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Buildings play a number of roles in historical research. David Clark, of the Oxfordshire Buildings Record, sums this up as the seven Ss:
Their Site provides evidence for settlement patterns at the date of construction;
Their Structure speaks of the local building material and construction methods whereas imported materials speak of wealth and high status;
Their Skin can show how changes in fashion and economics altered facades and roof coverings;
Their Services such as heat and light reflect aspirations for comfort as money became available;
Their Spaces can show how people used the building in the past, shedding light on family and social history;
The Stuff which we have signals what we deem useful, beautiful or important – for example historic decorative schemes can conjure up a past way of life;
The Souls who created and lived in the building can leave their marks on the fabric, often in subtle ways such as saw cuts and assembly marks, but more directly as initials, merchant’s marks and so on.
Local studies have been particularly important in the case of vernacular buildings, the homes and workplaces of local people, built in local materials, by local craftsmen, and in local styles, and surviving particularly from the later middle ages to the early 19th century. After this the vernacular was increasingly overtaken by materials and styles from elsewhere, and in some areas by neo-vernacular revival. Nationally, the Vernacular Architecture Group (VAG) has promoted and supported such research. From the VAG website you can access their databases (Cruck catalogue and dendrochronology database) and online bibliography. The Oxfordshire Buildings Record now provides the focus of expertise, guidance, recording and research for the county. Their website lists a large number of useful links.
Building histories are in themselves a rewarding focus for research. In context they reveal much about the wider history of their surrounding settlement and landscapes.
There are a number of basic sources of information for the building researcher:
· List Descriptions (for listed buildings) on Images of England (with a photograph of most of them) is now ‘closed’ to amendments and new entries. It is also riddled with typographical errors. The more up-to-date source is Listed Buildings On-line at the English Heritage website
· For churches, Church Plans On-Line is a valuable resource.
· The online Public Archive of the National Monuments Record is a treasure trove of local information, covering listed buildings, historical photographs, and archaeological, architectural and sites and buildings records, and the related sites Viewfinder and Heritage Gateway can be found through it or independently.
· Drawing collections can be found at Art and Architecture and at the British Library on-line gallery and navigate to the topographical drawings section. See also Finding the Sources section - Bodleian Library.
· A general site is the Building History website.
A rich vein for local research is the 16th and 17th centuries, the time of the ‘Great Rebuilding’ (see early-modern period of Oxfordshire History: a Framework) when Oxfordshire has numbers of both surviving buildings and contemporary archives like household inventories, parish registers, tax returns, and property documents.
Building types also have their own resources, for example:
Turnpikes Roads in England website has a link to research on tollhouses, with Oxfordshire ones included.
The Chapels Society - nonconformist chapels have been researched over the years by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England; the Oxfordshire ones have been published in a separate fasicule (with Northants) HMSO 1986