Spring adventures of a house historian

It has been an exciting few months in the life of this house historian! The spring months have largely involved speaking engagements and interviews, including the Ideal Home Show and a television programme on the history of household inventions! It is certainly the fun side in the life of a house historian.

One of the most exciting events was speaking at the Ideal Home Show at Olympia London!


Speaking over several days, I told audiences stories I had uncovered researching the history of houses, which included houses with links to Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, and Lord Byron, as well as stories of houses linked with murder, spies, and scandal!


I have also recently been taking part in more filming and television, which included a new programme – ‘Wicked Inventions’ [Definition Media]! Now in its second series, it was broadcast in parts of Europe, but sadly has not been shown in the UK (yet!). However, a short clip of my sections featured throughout the series have been put together here:

In April this year, I was also privileged to be guest speaker at the glorious Peterborough Cathedral for the Peterborough Local History Society [visit their new website]! In the surroundings of the recently restored 13th century Knights’ Chamber, I spoke about my work researching the history of houses, plus stories I’d uncovered, and tips for the audience about researching the history of their own home.



Most recently, I have also taken part in an interview for GlamUK discussing the unique aspects of my role as a house historian, as well as one of my favourite houses in London – 18 Stafford Terrace, the former home of Edward Linley Sambourne. The full story can be seen on the GlamUK website: “Discovering London with House Historian Melanie Backe-Hansen” and the full filmed interview is also online here:

It is always fun speaking at events and taking part in interviews, but it has also been fantastic to get back to the research. Following all this, I can largely be found going through rolls of microfilm or transcribing pages of deeds and documents for the latest house history project! :-)

The house historian’s summer

While many of you have been on summer holidays to far flung destinations (or in sunny Blighty!) the summer months have been rather busy for me (which explains the time since my last blog post)!

I have been completing a large project on the history of a house in the Cotswolds, which I was delighted to have traced back to Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 (which is currently being designed in preparation for being bound into a book), while also researching the fascinating stories in the history of a house in Soho in London – connected to a group of notorious gangsters during the 1930s and 40s!

Historic house in the Cotswolds
Historic house in the Cotswolds

I have been continuing work on the history of a house in a Hertfordshire, while also working on a new article for the Chelsea Society annual report. During August, I spoke to the Bromley branch of the North West Kent Family History Society about how to research the history of houses, and in October I will be speaking to the Dartford branch on the same subject!

I have also been branching out with a little television work and will soon feature on a programme (coming soon!) talking about the history of household objects and inventions!

Amongst all the reading and writing, I am also working with the Bedford Park Residents Association in Chiswick on an exciting new house history project. Here is the official announcement:

The BPRA commissions house-historian Melanie Backe-Hansen to help Residents discover the hidden stories of Bedford Park”

Bedford Park terraced cottages
Bedford Park terraced cottages

I will be speaking at the official project launch at High Road House in Chiswick on 8 September, which will feature details of a unique online resource for homeowners and researchers. Tickets for the free event can be booked here – Bedford Park House History launch event

To promote the new house history project, I spent a day with the team from The Chiswick Calendar to produce a couple of short films talking about house histories!

‘Discover the history of your house with Melanie Backe-Hansen’

Know the stories of the people who lived in your house before you?  
“Does it change your attitude towards a house to know the stories of the people who have lived there before you? Francis Cherry says it does.”

So, you see, it has been rather a busy summer for the house historian! More updates and stories uncovered researching the history of houses will be on the way soon!

Vanity Fair’s ‘Spy’ in Wellington Square

It has been a busy few weeks (which explains the length of time since my last post – sorry)! I have been working on house history projects in Kent and Gloucestershire, as well as writing guest blog posts and articles, but I have also recently been researching the history of a house in one of Chelsea’s most sought-after garden squares – Wellington Square.

Wellington Square - Chelsea
Wellington Square – Chelsea

With its black iron railings, often appearing in the popular ‘Made in Chelsea’ television programme, it is situated in a highly desirable location, just off King’s Road.

However, Wellington has had a varied history that would seem unrecognisable to many Londoners today.

The houses in the square were completed in the early 1850s, which coincided with the death of The Iron Duke – The Duke of Wellington – who lay in state at the nearby Royal Hospital Chelsea – and for whom the square was named.

The completed square soon became the home of professionals and clerks, including surveyors, journalists, civil servants, as well as some on independent means. However, by the 188os a growing number of households were taking in lodgers and some houses had become boarding houses. This included the house I was researching which was home to lodging house keeper, 65 year old John Dowling from Liverpool, along with his wife Anne and their four grown-up children.

1881 census - John Dowling and family
1881 census – John Dowling and family

But, by the late 19th and into the early 20th century, along with large portions of Chelsea, Wellington Square began to be occupied by a growing number of artists, musicians, and writers. At the time of the 1901 census, the house was home to ‘Professor of Music’ and organist, Ernest William Trafford-Taunton, and his wife, author, Emily Winifrede, who wrote several novels in the early 1900s, including The Man in the Grey Coat (1905).

Carriage in a Landscape by Robert Scott Temple
Carriage in a Landscape by Robert Scott Temple

The Trafford-Taunton’s also shared the house with Scottish landscape artist, Robert Scott Temple. Today, his works are still held in galleries across the UK.

Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein
Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein

The house also had links with several actors, including Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger, who is most remembered for his role in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and also Elystan Owen Evan-Thomas, or sometimes simply Evan Thomas, who worked on stage and film in both Hollywood and the UK.

One of the most prominent names connected to the house in Wellington Square was the father-in-law of Elystan Evan-Thomas, Sir Leslie Ward.

Sir Leslie Ward, 1889
Sir Leslie Ward, 1889

Sir Leslie Ward was a celebrated artist and caricaturist, who became famous as ‘Spy’ (and also ‘Drawl’) creating caricatures of prominent names for Vanity Fair.

Herbert Henry Asquith, later Prime Minister, 1904
Herbert Henry Asquith, later Prime Minister, 1904

Ward came from a noted artistic family, with both his parents, Edward and Henrietta Ward, achieving prominence as artists. His grandfather, George Raphael Ward, and his great grandfather, James Ward, were also successful artists.

He began working for Vanity Fair in 1873 (with the help of family friend, artist John Everett Millais), where he created caricatures of famous faces until the early 1900s. Between 1873 and 1911, he produced 1325 caricatures, including literary figures, churchmen, politicians, judges, and celebrities.

Leslie Ward also worked on portraits for other newspapers and private portrait painting, but it is work with Vanity Fair which is often most remembered, and still today are commonly known as ‘Spy Cartoons’.

Hamo Thornycroft, 1892
Hamo Thornycroft, 1892

Leslie Ward and his wife and daughter moved to the house in Wellington Square in 1918, the same year he received his knighthood. They only stayed for a few years, before he passed away in 1922.

Edward Bickersteth, Dean of Lichfield, 1884
Edward Bickersteth, Dean of Lichfield, 1884

This one house in Wellington Square has had a fascinating list of creative former residents, but the square has also been the home of many other famous names,  including the author of beloved Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, and it was also the fictional home of another famous ‘spy’, Ian Fleming’s James Bond.