Studying the past of one terraced Liverpool home for BBC2s A House Through Time has brought Britains real history to life
All old houses are haunted. Not by ghosts but by the lives of others. Because to live in an old house is to share your most intimate space with the dead. Houses live longer than people and the harsh fact is that we are just passing through. Our homes, the most acutely personal places in our lives, come to us secondhand, and invisibly link us to people we have never met, people to whom we have no association other than a single shared connection to place.
I have been thinking about this recently because I spent last autumn engaged in a unique television experiment. We set out to discover if it was possible to take a single house and, through old newspapers, documents in the archives and whatever other clues or scraps of evidence we could find, tell the story of all the people who live there; from the day the first resident turned the key in the front door, all the way up to today.
The house selected is a Georgian-style terrace in what is now called the Georgian Quarter of Liverpool. I write Georgian-style because it was built in 1840, the third year of Victorias reign. Although large, elegant and, in the early 21st century, extremely desirable, it is not unique. There are hundreds like it in Liverpool and many thousands more across the country.
But, after months of investigations, what the researchers who began this project discovered was that it was possible, in the case of 62 Falkner Street, to form a chain of human stories stretching from then to now, from the first resident to the current owner. The lives of all of the people whose stories make up the links in that chain run through the house, because, for each of them, walking through that front door meant that they were home.
Across the four episodes of A House Through Time we uncover their stories, and that of the city in which they lived. More than any other British city, Liverpools ride on the rollercoaster of national fortune has been a bumpy one. No other city has been more buffeted by the cycles of boom and bust and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the place that once proudly saw itself as the second city of empire suffered more than any other when that empire suddenly evaporated.
The extremes of Liverpools story are reflected in the lives of the occupants of 62 Falkner Street. They span the social spectrum, from the well-to-do Victorian gentlemen to the families who huddled together in single rooms during the decades after the second world war when the house degenerated into a tenement slum.
Part of the aim of A House is to answer the question that everyone who has ever lived in an old house has at some time or another asked themselves. The thought usually comes late at night or early in the morning, when our eye is caught by what estate agents like to call an original feature, or a patch of peeling wallpaper or flaking paint reveals what lies beneath. Those triggers remind us that the buildings we confidently call ours once belonged to others; many and multiple others.
History is about people. Historians who dont get that tend to be the ones who struggle to get anyone to care about their work. Ultimately you have to care about the people you encounter through your research, if you want anyone else to. But it is all too easy to start caring about figures from the past if you find yourself reading the documents that record their lives while sitting in what was once their kitchen. Or having just walked up a staircase, holding the wooden banister that their hands once gripped. To read their letters from within the house in which they were written, or to hold in your hands their death certificates, while standing on their front steps or in their bedroom, is a strangely intimate experience. A close encounter between historian and subject.
Reading the grim details of a Victorian domestic violence case, while walking through the rooms in which those beatings and beratings took place, felt almost voyeuristic. Too close and a little too real for comfort. To talk about the past residents of the house, to make judgments about them, to sum up their achievements or discuss their failings, from the upstairs sitting room in which they showed off their wealth and entertained their guests one and a half centuries earlier, felt a little presumptuous and almost transgressive. Historians love to talk about how we can get closer to the people of the past, but when it happens of its own volition the effects can be unnerving.
There is no official register of historians. No list from which practitioners of the art can be struck off for professional misconduct. Ive recently found myself grateful for this omission because of all the historical projects I have worked on, none has made it so easy to cross lines, or so tempting to overstep marks. I have found myself marvelling at my capacity to feel genuine dislike for men who died over a century before my birth. To pass judgment on anyone living or dead on the basis of a handful of letters and ledger entries is palpably unfair and arguably ridiculous, and yet, in this case, almost impossible to resist.