Slave trader’s home, slum, des res: the stories of one house raise restless ghosts

All old houses are haunted. Not by ghosts but by the lives of others. Because to live in an old house is to share your most intimate space with the dead. Houses live longer than people and the harsh fact is that we are just passing through. Our homes, the most acutely personal places in our lives, come to us secondhand, and invisibly link us to people we have never met, people to whom we have no association other than a single shared connection to place.

I have been thinking about this recently because I spent last autumn engaged in a unique television experiment. We set out to discover if it was possible to take a single house and, through old newspapers, documents in the archives and whatever other clues or scraps of evidence we could find, tell the story of all the people who live there; from the day the first resident turned the key in the front door, all the way up to today.

The house selected is a Georgian-style terrace in what is now called the Georgian Quarter of Liverpool. I write “Georgian-style” because it was built in 1840, the third year of Victoria’s reign. Although large, elegant and, in the early 21st century, extremely desirable, it is not unique. There are hundreds like it in Liverpool and many thousands more across the country.

But, after months of investigations, what the researchers who began this project discovered was that it was possible, in the case of 62 Falkner Street, to form a chain of human stories stretching from then to now, from the first resident to the current owner. The lives of all of the people whose stories make up the links in that chain run through the house, because, for each of them, walking through that front door meant that they were home.

Across the four episodes of A House Through Time we uncover their stories, and that of the city in which they lived. More than any other British city, Liverpool’s ride on the rollercoaster of national fortune has been a bumpy one. No other city has been more buffeted by the cycles of boom and bust and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the place that once proudly saw itself as the “second city of empire” suffered more than any other when that empire suddenly evaporated.

The extremes of Liverpool’s story are reflected in the lives of the occupants of 62 Falkner Street. They span the social spectrum, from the well-to-do Victorian gentlemen to the families who huddled together in single rooms during the decades after the second world war when the house degenerated into a tenement slum.

Part of the aim of A House is to answer the question that everyone who has ever lived in an old house has – at some time or another – asked themselves. The thought usually comes late at night or early in the morning, when our eye is caught by what estate agents like to call an “original feature”, or a patch of peeling wallpaper or flaking paint reveals what lies beneath. Those triggers remind us that the buildings we confidently call ours once belonged to others; many and multiple others.

History is about people. Historians who don’t get that tend to be the ones who struggle to get anyone to care about their work. Ultimately you have to care about the people you encounter through your research, if you want anyone else to. But it is all too easy to start caring about figures from the past if you find yourself reading the documents that record their lives while sitting in what was once their kitchen. Or having just walked up a staircase, holding the wooden banister that their hands once gripped. To read their letters from within the house in which they were written, or to hold in your hands their death certificates, while standing on their front steps or in their bedroom, is a strangely intimate experience. A close encounter between historian and subject.

Reading the grim details of a Victorian domestic violence case, while walking through the rooms in which those beatings and beratings took place, felt almost voyeuristic. Too close and a little too real for comfort. To talk about the past residents of the house, to make judgments about them, to sum up their achievements or discuss their failings, from the upstairs sitting room in which they showed off their wealth and entertained their guests one and a half centuries earlier, felt a little presumptuous and almost transgressive. Historians love to talk about how we can get closer to the people of the past, but when it happens of its own volition the effects can be unnerving.

There is no official register of historians. No list from which practitioners of the art can be struck off for professional misconduct. I’ve recently found myself grateful for this omission because of all the historical projects I have worked on, none has made it so easy to cross lines, or so tempting to overstep marks. I have found myself marvelling at my capacity to feel genuine dislike for men who died over a century before my birth. To pass judgment on anyone – living or dead – on the basis of a handful of letters and ledger entries is palpably unfair and arguably ridiculous, and yet, in this case, almost impossible to resist.

Gaynor Evans lives at 62 Falkner Street with her two children. The house, built in 1840, has been home to a cross-section of British society, warts and all.

Gaynor Evans has lived at 62 Falkner Street with her two children for nearly eight years. The house, built in 1840, has been home to a cross-section of British society, warts and all. Photograph: Emerald Coulthard/BBC/Twenty Twenty productions Ltd/Emerald Coulthard

The enmity I feel towards the trader in slave-produced cotton who lived in the house, and whose personal life was lived with as much callous disregard for others as his professional life, is real and involuntary. This is a man I know only from a cache of damning official documents and – incredibly – a surviving portrait in oil paint. Only a kangaroo court in a one-party state would pass judgment on the basis of such flimsy evidence. Yet over the months my disdain for this ghost from the archives has grown, despite my attempts at professional detachment.

I have been equally surprised at my capacity to feel sympathy and empathy for the sufferings of people whom I only know from patchy documentary evidence. When I discovered that one late-Victorian resident of the house had died of heart failure, caused by years living under the shadow of a thyroid condition known as Graves’ disease, I was astonished by how emotional – rather than objective and professional – was my response to her story.

By way of an excuse, and by chance, I spent four years living with the same disease. A few days after reading the 1880s death certificate of Esther Lublin I found myself alone in my office, on the top floor of my house, reading old diaries, remembering how painful it had been. I had feared that Graves’ disease would waste years of my life, before modern treatments could bring it under control. For her there were few options. She must have known that, sooner or later, the condition would kill her. Two people with the same disease. I lived, she died – because we were born in different centuries.

Nothing about this can be said to be truly revelatory. We all know that until the 20th century billions died of diseases for which cures now exist. But knowing the historical facts and the bleak statistics is very different to reading of Esther Lublin’s tragic life, our shared diagnosis, her name and age – younger than I am now – scrawled on to her death certificate by a busy doctor.

History, to me, is all about those shiver-down-the-spine moments. When you hold in your hands an object created hundreds of years before your birth and feel the vague presence of the hands that held it in the past. Or when your boot turns over a piece of shrapnel on a first world war battlefield and you have to stop yourself speculating about what that muddy chunk of steel might have done to flesh and bone. Many historians I admire admit to such moments, although those admissions are to be made only in private and to other similarly afflicted historians or students. But they are what draws us to the archives and set us off on early morning trips across overgrown cemeteries. Historians have to be nosy, they have to want to know what others experienced. Part of that is achieved by being open to at least trying to feel something of what they felt.

If walls could talk it would be our homes – not our grand public buildings – that would have all the best stories. The real stuff of human life – love, childhood, vulnerability, intimacy, betrayal, acceptance and pain – is revealed behind closed doors and drawn curtains. It is at home, with our partners, parents and children, that we are genuinely ourselves. The version of history I was taught at school was largely one of great men and great deeds, a history that took place in palaces and battlefields. It was silent about our shared, inner and domestic histories, the stories of the rest of us, the ungreat, who live quietly and privately in anonymous terraced houses.

A House Through Time begins on BBC2 on 4 January