Melanie Backe-Hansen is an historian, author and speaker. She specialises in social history of houses and streets and is the author of the acclaimed books ‘House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door’ and ‘Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep’
What is an historian?
This is rather a difficult question to answer, and I’m suddenly transported back into time (of course) sitting in my first year class at University where this was inevitably one of the first questions asked for a history degree. It is also a question that I’ve often considered as I did not find my way into a career in history in perhaps the more usual manner, and although I completed a history degree at Macquarie University in Sydney, I did not pursue a ‘traditional’ academic route and some may consider I’m not a ‘proper’ historian because of this. However, as I spend my days delving into the past by researching the history of houses and areas across the country, I would say an historian is one who pursues the stories of the past by analysing available sources and material, and endeavours to uncover and understand what has gone before, and then communicates these discoveries.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
Well, initially I didn’t. I adore history and I will be equally fascinated watching a documentary about Roman Britain or reading a book about the lives of Victorian servants, not to mention delving into original documents myself, but believing a career in history was only possible via academia (which it largely was when I graduated) I originally went into the world of publishing. I previously worked in marketing and PR for an educational publishing company (so it’s sort of related!). However, it was this experience of marketing and PR that contributed to my finding my dream job! In 2006, when looking for a new job, I found an advertisement for something rather unique, as the role required a history background, combined with experience in marketing and PR. This led to my being the first house historian to be employed by a UK estate agent…and the rest, as they say, is history!
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
This is extremely difficult, as the essence of history is to study different perspectives and experiences rather than take one version of the ‘facts’ at face value. It is also difficult because my work in house histories is extremely varied based on the location of the house, as well as its age, and the different stories of individuals that are revealed when researching those connected to the house. Having said that, there are two collections (I know this is cheating as it’s not one book) that I couldn’t do without – The Survey of London and The Victoria County History.
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?
I would probably say http://www.british-history.ac.uk/ – which holds the text for most of the Survey of London volumes (mentioned above) but also a wide range of other sources. It is extraordinarily useful when researching a particular area and you can search the various texts while wearing your slippers from the comfort of home. I also rather like The Times newspaper archive online (available via library subscriptions) which is easy to search – and simply fascinating! Of course there are other newspaper archives online as well.
What is your favourite historical place?
There are so many to choose from, but ultimately my favourite historic place is the City of Bath. I simply love it. Everything from the Roman Baths, and of course the architecture and the gorgeous stone terraced houses, but also the social history of Bath is fascinating. I’ve researched a few houses in Bath, which give a glimpse of this fascinating history. These included a house in Gay Street which was home to Hester Thrale (Mrs Piozzi), and later was the home of Admiral Lord Nelson’s physician. I’ve also researched a house in The Circus that was home to William Pitt the Elder, while later becoming a school for boys where Alexander Graham Bell was a tutor!
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go
Hmmm…such a tough question as there are so many fascinating periods, but I think I’d love to see what London was really like during the 18th century. Perhaps in the year 1800 before Victorian expansion hit the city. I would wander the streets (in perfect safety of course) and see what the streets and houses were like – from the old city through to the new houses spreading across west London. I’d love to see Mayfair as it was originally built, as well as some of the outer areas like Chelsea which would have been just country villages at this time. While doing this, I’d hope to get a glimpse of what life was like for the people walking down the street and get a sneak peek into their homes.
You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?
Well, firstly it depends on where in the country I’ve been asked to research as this will involve travelling to the relevant county record office (where most of the relevant documents and sources will be held), but ultimately I balance my time between researching in archives and libraries and then completing online research and writing while working from home (which usually involves spending many hours with my laptop in the local café!).
Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?
Well, this actually doesn’t apply as the history of houses involves researching many periods depending on the age of the house. I do tend to favour the Victorian period, especially in housing history as the 19th century was such a pivotal time in the development of new houses – and this still impacts how we live in houses today! But, depending on the history that is uncovered in researching a house, I can end up researching various periods. For example, I have researched a house in London, which was built on the site of the Royal Cockpit, built at the Restoration in the 1660s, while the house later became the home of the engineers responsible for the London Underground and the Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland. I’ve also researched a house in Cornwall which led to research into the Wars of the Roses, as well as Victorian farmers. It can be extremely varied, one minute researching a First World War battle where the son of the household died, and then the next researching the impact of the Civil War on a farmhouse in Kent.
Why is history important today?
At heart I am a social historian, and in all my work I’ve discovered that history is ultimately the study of people – the decisions and events that affected the lives of those who have gone before. It also highlights our small role in the grand scheme or life and gives great context to the place we possess in time and perhaps highlights the responsibility we should take in how we affect those around us and ultimately how we leave this world – better or worse than we found it. That may seem grandiose or conceited, but whether I’m researching a country farmhouse in Devon or a two-up-two-down in Northumberland, the lives of the people connected to those houses were important during each period. They had their loves and losses and my looking back on their place in the history of the house helps to value them, but also gives an understanding on perhaps how fleeting life can be.
History is important in giving us context about our place in the world, and having a greater understanding of the past and what has gone before, should help inform our perspective on our decisions and the way we value life.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
I’m often trying to avoid boring my friends with random historical facts (although I do keep doing it!), but I’d have to say my best historical fact (which many people probably know) is that the exclusive area of Belgravia was formerly marshy fields notorious for thieves and murderers (quite a contrast!). Originally the isolated area was known as Five Fields and was unsafe to go near – especially at night (imagine London in the 18th and even early 19th century with no electricity and just a few faint gas lights) – and towards today’s Sloane Square was a bridge over the River Westbourne known as Bloody Bridge because of the number of attacks that took place. In fact, Knightsbridge was particularly unsavoury, and there used to be an escort that left Hyde Park Corner (heralded by a bell) that guided people in safety through to Kensington.
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