions.

Indenture — a legal document. Two copies of the document were written side by side on the same sheet of parchment and then cut apart. By joining the halves, the authenticity of each part of the document could be established.

Lease and release — a type of sale where a lease is made for a nominal amount on one day and a release for a substantial amount (in effect, the selling price) is dated the following day.

Mortgagee — the person to whom the property is mortgaged, that is the person who lent the money.

Mortgagor — the person who mortgaged the property as security for a debt, that is the person who borrowed the money.

Quit rent—a small annual fee owed by a freeholder in place of service to the Crown. Quit rent conditions were inserted in colonial land grants.


Land was converted from Old System title to Torrens Title by a Primary Application. The owner of the land applied to the government under the Real Property Act of 1863 to have the new government-guaranteed title issued for their land.

Conversion could be an expensive process because the landowner had to prove a chain of title back to the original grantee. This was difficult if documents were lost or had never been registered. Names of the owners and occupiers of adjoining properties were listed so that boundary disputes could be settled before the new title was issued. Proof of ownership and the boundaries of the land were supported with statutory declarations from neighbours and members of the family. Documentation about wills and family relationships were often necessary to show the line of inheritance to the land. A surveyor charted the estate and this plan was usually submitted with the Primary Application. See Figure 2.

Property was often converted to Torrens Title by real estate developers anxious to promote sales of land with a government guaranteed title.

Primary Application documents can be consulted by researchers at the Land Titles Office. It is necessary to have the Primary Application Number (PA number) to use these records. This number appears on the first title of the Torrens System or may be annotated on the land portion on maps held by the Land Titles Office or the Archives Office of New South Wales.


The most common modern title to land is a Torrens Certificate of Title. After 1863, Torrens Title was used for all new land sold by the Crown and for private sales that had been converted from the earlier Old system with a Primary Application.

A Torrens Title reference is expressed as Volume and Folio numbers. These are arranged in books of fifty folios (or pages), with 250 folios or five books forming a volume. Certificates of title with numbers before Vol. 8497 (issued from 1863 to c.1960), can be consulted on open access shelves in the basement of the Land Title Office in Sydney. Certificates of Title after Vol. 8498 are on microfilm and photocopies must be purchased using prepaid vouchers which are available on the ground floor.

Torrens Title references are often marked on the Parish Map. If the address or location of the property is known but the names of owners are unknown, approach your search through the maps and plans which are held in the Plan Room on the second floor of the Land Titles Office in Sydney. Annotated copies of parish maps, deposited plans of subdivisions (DP) and old lithographic plans (L) provide a starting point for your search. Staff will assist searchers in the Plan Room.

From these plans, the searcher will find either a Torrens Title reference for the relevant portion of land or more often1 a Deposited Plan (DP) number. A Deposited Plan is a plan submitted for a subdivision. In the city, land has been constantly subdivided into smaller areas. Each subdivision creates a new Deposited Plan. Within the Deposited Plan, each piece of land will be described by lot and portion number. Deposited Plan numbers can be converted to Torrens Title Volume and Folio numbers by using the Land indexes which are in blue books in the Plan Room.

If you know the name of someone who owned the land, the Certificate of Title number can be found using the Torrens Title Purchasers’ Index. This is arranged chronologically and alphabetically, starting in 1863 when the first Torrens Title was issued. The Torrens Title Purchasers’ Index is located in the basement of the Land Titles Office.

A Torrens System Certificate of Title gives the owner’s name and a physical description of the property. Once one Certificate of Title has been located, it is possible to track backwards or forward through the records from any point in the title chain. In the left hand corner of a Certificate of Title is the number of the previous Certificate of Title or the Primary Application from Old System.

Several changes of ownership are often endorsed on the same Certificate of Title without a new title being issued so one Certificate of Title can provide information about the property over many years. If a new Certificate of Title is issued, the new number is entered at the end of the superseded title.

Changes of ownership following death are entered on the certificate. Mortgages and sales are endorsed on the Certificate of Title, using an alpha-numerical system, e.g. D123456. These transactions are known as dealings and are kept by the Land Titles Office on microfilm. To consult a dealing, it is necessary to purchase a photocopy of the relevant document.

An example of a Certificate of Title is shown in Figure 3.

A Certificate of Title describes only the land. It will give details about the dimensions and location of the land, the various owners and mortgage-holders but will rarely have any references to buildings. Sometimes a building outline or the location of farm outbuildings are indicated on the early plans which describe the boundaries of the land.

By combining background information about architectural style and local history with the dates of different owners, the purchase prices and mortgage details recorded on the Certificate of Title and the dealing documents, it is generally possible to infer who was the most likely owner when the building was constructed. Rapid increases in the sale price of the land generally indicates improvements such as a building. Large mortgages also suggest building activity.

Certificates of Title record the subdivision of a large estate into smaller villa allotments, indicating suburban growth. Sometimes the title will reveal that the land was purchased by a speculative builder or a land and investment building society.


A dated map can often help to date a building merely by indicating whether it is there or not. Maps and plans of the surroundings or curtilage of a building describe its physical environment. Maps often give details of the grounds and gardens, fence lines and carriage ways, the proximity of neighbouring houses and perhaps the outline of the building itself.

Research into historic buildings starts with the Parish Map. The Parish Map records the first grantee, often the name of the property and its area. Boundaries of local government and other instrumentalities are shown. Different editions of Parish Maps should be compared for variations such as resumptions by government for railways, roads, recreation areas or mining leases.

Current Parish Maps can be inspected and purchased at the Lands Department. Many old editions of Parish Maps are kept at the Archives Office of New South Wales and the Mitchell Library. The Parish Map shows the name of the landowner at the time the grant was issued and any later resumptions of land by the government. It is not altered to include the names of subsequent owners nor does it show boundary alterations when the original grant is subdivided.

Each portion of land on the Parish Map is identified with a unique number for that parish. Each parish portion is also endorsed with various numbers which refer to plans drawn by surveyors. Survey plans may reveal buildings, dams and other improvements arid indicate original vegetation. They are held at the Lands Department, though most of the oldest survey plans have been transferred to the Archives Office of New South Wales. A small fee is charged to view and copy these plans at the Lands Department.

Survey plans are identified by two numbers — a catalogue number and small number. These numbers can be found on the Parish Map by combining the number printed on the sfde of the Parish Map with the “small number" given at the top of the table of Parish numbers. The Parish Map and survey portion plans give either the date of the grant or the volume and folio reference to the Torrens Title for that portion. Part of a Parish Map is shown in Figure 4.

T|ie Lands Department also has plans of roads which sometimes identify the occupiers of property along the road and /jtline the buildings which face the road. Conditional purchases and leases are also indicated by numbers on the parish portion.

The Archives Office of New South Wales has thousands of old plans from several government authorities — the Lands Department, Registrar General, Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board and Mines Department. Because these maps have passed through several numbering systems, it is usually necessary to refer first to a key map, then to a more detailed sheet that will give numbers for each area, and then a guide which converts the departmental number to the Archives Office number. Such maps may show the outlines of building^ building materials and street alignments. The Land Titles Office has deposited plans of subdivisions and lithographs of estates.

Mitchell Library, local historical societies and municipal libraries have collections of subdivision plans drawn by real estate agents to show land allotments for sale. Neighbouring properties, often giving the owners’ names, shops and other facilities, are usually marked on these plans. Many are also annotated with the names of purchasers, the purchase price and sometimes a builder's name.

One of the largest and most varied collection of maps is held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It includes maps drawn by private surveyors, early insurance maps indicating building materials and maps drawn for special purposes to indicate mining, agriculture and transport routes.


It is rare to find the original plans for a house. Many buildings in Australia were designed by the builder rather than a professional architect and it is unlikely that their plans have survived. Builders often took their designs from pattern hooks which provided plans and dimensions in a variety of combinations for a prospective buyer to select. Sometimes jans were published in building journals and trade magazines.

A large collection of architectural drawings by many well-known architects is held by the Mitchell Library which also has the private papers of several architects. Sometimes the plans of a local architect have survived in a local history collection or may still be held by a descendant firm of architects.


When the dates of a land or house sale have been identified from the title search, it is worthwhile looking in the newspapers prior to the sale. The sale of a house or estate may be advertised with a detailed description of the number of rooms, interior and exterior features, size and nature of the grounds. Previous owners may dispose of the furniture and contents by auction when the house is sold. Auction notices specifying all the contents of a building were often printed in newspapers. Sometimes the sale of property and contents were published as brochures. Check local history collections and the Mitchell Library for these documents.


Owners do not always live on their property. Tracing the tenants of a building can be frustrating. Sands and Wise’s directories and various Post Office directories can help as they list occupants and their addresses but directories are not always reliable.

When a local government was established, properties were valued and assessed for rate payments. Some local councils have preserved their old rate and valuation books. These record details such as who owned the building, who was occupying it, its value, the rate assessment and whether the rates were paid or not. Some books also note the occupation of the owner and occupier and give some information about the building fabric, the size of the allotment and title information such as Parish Portion number. A complete set of council records can provide full details about its occupants.

Not all councils have retained these valuable records. Some are still held by the local council or have been placed in a local history collection. Others are preserved in the Mitchell Library. Early rate books can be vague, especially before house numbering systems were established. It is best to consult them after other information about the building and its neighbours has been assembled. Rating values, improved and unimproved, indicate any development on the land. Buildjng registers and similar records may describe development approvals, the type of building and any extensions.


Over the years, a building is altered and adapted by successive generations. Additions are made and gardens are altered. Paintings, sketches and photographs show this most clearly. Such visual evidence can be found in libraries or in the possession of descendants of previous owners.

Consider why photographs may have been taken. Was the building on a transport route? !f so, then look closely at the background of photographs showing local railways or horse-drawn coaches. Would a family wedding or social occasion have taken place in the house? Try to trace descendants of the families who lived there and examine the background of their family photographs. Sometimes it is not possible to find a direct view of the building itself but panorama views can often be located that show many buildings of the district. Enlarged, such panoramas reveal clear details for a particular building. If it was used as a commercial building, company letter head might incorporate the building in a logo design.

Be cautious in interpreting paintings and drawings as the building might be altered by the artist to appear more picturesque. Photographs are less likely to deceive in this way.

Buildings and their settings have changed quite' remarkably in the past four decades. Aerial photographs are available for many areas from the 1930s and 1940s. Individual allotments can be identified with careful analysis and enlarged to reveal detaills about buildings and their surroundings. Aerial photographs can be purchased from the Lands Department. Sometimes local councils have a selection of aerial photographs of their area.


Surveyors’ Field Books provide important details about land settlement. As the surveyor travelled through a district measuring portions of land, he often noted the names of people occupying land or used their buildings and fences for reference points in his survey. Surveyors’ Field Books can be consulted at the Lands Department or at the Archives Office.

For the homes of the famous, much can be gleaned about their buildings from the letters of individuals who lived there. Correspondence of the Macarthur or Wentworth families reveal many details about the surroundings in which they lived. Personal papers of less well-documented families will also reveal information about their homes. Such papers may have found their way to state, national or local collections, or may still be in hands of decendants. If the architect or builder is known, it may be possible to trace their private papers.

Census returns held at the Archives Office of New South Wales record how many people lived in each house in the surviving records of the Census for 1828,1841 and 1891.

Electoral rolls, old telephone, post office and commercial directories all list names of people and where they lived. As these records appear regularly over many years, it is a straightforward task to compile a list of occupants at a certain address, names of neighbours, changes in the name or street number of a building and record the gradual change in the neighbourhood in which a building is located.

See Figure 5.

Trade journals for the building industry often described domestic as well as commercial projects. Architects seeking builders advertised their tenders in these journals! Dates from the title search will fix the time period to search for such details. Useful titles include “Australian Builder and Contractor’s News”, “Building and Engineering Journal” and “The Australian Decorator and Painter".

Tradesmen’s handbooks and practical encyclopedias give step by step instructions and hints for handymen to build or repair their buildings. State and university libraries usually have a selection of such books.


Trace the people who occupied the building. Their memories about alterations, the uses of parts of the building and their life styles are valuable information. Neighbours also have memories of the building and it may appear in the background of their family snapshots.


Interiors of buildings were rarely photographed until the twentieth century. Some photographs may be found in a family album. Large libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales have illustrations and books on decoration which describe interiors, fashionable and bargain furniture and fittings.

Evidence in the building itself, such as traces of wall papers, filled doorways and signs of wear and tear will give clues about how the building was arranged internally.

Commercial catalogues illustrated the fittings available for a house. Their display of actual items available for sale, with prices and sizes, provide a wide range of information about domestic life.


Books About Using Historical Records (Bosworth, M.), House Search (Trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences 1984)

Crown Lands Office, The Parish Map in Family History Research (1984)

Cox, R., “Land Records of NSW as a Genealogical Source”, Descent, vol. 8 Pts 4-5,1978.

Dowd, B.T., “Early Mapping of New South Wales”, Proceedings of the R.A.H.S. Conference with Affiliated Societies, 1971

Gilbert. L.A. & Driscoll, W.P., History Around Us (Methuen Australia 1984)

Gow, N„ "The Development of Land Settlement and its Effect on Local History”, Canberra and District Historical Society Seminar Papers 1978.

Gyford, G., A Beginner’s guide to the Registrar General's Office (Nepean District Historical Archaeology Group 1981)

Gyford, G., A Beginner’s Guide to the Lands Department building (Nepean District Historical Archeology Group 1984)

Hibbins, Fahey & Askew, Local History. A Handbook for Enthusiasts (George Allen & Unwin, 1985)

Kass, T “The Comparative Use of Land Title Records and Rate Books", Sydney Gazette, Organ of the Sydney History Group, No. 8, May 1986

Reynolds, P.L., Balmain 1800r1882~ The Gilchrist Settlement. A Basic Search Plan (Balmain Association 1978)

Stafford, J. “Historical Records at the Titles Office, Brisbane”, Brisbane: Archives and Approaches, Brisbane History Group Papers No. 2 1983

Watson, J.H., “The Use of the Records of the Registrar-General’s Department”, Proceedings of the R.A.H.S. Conference with Affiliated Societies, 1966.

Books About Historic Buildings Australian Council of National Trusts/Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Bringing A House to Life (1985)

Australian Heritage Commission, The Heritage of Australia The Illustrated Register of the National Estate (Macmillan 1981)

Berry, D.W. & Gilbert, S.H., Pioneer Building Techniques in South Australia (1981)

Boyd, R., Australia’s Home. Why Australians built the way they did (1952 & 1978)

Boyd, R., The Walls Around Us. A Popular History of Australian Architecture (1962 & 1982)

Evans, I., Furnishing Old Houses. A Guide to Interior Restoration (1983)

Evans, I., Restoring Old Houses. A Guide to Authentic Restoration (1979)

Evans, Lucas and Stapleton, Colour Schemes for Old Australian Houses (1984)

Freeland, J.M., Architecture in Australia (1968)

Freeman, Martin and Dean, Building Conservation in Australia (1985)

Heritage Council of NSW, Conservation of Federation Houses (1981)

Historic Houses Trust of New South' Wales, Cleanliness is Next to Godliness. Personal Hygiene in New South Wales 1788-1901 (1984)

Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, The Decorated Wall. Eighty Years of Wallpaper in Australia c. 1850-1930 (1981)

Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Let There be Light. The Development of Domestic Lighting in New South Wales 1788-1904 (1984)

Irving, R., The History and Design of the Australian House (1985)

Kerr, J. & Broadbent, J., Gothick Taste in the Colony of New South Wales (1980)

Saunders, D., A Manual of Architectural History Sources in Australia 2nd ed 2 vols. (1981)

Stapleton, I., Restoring the Old Aussie House (1983)


Lands Department (including Geographic Names Board) 23-33 Bridge Street, Sydney

Land Titles Office (formerly Registrar General’s Office) Prince Albert Road, Sydney.

Archives Office of NSW 2 Globe Street, The Rocks Mitchell Library, Macquarie Street, Sydney.


Rosemary Annable, Title Search and History of 133 Macquarie Street (History House), Sydney. 1983

© Royal Australian Historical Society, 133 Macquarie St., Sydney. Gail Griffith (02) 27-6227

September 1986