Robin Burgoyne started researching the social history of Toronto houses in 2008. Through her company Caerwent HouseStories she has notched up more than 25 house histories, each one taking between 100 and 150 hours to complete. When she’s not researching online databases or interviewing former residents, Robin spends much of her time travelling between the Provincial Land Registry Office, the City of Toronto Archives, the Archives of Ontario, and the Toronto Reference Library to comb through old newspaper clippings, birth and death notices, archival photos of the street and neighborhood, and early insurance maps to tell the story of her client’s homes.
I caught up with Robin when she was in Vancouver recently and asked her a few questions about her work.
How did you get into this line of work?
We have a long family history in the real estate industry. My great great grandfather owned a brick works in Wales and my father was a city planner and real estate appraiser. I’d worked in the film industry and for a market research company, and I had a Master’s in History that I have never used, so it just felt natural to form a house history business.
What’s the first thing you do when you start researching a house?
I start at the Land Registry Office. In Ontario all house and property titles are registered at the land registry office and the documents provide a comprehensive list of owners as well as records of when the land changed hands.
What are your must-have resources?
Tax assessment records provide valuable information about the owners such as date of birth, religious affiliation, number of individuals residing in the house, and in some cases, the number of dogs. They also indicate the type of structures on the property and give the most accurate idea of when the house was built, as well as the dates of major renovations.
What has been the most interesting thing that you’ve uncovered?
Every house that I’ve researched has had some illustrious person who has lived in it or some interesting event that has happened there. When I researched my house, I found that a successful professional woman bowler used to live there. I have a newspaper story with a picture of her receiving a tournament trophy from the Mayor. Another time I found that a client’s house was built by a 19th century safe manufacturer. Now I see his safes all over the place, including the one that’s in the house I’m currently researching. It’s especially interesting for me when I can make these types of connections.
What are most homeowners surprised to discover – and are there things that they would rather you not unearth?
Homeowners are always surprised at how much detail is available about the lives of the people who lived in their house. A few of my clients were squeamish and didn’t want to know about violent deaths or nasty incidents in the house. Most though want to know everything that took place before they lived there.
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