Buildings Detective - Emma Wells | Living North

Buildings Detective - Emma Wells


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Emma Wells spent years learning how to investigate the history of buildings. For those who want to find out more about their own homes, she’s now available for hire
‘The deeds give you a timeline – this person purchased it at this point – and it’s great for identifying if the house has changed over time’
A medieval window at Canterbury Cathedral, which Emma has researched

Worried that your house might be built on an old burial ground? Think the new conservatory you’re planning could disturb a Roman settlement? Heard a rumour that something sinister was found in your well? Then you need to call Dr Emma Wells, buildings detective.

Emma is part of the heritage boom. You must have noticed it. There are thousands of books, television programmes and internet sites dedicated to helping millions of us investigate our past, as we try to find out where we came from and who came before us (or where famous people came from and who came before them, complete with emotional trauma and tears).

Emma’s role in the heritage boom is investigating buildings. She started off as a specialist researching religious buildings, but now she’s available to hire by anyone who needs a building’s history uncovered; whether an architect hoping to redevelop a city centre office block or the owner of a cottage yearning for a juicy tale to tell their friends.

It’s not an obvious vocation. She started down the heritage path because she loves historic buildings, a love which was stoked by her grandmother taking her on day trips from her home near Bedale, North Yorkshire, to see castles and churches, particularly those in York and Durham. For a degree she chose History of Art at York University, then did a Masters at York, looking at stained glass in medieval buildings. After graduating she became a lingerie salesperson. Yes, she took all that learning and used it to sell knickers. ‘I got to travel to Paris – it wasn’t too bad’, she laughs.

She ended up selling lingerie because there aren’t a lot of jobs for someone who spent years becoming an expert in medieval churches, stained glass windows and saints who died long ago. So she sold ‘high-end’ lingerie, then she sold art in Harrogate (‘It was still sales. It was the same thing really’), then she went back to university.

It had always been her plan to do a PhD. She contacted Durham University, was given a warm welcome, so quit the art job and started a PhD researching the archaeology of medieval pilgrimage buildings in England – she focused on Canterbury Cathedral, St Neot in Cornwall, Durham Cathedral and York Minster.

At the same time, research commissions started to come in: she was hired by the British Museum for an exhibition about pilgrims; she was hired by television programmes, including Time Team; then, after finishing her PhD, she was commissioned to research a house near Corbridge in Northumberland close to Hadrian’s Wall, because it was on the site of a former civilian settlement just outside a Roman fort. ‘That gave me an idea of how it could be done and whether I could do it,’ she explains, ‘And it just sort of went from there, and things got very busy.’

In the summer of 2013 she set up her business, Emma J Wells Heritage Consultancy. She now spends six or seven days a week investigating properties around the UK (she just had her first inquiry from abroad – a potential client with a house near Malaga, though the last she heard he was in a hut in Afghanistan). She runs the business from her home in Birstwith, near Harrogate, but most of her time is spent on sites, in meetings with clients, or deep in the archives – to find out about a building she looks at old maps, census returns, electoral rolls, records of births, deaths and marriages, and much more.

‘If I’m doing house histories there are also title deeds,’ she says. ‘You go to those straight away because they’re sort of a family history of the house. They give you a timeline – this person purchased it at this point – and it’s great for identifying if the house has changed over time, if bits were added, and if it was previously something else.’

She also looks at newspaper cuttings. One recent commission was from a family in Wakefield who heard a sinister rumour about their house, so they hired Emma to research it for them. It turned out the rumour was true – in 1880 the body of a baby was found down their well (Emma found out that an inquest was unable to decide whether the baby was murdered or stillborn). While researching Emma also discovered that the person who owned the house in the 1930s was run over by a lorry outside. Grim stuff.  

‘They found it fascinating,’ states Emma. ‘They were thrilled about hearing all the stories. What I tend to do before I start the research is ask if they want to know everything, even if it’s bad. Most people say yes.’

The job taking up most of her time at the moment is Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire, a huge house which started as a hunting lodge and was previously owned by the founder of Maryland (as in the American state – things used to be so grand). A team of volunteers is now examining the archaeology of the 17th century hall and its surroundings, and Emma is showing them how to analyse the building and examine its archives.

She doesn’t reserve her skills for old buildings though. She also researches new houses by turning her skills from architecture to the land they are built on. ‘It’s possible that new houses are built on older properties, especially in urban areas, where there is constant regeneration and redevelopment,’ she explains. ‘So I can research what was on the plot before. It may be a house, or something interesting may have happened on the land – there’s pretty much always something that people will want to know.’

Once the research is done she can produce whatever the client wants, whether it’s a simple report or a coffee table hardback book, which is filled with illustrations, as well as information on the building’s architecture, dates, maps relating to it, how the area developed over time, how those developments relate to the house, newspaper cuttings and information on former inhabitants, family by family.

The possibilities have already attracted a great deal of interest. A television production company has been in touch and she is currently discussing a project with them (expect to see her on television at some point, probably branded as ‘The House Detective’). Estate agents have also made inquiries, quickly realising that a little bit of history may be just the thing to bump up a house’s price. Heritage really is a booming business.

If you want Emma to investigate your house, go to her website

Published in: April 2014

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