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Searching for the history of a particular Sydney building? Looking for information about the home an ancestor lived in?

The City of Sydney Archives contains a wealth of information about Sydney’s households and buildings dating back to the mid-19th century.

This house and building histories guide will lead you through many of the resources available to research the history of your house or apartment. It is intended for residents of the City of Sydney's local area.

01

Locating your house in the local area

Where is it?

An important first step in researching a property is to locate it within the current City of Sydney local government area (LGA).

There are several things you need to know about your building before you can start using the historical records efficiently:

  • your street name and house number (be aware that street names and numbering sometimes change over time)
  • your municipality and ward
  • the county and parish in which you live (most useful for land title research)

Street names and house numbers

Street names and numbering sometimes change over time. You can check for altered street names on the Sydney street names guide.

Changes in street numbering will become clearer as you proceed with your research.

Former municipalities

From the time the City of Sydney was incorporated in 1842 its boundaries have expanded and shrunk in an endless game of political football played by the colonial and state governments. In 1842 the area covered by the City of Sydney was just over 11.5 square kilometres. In 1989 it was reduced to its smallest size of just over 6 square kilometres. Today (2015) it is 25 square kilometres.

From 1842 until the early 20th century, the original boundaries remained the same, except for an expansion to take in Moore Park in 1870. Around the edges of the city centre, suburban areas were incorporated as municipal councils from 1859 through the 1860s. Changes to Sydney Municipal Council’s boundaries as a result of taking over responsibility for these suburban areas began in 1909.

You need to know which municipality your home has been part of in order to access the right records. Camperdown, Glebe, Darlington, Newtown, Erskineville, Alexandria, Waterloo, Redfern and Paddington were all once separate municipalities. While all of these former municipalities are now wholly or partially within the City of Sydney LGA, many of them were also once part of other local government areas including South Sydney, Leichhardt and Marrickville.

Wards

For many years the City of Sydney and the other municipalities were divided into wards. A ward is an electoral area, and at local elections residents and ratepayers voted for aldermen to represent them. As populations changed, ward boundaries were often adjusted. It is important to know which ward your property was in at different times.

There is more information about boundaries of the City and surrounding municipalities as well as ward boundaries and names, along with a series of maps, on the Historical Atlas of Sydney.

See Council boundaries for a timeline and maps that can be used to establish whether your house was once in a different municipality. If it was in a different municipality, then make a note of when. This information may lead you to investigate the records of councils other than the City of Sydney.

Before you start

Before you start researching your house history, there are a few things you should do.

First, establish the approximate age of your house through its architectural style.

Secondly, take time to talk to the neighbours – you will never know what they know unless you ask.

And finally, find out some of the local history of your area. This will give you an understanding of how your local area developed and why your home was built there. A good place to start is the 15 More House History Resources [INTERNAL HYPERLINK] page.

A few other questions

Was your house always a house? Was there a time when it was subdivided into flats or run as a boarding house?  Was it originally a warehouse or factory? Different uses generate different kinds of records.

Was your house or apartment the first one on the site? If your house is an old house, it is possible there were older structures on the site before it was built, especially in areas like Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Chippendale and Darlington.

Your house in context

Some will only want to know about the previous owners and occupants of their house, while others want to know about structural alterations, additions and demolitions. As you start research, you may want to know more about the character of the area, the street and the neighbourhood. If you read some background history of your area, you will be surprised how much easier it will be to make sense of the specific information you find about your own house.

Check out the City of Sydney’s library catalogue for your suburb. In addition to published histories, the catalogue lists conservation management plans and heritage studies for houses and apartments throughout the City of Sydney local government area. If these exist for your home, or for places near where you live, they will provide useful historical context.

Image: Elizabeth Bay House. City of Sydney Archives: Unique ID:A-00064192

02

Post Office Directories

What is a post office directory?

Post office directories like the Sands directories, are best thought of as a precursor to telephone directories and a rudimentary street directory rolled into one. They combine alphabetical name listings, suburban street listings and business listings that help identify people or businesses who once lived or worked at your address. A number of commercial firms published post office directories.

This section of the house and building histories guide explains how to use the Sands directories, the most widely used postal directory for Sydney which has been available on microfiche for many years and is now available online.

Please note, post office directories published by other commercial firms often have comparable material and some of their date ranges are not covered by Sands.

What is a Sands directory?

Sands post office directories, which were sometimes called Sand's Sydney Directories or Sands Sydney and Suburban Directories, were published by the John Sands stationery firm from 1858 until 1933 and appeared every year, except 1860, 1862, 1872, 1878 and 1881.

There are 68 volumes, each increasing in size from the previous one as the population of Sydney and NSW increased.

What does a Sands directory contain?

Each directory contains several sections:

  • A street directory, which provides an alphabetical list of streets, first for the City of Sydney and then for surrounding suburbs, with name and occupational information against each address. If a house was named, this may also be listed.
  • An alphabetical list of residents' names with addresses.
  • A directory of trades, commercial companies and organisations, and professions. An equivalent of today's Yellow Pages.
  • Various other commercial, government and institutional listings.

What does a Sands directory tell you?

  • The names of people who lived in the house.
  • The occupations of residents (sometimes).
  • The economic uses of the building – for example, the house/apartment may have previously been a shop or a factory.
  • Previous structures on the site – for example, in the case of a new apartment building.
  • House name (if any).
  • Approximate construction date of a house or buildings.
  • Changes in street numbering.

What does the information mean?

Directory information was gathered in door-to-door surveys where whoever answered the door gave information to the collectors. There would have been no reason to lie or evade answering questions but there are no entries for housebreakers or prostitutes, nor is there consistent spellings of names. If you find a James Coates living at the address where the previous year there was a James Cotts, it is reasonable to assume it was the same person.

An important function of the directories was to provide citizens with access to tradespeople and commercial organisations. The street address listed will often be accompanied with the name and occupation of the householder, for example, Blair, James, upholsterer or Ah Chong, interpreter. However, don't expect all tradespeople to be listed in the trades section as it was a form of advertising where a fee was paid, similar to the Yellow Pages today.

If no occupation is listed accompanying the name it may be either because the occupier was a labourer, or at the other end of the scale, a gentleman – the house type and its location may however help you decide. Or the lack of occupation information may just have been an omission.

Post office directories list occupiers, not owners. To find out owners' names you will need to consult other sources such as assessment and rates books. Usually only 1 householder was listed for each house although common sense suggests there may have been other breadwinners living in the house, which can be verified by searching the trades section.

When the name given was a woman, it either means there was no male earner or household head, or the place contained a business she was running such as boarding houses, laundries, grocery stores, hat makers and so on. In these cases there may or may not have been a male presence as well.

Some houses were named and these too were often listed but don't expect your house name to have remained unaltered. House names can be particularly helpful in some of the earliest directories when streets were not named or vaguely recorded. In places like Newtown the early directories provide no house numbers because the houses weren't numbered. Houses on large acreages were recorded at the main road they faced. When later subdivisions resulted in new streets, the house remained but the street address changed.

In the 20th century when flats began to be built and other buildings had multiple stories, there were often multiple tenants recorded for a single address. For example, Sands in 1932–33 recorded the names of several businesses and 13 tenants at 9 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross. Other buildings listed with multiple occupants provide only the caretaker's name.

Post office directories took several months to prepare and therefore the information they provide for a particular year often related more accurately to the previous year. For example, a house first appearing in Sands in 1892 may well have been there, or it was at least being built, in 1891. Or a person recorded at an address in 1923 may have already moved on that year but they were living there in 1922, and so on.

Research tips

These research tips will help to ensure you receive the best search results.

  • Always start with the most recent volume, 1932–33 and work backwards. This is due to many places not having street numbers listed in earlier volumes and more importantly, the house number may have changed over time. Likewise, the street name may have changed. Starting your search from the earliest volumes could result in subsequent searches for the wrong house.
  • The approximate construction date of the house can be determined from the previous volume where it was not listed. For example, a house listed in 1932, may not be listed in 1931.
  • In the first instance, it may be adequate to search only every third or fifth year. If the occupier's name and their occupation did not change there is probably little to be gained from searching the years in between. However, you may want to search every year for 2 reasons:
  • Variation in occupation. For example, someone whose occupation changed between carpenter, undertaker and builder, indicates the state of the economy and the individual's position in it.
  • Year by year information can contribute to an understanding of changes in the locality. The occupant of the house may remain the same, but if a factory or hotel is built next door, you may want to know.
  • Always take note of the nearest cross street. This ensures the correct side of the street is being captured and helps to locate a building when the number of buildings on a street is inconsistent. It will also provide information about the neighbourhood. The street where the building is located is listed in bold and the cross or intersecting streets are in italics.
  • Although the focus of research is usually on the details of a particular house, we advise making notes of other information about the locality. For example, it is worth looking across to the other side of the street and around the corner to get a sense of what the immediate neighbourhood was like in past decades.
  • Sometimes a familiar name will appear in a different house. This could be a mistake when the directories were first compiled, or it could be correct. People often moved only a couple of doors down the street or across the road, especially renters.
  • It is worth checking the trades section of the Sands directories for builders to find out who was working in the area when the house was built. This could provide some clues about the builder of the house you're researching, especially if it is in a row of terraces. It was common for small-scale speculative developers to build a terrace row sequentially, including a house of their own that was a bit bigger or fancier than the rest of the row.

Other post office directories

Low's Directory was published in the 1840s, predating Sands. Waugh & Cox was another early directory, published in the 1850s:

The NSW Post Office (and Commercial) Directories, which are often referred to as Wise's Directories started in the mid-1880s and continued until 1950, covering more than a decade after Sands stopped publishing. The Wise's Directories are available in digital format through the National Library of Australia and in hard copy format from the State Library of NSW:

Handbook to the City of Sydney is a complete street directory showing at a glance the exact positions of any given street number or house, including public buildings. It was created in 1879 by Lee & Ross, Sydney.

Wilson's directories which were published for many decades from 1902 contain maps showing rail and tram lines:

Sands Directory

You can search the Sands Directory online. The records have been scanned from microfiche into a complete digital edition:

03

Look for Historic Photos

Historic Images

Historical images held at the archives may show the place where you live. More than 75,000 photos have been digitised and catalogued, and staff are still adding more.

04

Assessment and Rates Books

What are assessment and rates books?

Among the most popular records with researchers, assessment books contain basic information about every property in the City of Sydney that has paid rates in a certain period.

They should not to be confused with rates books. Rates books are less used as they tend to contain less information and they have not been digitised. The rates books may be useful for comparative purposes when there is conflicting information in other sources. While some councils combined the 2 functions in the 1 book, the City kept them separate.

When the City was established in 1842, part of its funding came from rates levied on properties within its boundaries. To determine the rateable value of property, the City's assessors would visit buildings every 3 to 5 years to record:

  • the owner's name
  • the ratepayer's name
  • materials used to build the house - stone, timber, brick, with roof of iron, shingles and so on
  • the number of rooms and levels
  • the type of building – house, public house, shop, factory and so on
  • the building's assessed annual value

Occupants' names weren't usually collected, although some assessors included additional information in the remarks column.

Links


How do I find my property in these records?

You need to ask the following questions to identify the correct assessment book to begin your research:

1. What suburb is my property in?

This will determine which set of council assessment books you need to consult. Tip: Only the City of Sydney assessment books are currently online. Other former municipalities have partial records. See 'What suburbs do assessment books cover?' below.

2. What ward is my property in?

Check the City of Sydney ward boundary maps in the Historical Atlas. For other former municipalities, wards are defined on the relevant map in the Atlas of the Suburbs of Sydney. Tip: Assessments were made by ward, so if a street crossed over ward boundaries, parts of its assessment was recorded in a different assessment book. Tip: It is possible the ward changed its name and boundaries over time.

What suburbs do assessment books cover?

The City of Sydney rates and assessment books cover the original boundaries of the City of Sydney.

Each book refers to one ward and most refer to 1 year only. Maps showing city boundaries and ward boundaries since 1842 are available online in the Historical Atlas of Sydney. You will need to consult these maps to identify the relevant ward where your street is located. You need to be armed with this information before you can search the assessment books online.

The City Archives also holds partial records of the assessments and rates books created for 10 former municipalities now within the City of Sydney. These are catalogued in Archives & History Resources:

These records have not been digitised and you will need to make an appointment with City Archives to access and use these records.

What time period do assessment books cover?

The City of Sydney was incorporated in 1842. Property assessments in the city and surrounding municipalities were carried out from 1845 until 1948. After 1948, the NSW Valuer General's Department took over the task of assessing property value.

A small number of the assessment books have not survived.

As noted above, rates and valuation records of other former municipalities are partial.

What's in the assessment books?

Assessment books usually contain the following information, usually divided into columns. Here are some tips about what this information means and how it was gathered:

  • An assessment book number A property often did not receive the same number in successive assessments. In most books the numbers begin with "1" but for a few years the City used a single sequence of numbers across all books created for a single assessment
  • Situation The term used for street name - usually written vertically on the left-hand side of the page
  • Street number These were not generally in use in the City before the mid 1870s. Where present they are usually recorded for one side of the street at a time. All of the odd numbers will be together, and all of the even numbers will be together. See below for a discussion on the problems associated with street number changes
  • House name These were not recorded in any systematic way. It seems to have depended very much on the assessor. They are more likely to appear in later books
  • Ratepayer's name Until 1879, rates were usually paid by whoever was responsible for paying the rent on a property. After 1879, the ratepayer could be the owner or the tenant. Surnames are sometimes spelled differently in different assessments
  • Owner's name When the owners' or ratepayers' names change, the original entry is often crossed out and the new details written in
  • Property description Usually limited to house, cottage, hotel, shop, or factory. The Sydney Incorporation Act 1842 specified the categories of buildings as "house, warehouse, counting house or shop". These limitations can be frustrating, especially if one suspects a property may have had a use that is not recorded, for example as a lodging-house
  • Building materials A short description of the materials used in the house and the roof such as stone, brick or wood for the house, and slate, iron or shingles for the roof
  • Number of storeys and rooms This can change from one assessment book to the next. For example in successive years the same property can be described as having 2 floors, then 3 floors, then 2 floors again. It is possible that some assessors counted basements and attics as floors and rooms while others did not. In some cases the changes will reflect actual construction work, and this could be reflected in a significant change in the value of the property
  • Annual value Expressed in pounds. The assessed value of the property used to set the rates payable by the owner or occupier
  • Comments Contains a wide variety of remarks. Some assessors comment on the dilapidated state of the property or note that there is a kitchen or stables at the back. Sometimes they note when a property is pulled down

Using assessment books

Within each book assessments are arranged street by street, then building by building, within each street. They are not arranged alphabetically by the names of owners or ratepayers, nor by street name.

The organisation of the assessment books reflects how they were compiled by the assessors when they hit the pavement. Assessors usually started at the northern or western end of a street and walked along the right hand side of the street from ward boundary to ward boundary. They then returned to their starting point and walked along the left hand side of the street. Vacant land was recorded as well as buildings, and any non-through laneways were to be assessed when they came to them. Lanes did not always have an official name. As a result, unnamed lanes often appeared in the assessment books as ‘1 off’, ‘2 off’ and so on, recorded as running off a main street.

Some volumes contain supplementary assessments, updating changes made in the following years prior to the next assessment. Where a supplementary assessment has been carried out, there will be a note in the remarks column with a reference to a later assessment number. The supplementary assessments, found at the end of the volume, usually record changes in ownership, major alterations or demolitions. In some cases, they will describe the property as vacant land.

NB: Supplementary assessments have not been transcribed into the online database, so they cannot be searched by keywords.

Because assessments were carried out only every 3 to 5 years on average, there probably won't be a specific assessment for exactly the date you wish to research. In this case it is best to start at the next assessment and work backwards. This also helps clarify and overcome problems with street number changes, which are discussed below.

Research tips

If you are having difficulties finding a property, there are a number of things you can do:

  • Check the City ward boundary maps
  • Ensure the street existed and hadn't had its name changed. An online guide to City streets and the Sands Directory for the same year can help
  • Has the street number changed? Street renumbering happened frequently in the 19th century. To overcome this go to an assessment for a later date and work backwards towards the date where your research is focussed. The assessment books do not usually reflect changes by crossing out the old number and replacing it with the new one. If there are cross-streets shown, these can help. If you know the position of the property you are searching for in relation to a cross street, you should be able to find the same property again even if the street number has changed. You should also note the names of owners and occupants in neighbouring houses, as some of the names remain fairly constant. Recognising these patterns will usually help you to pinpoint a particular property where street numbers have changed.

There are some steps to help you if you can't find a particular person:

  • The occupants of buildings were not always the ratepayers, and were therefore not recorded. Boarders, lodgers and sub-tenants, and family members other than the head of the family noted as the owner or occupier, were not normally recorded in the assessments. If people moved in and out of a property between assessments they will not be recorded. Spelling can be erratic
  • Gaps in the record such as these can sometimes be overcome by checking through Sand's Sydney Directories (1858 to 1933, which are available at the Archives, and on microfiche in major public libraries

Beyond the assessment books

Other records can be used to supplement information from the assessment books, or to cover the years after 1948. They are available at the City Archives.

  • Sand's Sydney Directories (1858-1933) is useful, although it only lists one name per property, probably the name of the occupant
  • Dove's Plans of Sydney (1880) and the Fire Insurance Plans, (1916-1940s), show the City area block by block, including street numbers, and the names of buildings and businesses. These are available online in the Historical Atlas
  • CRS 31, Valuation Lists, (1949-1969), record name and address of the owner/s only, changes in ownership, house names, dimensions of the property, and sale prices. These were compiled by the Valuer-General's Department
  • CRS 52, Valuation Books, (1974+), record name and address of owners only, changes in ownership, sale prices and dimensions of property
  • The surviving Rate and Valuation records for the former (pre 1949) municipalities of Alexandria, Camperdown, Darlington, Erskineville, Glebe, Macdonaldtown, Newtown, Redfern, Paddington and Waterloo are also available. These are catalogued in Archives Investigator. Summary lists are also available

Image: Tennis tournament at Maramanah House (now Fitzroy Gardens) in Potts Point, 1 January 1891. City of Sydney Archives: Unique ID: A-00015593

05

Historical Building and Development Applications

Building and development applications

The City of Sydney Archives maintains records to building and development applications, as well as other property records, including subdivision files. Some of these records date back as far as 1909.

Building and development applications were generated for properties if an application was submitted (DA) and building work carried out (BA). If there is to be a change in use of a building, a DA was, and is, required. DAs cover what was proposed by the applicant and was approved by Council. BAs cover the erection of a building and alterations to it. If these records survived and were archived, they will be available for access.

Consent documents, such as approved uses of buildings, are normally found on the files relating to a building.

City Archives do not have application records for every building in the city. They will only be available if an application was submitted to the City and the records have survived and been archived.

What does a BA or DA tell you?

  • the name/s of the previous owner
  • the previous use/s of the building
  • current use at time of application
  • the name of the architect/s
  • a description of the works to the building
  • the cost of the works to the building

Applications may also include relevant information about the surrounding area, building inspectors' and surveyors' reports, Council decisions concerning the application, correspondence and inspectors' reports about the work when carried out. Occasionally, a photograph may be attached to a file.

The main records series covering these applications are:

Council kept registers and written descriptions of the BAs from 1879, but it appears it did not start creating files until 1908. Many of the early records have been culled – early BA descriptions and pre-1940s BA files were destroyed in the 1950s and 60s. DA files are held from 1954. Approved building plans date back to 1909.

Development consents may also be available in the printed annual volumes of Proceedings of the Council. They go back as far as 1946.


Other related records

Registers

City Archives holds registers which relate to building and development applications. So even if the application file does not survive, you may find some information in the registers.

Before computerised systems were introduced, all BAs and DAs were indexed by street address in the planning street cards. See link above for access. See Section 06 Planning Street Cards [NEW HYPERLINK REQUIRED] for more information for what is contained in this series.

Plans of buildings submitted as part of an application

From 1909, Council required duplicates of plans to be attached to BAs. These plans can be ornate, detailed architectural drawings, elevations and sections or they can be rough sketches for minor alterations and additions.

The plans have been indexed on Archives and History Resources you can search by address. The plans have been digitised as PDFs and can be downloaded individually. Remember, some proposals were not approved. The plans only show what the developer or owner wanted the City to agree to. Not every application file includes plans.

Correspondence

These relate to applications for approval about particular properties. Unlike most other councils, the City has not created general purpose property files for each street address. However such files do often exist for the areas of Glebe and South Sydney that are now within the City's boundaries. These files are available from 1941 to the present day.

While some DA files may not have survived, you still may discover correspondence relating to the proposals, especially of the development proposal was large or complex. These are 2 relevant series:

Files in both these series are indexed in Archives and History Resources and are available in hardcopy for consultation.

Absorbed councils: BA and DA files, registers and plans

We also hold records, application files, registers and plans relating to other council areas which have been absorbed into the City of Sydney. Check the records listing in Archives and History Resources to see exactly what records are held:

Search tips

All the available property application records (plans and files) held by City Archives up to the late 1970s, and in some cases the early 1980s, are listed in our online catalogue Archives and History Resources.

Key series relating to building and development have been curated into the Development and Building Collection. The search on this page will only return items within this collection - it is a targeted search of selected records. It searches the contents as well as descriptions of files. To fully understand exactly the records included in this collection see the Subject Guide to Records of Development and Building.

Try search terms such as a property address. For example, '12 George' or a person’s name. Do not include terms like 'street', 'st', 'road', 'rd'.

More Recent Records

Recent records are catalogued and held in active files. You can try the online DA Search. Plans for recent decades may be held in the active files of Council. Our archivists can advise.

Access to the records

All of these records are available from City Archives. To arrange access contact City Archives to make an appointment.

06

Planning Street Cards

Development history

Planning street cards provide information about historical building and development applications from about 1908 to the 1990s. Until 1945 only building applications appear on the cards. Development applications were not required by law until after 1945.

If a house was altered, extended or underwent a change of use, chances are there will be a street card for the property. Keep in mind though, just because a BA or DA was submitted and noted on a street planning card, it doesn't mean the works were approved or the works went ahead.

The street cards show all the applications submitted to the City of Sydney, even if original files and plans no longer exist. To see if certain records have survived and are available you will have to check Archives and History Resources. Ask the archivists for records made after 1987.

The street cards have been separated into sets because they became divided between different councils as municipal boundaries changed. For many decades, the City's local area boundaries covered a much smaller area than now, and it was smallest of all between 1988 and 1994. A set of maps showing city and ward boundaries since 1842 is available online in the Historical Atlas of Sydney.

The planning street cards have all been digitised. Each set is arranged alphabetically by the names of the streets in the area covered by the cards. Within each street, cards are arranged numerically by street address. The cards are not always in perfect order so it can pay to scout around within the set. Some streets with lots of cards are subdivided into sections, for example, by odd and even street numbers.

City 1907 to 1928

Records for the City 1907 to 1928 are in series AS-0710.

City 1928 to 1994

This group does not cover areas transferred to other councils in 1968 and 1988. This set of cards is archival records series AS-0533.

South Sydney 1929 to 1988

South Sydney City Council was created in 1988 and these records were transferred to the organisation. This set of cards covers streets located within South Sydney Local Government Area (1988 to 2004). All street planning cards in the set for this area date back to 1929, which is a part of archival records series AS-0533.

Newtown 1949 to 1968

The cards for Newtown 1949 to 1968 cover the part of the suburb transferred to Marrickville Council in 1968. The cards cover only the period (1949-1968) when the City managed this area.

Paddington 1949 to 1968

These applications are for Paddington streets in the area transferred to Woollahra Council in 1968. The cards cover only the period (1949 to 1968) when the City managed this area.

Glebe 1949 to 1999

The cards for Glebe 1949 to 1999 cover the period from 1949 (when Glebe was incorporated into the City). The cards were created by Leichhardt Council some time after 1968, so pre-1968 information may not be complete. This set is records series AS-0533; AS-1099.

07

Maps and Plans

List of resources

Historical maps are a rich source of information when you are researching your house history. Maps often contain information about your house or local area not available elsewhere.

There is a broad array of maps covering the City of Sydney local government area which trace its evolution from the first European settlement to today. Many of these maps are now online.

  • Historical Atlas of Sydney The Historical Atlas of Sydney provides access to the key maps and map series held by City of Sydney Archives. The maps range from the 19th and 20th centuries and were produced variously by Council itself, other government authorities or private surveying firms and individuals. The historical atlas also provides background to Council’s evolving boundaries from 1842 until today. New content from the City’s archives will be added over time.

  • City Boundaries 1842-present this timeline can be used to be establish whether your house was once in a different municipality over time.

  • City Wards 1842-1988 these maps can be used to establish whether your house was in different wards over time. You need to know the ward to be able to search the assessment books.

  • National Library of Australia maps
    The National Library of Australia's map collection includes over 600,000 maps, from early European charts to current mapping of Australia, in print and digital form. There are a number of subdivision plans of Sydney in the collection.

  • Search the NLA's Map Collection This guide provides advice on how to search for maps in the National Library of Australia's catalogue.

  • State Library of NSW map collection guide This guide to the State Library of NSW's maps collection will help you find and use maps in their collections, both online and in the library. The guide covers finding and viewing maps, getting copies, and information about significant maps in the collection. You will also find online resources for learning more about maps.

  • State Library of NSW Sydney by Decade maps This timeline is a useful introduction to some of the key digitised maps covering Sydney.

  • Sydney Metropolitan Detail Series The Sydney Metropolitan Detail Series (1880-99) is particularly useful for researching house histories. Make sure you look at the key maps first.

-Sydney Block Plans Detailed block plans from the late 19th century and early 20th century are a rich resource for historians. They allow us to research former buildings, visualise the streetscape and reconstruct the city landscape. This Trove list links to key Sydney Block Plans that have been digitised and are available through the City of Sydney, State Library of NSW, and National Library of Australia.

This list is also available on Trove.

Subdivision plans

Subdivision plans are a rich source of information for the house historian. Subdivision plans are held at a range of repositories including the State Library of NSW, the National Library of Australia, the City of Sydney Archives and Land and Property Information (LPI).

A selection of digitised Auction and Sale Lithographs 1865-1935 is available on History and Archives Resources.

To find subdivision plans in the State Library of NSW catalogue, type the name of your suburb. Some of these catalogue records include a list of all the subdivision plans held for that area including their date and street boundaries.

Some subdivision maps and plans held at the National Library of Australia are also digitised. Search the catalogue using the keywords subdivision plan and the name of your suburb; narrow your search to maps.

Parish Maps

NSW Land Registry Services is responsible for the legal registration of documents relating to ownership of land and property in NSW.

Historical land ownership was recorded on parish maps. These maps are essential records of early land ownership in NSW.

It is important to know the county and parish in which you live to use the land title records. Everyone in the City of Sydney local government area lives in the County of Cumberland.

The parishes within the County of Cumberland are:

  • Petersham
  • St Andrew
  • St Philip
  • St Lawrence
  • St James
  • Alexandria

To find out what parish your property is located within, you can check your current title, or you can use the Geographical Name Register to search by suburb. Information provided will include the parish name. The county and parish names and boundaries have not altered since they were established.

The NSW Land Registry Services Historical Lands Records Viewer is the online tool you can use to access digitised historical parish maps, along with thousands of other digitised plans, land titles and indexes.

To understand the range of digitised land records available through the Historical Lands Records Viewer (HLRV), along with tips and access, see the NSW Land Registry Services list of Historical Records Online and their search guides. An explanation of parish maps and how to use them (PDF) is also available from NSW Land Registry Services.

The County/ Parish Maps Guide from NSW State Archives provides an overview of county and parish maps, which may also help you to understand the parish maps now available on the NSW Land Registry Services Historical Lands Records Viewer.

Find out more parish maps and other maps and plans held in NSW State Archives list of maps and plans.

Research tips

  • Maps cover different time periods and come in different formats so consider how you will organise the various map downloads, links, PDFs and printouts.
  • Putting your maps in date order enables you to see how your suburb and street evolved, but it is often easier to start in the recent past and work backwards.
  • Printed maps can appear online in more than one repository and they may have differences. For example, they may have handwritten notes or updates added at dates subsequent to publication. The same map may also be in better condition in a different repository.
  • Maps can be complicated and may need special skills to 'read' them. Reading the support and help files on the various websites will enhance your ability to use these resources correctly.
08

Case Study: 5 Hegarty Street Glebe

House History

Question: I live in a quiet street in an old terrace house which is probably the only one ever built on the site. There is nothing famous or special about it. Am I right to think that all I will find are dates and names of occupiers?

Answer: If that’s all you want, this should be straightforward. But scratch around and you might find out a whole lot more.

In brief

  • Early land history
  • Subdivision of the land in the 1880s
  • The first houses
  • The 20th century
  • How the history was found
  • Other sources for further research

Download the case study below.


Case Study: 5 Hegarty Street - PDF

09

Case Study: 10-12 Macleay Street Elizabeth Bay

House History

Question: There is a website that says my block of apartments was completed in 1939, and a lot of places around here are of similar vintage. I want to know the history of this building but I also wonder why these places were built back then when most people in Sydney wanted a house and garden.

Answer: Sometimes the history of your home can’t be separated from other general questions like the one you have asked. Sydney’s planning history will give you the answer.

In brief

  • Early land history
  • The first houses, including land title history
  • Blackburn's 'Greenhithe'
  • The Macleay Regis
  • About the art deco building
  • The building today
  • How the history was found
  • Other sources for further research

Download the case study below.


Case Study: 10-12 Macleay Street - PDF

10

Case Study: 22 Gadigal Avenue Zetland

House History

Question: I live in a new apartment. Not much history here?

Answer: Since the 1980s, many old factory and warehouse sites in Sydney became available for housing developments as the city deindustrialised. It is not so much a question of who lived in my house but what happened there?

In brief

  • Early land history
  • What happened following the closure of the on-site Leyland factory
  • About the apartment block-building
  • How the history was found

Download the case study below.


Case Study: 22 Gadigal Avenue - PDF

11

Case Study: 36 Caroline Street Redfern

House History

Question: There is what seems to be a remnant of a house on the corner of our community park at the Redfern Community Centre. It has been painted with the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Why is it there?

Answer: Some buildings acquire a meaning beyond their original use. The history of this house is partly about its life as a house and partly about its life as a symbol for Redfern’s Aboriginal peoples.

In brief

  • Early land history
  • About the house
  • Houses for factories
  • Factories for the community
  • How this history was found

Download the case study below.


Case Study: 36 Caroline Street - PDF

12

Case Study: 44 Argyle Street Millers Point

House History

Question: There are already histories written about my house. It is in a heritage precinct and several conservation and heritage reports have been produced over the years. The trouble is that there seems to be too much information and sometimes the different reports contradict each other. They don’t always provide what I’m looking for.

Answer: One way to make sense of the diverse information and reports which a heritage listed property generates is to start by creating a timeline. This will help you sort out your house history part of the story and show up any discrepancies that may need checking against original records.

Timelines are a good way to begin putting together information for any house history and this might be all you want to do. Or, if you want to go further, a timeline can also be a first step in developing a more descriptive piece of historical writing.

In brief

  • Timeline of the land
  • The first houses
  • Wentworth Terrace
  • The 20th century
  • How the history was found

Download the case study below.


Case Study: 44 Argyle Street - PDF

13

Case Study: 262 Bulwara Road Ultimo

House History

Question: This old house looks as if it may have once been a shop. How do I find out?

Answer: Sydney has many homes that were built as something else, especially as shops, workshops or factories. Today buildings that were once schools or churches are housing. Old houses are sometimes now offices, factories now schools, and so on. A home does not always have a house history. But this one did.

In brief

  • The locality
  • European invasion
  • History of the Harris family
  • Ownership of the land changes hands
  • 20th century developments
  • How this history was found

Download the case study below.


Case Study: 262 Bulwara Road - PDF

14

Case Study: Hyde Park Towers Sydney

House History

Question: This apartment tower is fairly modern, but there is also an old section which was once part of a commercial property. Does that make it difficult to research its history?

Answer: Not necessarily. It might require finding out about more than one parcel of land in the original title records, but this is quite common, especially where large buildings straddle consolidated titles.

In brief

  • Early land history
  • Brief land title history
  • The Nithsdale estate
  • 20th century developments
  • How this history was found

Download the case study below.


Case Study: Hyde Park Towers - PDF

15

More House History Resources

Researching your House History

The City of Sydney's historians have curated this list of books, guides and websites to help you research the history of your home or property.

The list is maintained in Trove, the National Library of Australia's digital catalogue and community.

The list was last updated on Tuesday, 18 August 2020.

Books and other works

31 Ferndale Street : a book on how you can find out about the house in which you live / Elaine Furniss and Hector Abrahams ; illustrated by Hector Abrahams
1989

A pictorial guide to identifying Australian architecture : styles and terms from 1788 to the present / Richard Apperly, Robert Irving, Peter Reynolds ; photographs by Solomon Mitchell
1900-1994

Australian house styles / Maisy Stapleton & Ian Stapleton
1996-2003

How to trace the history of your house / Des Regan and Kate Press
1990

The National Trust research manual : trace the history of your house or other places / edited by Celestina Sagazi
1900-2004

Suburb guides

Each suburb guide is a Trove list that covers a range of resources, from maps and images to oral histories and books.

Websites

Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System (AHIMS)

The Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) maintains the Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System (AHIMS) which includes information about Aboriginal objects and places.

At Home in North Sydney

'At home in North Sydney' is a unique online exhibition exploring the history of North Sydney through the built environment: its architecture, architects, builders and residents.

Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney is an online resource covering more than 700 suburbs, with each entry complete with demographic information and precise boundary maps.

Inner West Council – House History Research

The Inner West Council has an online guide that introduces key sources and has the opening hours of their local studies collections. If your house is located within the Inner West local government area, this is your starting point.

Land Titles Historical Research

Sources such as Sands Directories record who occupied a building. Documents at the NSW Land Registry Services record who owned the land. A basic aim is to establish the “chain of title” ie. the sequence of historical transfers of title to the property from the present owner back to the original deed of grant from the government.

Researching land history using the Land Registry records can be very helpful in establishing the history of a property or locality. This webpage provides a start. A key to unlocking the mysteries of the different title systems is to read the guides to searching land records.

Land Titles – Historical Land Records Viewer

The Historical Land Records Viewer is the primary way for the public to gain free access historical titles and cancelled plans created by the NSW Lands Department and now managed by the NSW Land Registry. Before you leap into searching within the viewer, read the information regarding Land Titles Historical Research.

Leichhardt Council - house history guide

Leichhardt Council has an online research guide for how to research your house history.

NLA FAQ

The National Library of Australia has a frequently asked questions list (FAQ) with some suggestions for how to research the history of your house.

NSW State Archives House and Property research guide

This NSW State Archives guide provides an overview of the major sources for researching houses and properties. It provides details about records held by the state archives and lists other organisations that may hold relevant material.

NSW heritage inventory

The NSW heritage inventory database with listings for more than 20,000 heritage buildings and items on statutory lists in Sydney and NSW. Even if your house is not listed as a heritage item, there may be houses in your street or locality that are.

Newspaper masterclass with Sue Reid from Queensland Family History Society

This article on the Traces website provides newspaper searching tips from Sue Reid’s Newspaper searching masterclass.

North Sydney Council - family and house history

North Sydney Council has an online research guide for how to research your house history. The guide, Getting Started: Finding out about your North Sydney house, is available as a pdf download on this webpage.

Sydney street names guide

This is a guide to the City of Sydney street names.

Trove

Trove is a consolidated index developed by the National Library of Australia which is focused on Australia and Australians. It brings together newspapers, maps, books and images from more than 1,000 Australian museums, libraries, galleries and archives.

Image: Rae Place in Woolloomooloo, June 1977, City of Sydney Archives: Unique ID: A-00067549