A couple's two years of research into their home in a small French village has brought to life not only the history of the building, but
also some of the people who lived in it.
Stephanie Dyson Heidrich has an academic background as a scientist, specialising in chemical engineering, but has always had a keen interest in history.
She and her husband Mike Dyson bought their home in Le Chiron, between Aubusson and Guéret in the Creuse, in 2004, using it for long weekends and holidays before moving permanently from Cambridgeshire in 2016.
She had started researching the family trees of both her family in Sweden and Mike’s in England, a quest that took her all over northern Europe.
“We read an article in The Connexion about researching your property’s history and I thought immediately that it was such an interesting thing to do,” said Stephanie.
Their house, built like all the others in the village of granite stone and oak beams, was old but no one knew how old.
It stands a little way from the rest of the village and is built on a slope. The part at the bottom of the slope has four storeys and within the structure was a barn and a stable.
Luckily for them, the house featured in the cadastre napoléonien of 1812, a detailed property map of the whole of France ordered by Napoleon I in 1807, which was completed in 1850. It still forms the basis of the cadastre plans used for all property transactions.
Stephanie was able to consult the 1812 original and, from there, worked backwards to find the house’s first owner using notaires’ records, court records of wills, and property inventories.
She found the first owner, Antoine Nebout, who was born in 1761 and who, at the age of 25, got into a legal dispute because he wanted to marry a woman his father did not approve of.
The young man took the matter to the local lord’s court – 1786 was three years before the revolution – and the lord ordered that two notaires look into the matter and draw up a report.
Luckily for the couple, they agreed the young man and his love, Magdelaine Roudier, could marry without parental approval.
“It is probably because of this dispute that the house is built a little away from the rest of the village,” said Stephanie.
“We were also unable to find a marriage certificate in the village church, which means they probably had to go somewhere else to marry.”
She was not able to find any bills or information about the actual building of the house but, because the first owner was a mason and a
carpenter, he probably built it himself with help from brothers and friends.
When Antoine Nebout died in 1844, the house passed into the hands of his second wife, his first wife having died some time before, and then her sister.
The second wife was called Antoinette Florand, and she was 28 years younger than Antoine, being born in 1789.
“She was probably the last to be called Antoinette for a while,” Stephanie remarked.
She remarried, to a man 11 years younger than her, but made sure in the wedding contract that the house would go to her sister on her death, rather than to her husband.
Documents relating to the succession include inventories of things of value – right down to two pairs of shoes and three pairs of stockings.
“This part of the Creuse is one of the most sparsely populated parts of France,” said Stephanie. “Even then, when the commune was 400 people and not the 100 there are today, it was a poor, thinly populated area and the inventories show how precious things that we take for granted now were to people then. Antoine Nebout did not die a rich man.”
After the first owner’s immediate family, the house was owned by various people, most of whom were in the building trade as masons and carpenters like the original owner, before, during their old age, being reclassified as farmers.
An exception was one occupant who was one of two mayors of the commune who lived in the house.
He was a watchmaker and worked during his mayoral mandate to restore the belltower of the village commanderie, the building originally built by the Knights Templars as a regional barracks. After the Templars were suppressed, it was run by the Knights of Malta.
One of the new beams put up in the commanderie belltower is inscribed with the date 1874 and information about the mayor and municipal council restoring it.
When he died, his daughter, also a watchmaker who had moved to Paris, inherited the house and returned to the village to carry on the business.
The presence of the commanderie meant Le Chiron was an important village in the 14th century, but the soldier knights died away, new roads were built, and the building fell into ruin.
Stones scavenged from it, many with carvings, are found in many houses in the village.
During World War Two, the owner of Stephanie and Mike’s house lived elsewhere, but the house was used by refugees from fighting and the German invasion.
The house was lived in until the 1980s by an old man whose rental agreement included delivering a quantity of potatoes and cut wood to the owner, as well as cash.
A major restoration was carried out over two years by the owner Stephanie and Mike bought it from, but they have been able to trace the evolution of the floor plan over the years.
“That in itself is interesting, especially as things did not change very much over the centuries, but it is the human aspects we have found, for the house, the village and the wider area, which really make it interesting for me,” said Stephanie.
We’d like to hear from other readers who have
traced the history of their French home
– share your story by emailing us at email@example.com
Top tips for house research
Having patience is the top tip Stephanie Dyson Heidrich gives to anyone thinking of researching the history of their house.
“Things do not always go the way you expect but, as long as you are patient, you find you can make progress,” she said.
Most of her research was done at the archive department in Guéret and she said the staff were very helpful in suggesting things she could try.
“You must ask people in the archives, as well as those in the village and the region,” she said.
“Lots of little clues came from people recounting bits of family and village history we wouldn’t otherwise have known about.”
She recommends that researchers keep an open mind and be prepared to work backwards and forward in time.
“If you think you have reached a dead end, do not give up – go back to the point you started and instead of working backwards, work forward, or go sideways. You still make progress and can sometimes open up new trails, which you were not aware of before and that get you past the dead end.”
As a scientist, she said she liked creating a hypothesis about historical events and then testing the evidence she found to see if the hypothesis stood up.
“Sometimes it all seemed to fit but other times nothing did and we had to accept that what we were proposing was wrong.”
Archive departments were established by the revolutionary government in 1796. The aim was to keep the archives of the Ancien Régime as well as those of the new institutions. Departments were made responsible for funding the archives in 1838.
Most are situated in the préfecture city of the department and are free to use – you have to show an ID, and sign in as a reader – but there are exceptions.
All have a reading room and most have strict rules about not allowing bags or coats, and even on the type of paper and pencil you can use to take notes.
Documents cannot be taken out but, for a fee, can be copied. Most have a presence on the internet and they co-operate with other archives and can order micro-films of documents to read locally.