Playing detective

The Archives New Zealand building on George St, Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
The Archives New Zealand building on George St, Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

Fancy playing detective and tracing the history of your home? Kim Dungey tells you where to look for clues.

Some people want to solve ghostly mysteries. Others just want facts and figures.

The reasons people explore the history of their homes are many and varied, but there is no denying that doing so can uncover some intriguing stories.

A Research Your Home workshop at Otago Museum last year catered for those who wanted to unlock the secrets of their homes' bricks and mortar and was so popular it was repeated.

Archivists say some people want to restore their homes to their original states or are curious about former owners but others simply want to know the age of their houses, as this is increasingly a requirement for insurance purposes. Alison Breese, of the Dunedin City Council, says archaeological assessments of pre-1901 buildings, determining site use for heritage assessment, is ''very big at the moment''. And in ''four or five'' cases, people who have reported seeing ghosts in their homes have wanted to work out who they might be.

Interested homeowners have a wealth of resources at their fingertips, from Archives NZ's 1064 large volumes of deeds and certificates of title for Otago and Southland, to the Dunedin City Council archives, which comprise 3800 linear metres of material over five rooms in the basement of the Civic Centre.

But a search does not need to be daunting. Many organisations place information online and staff are happy to help visitors who need assistance using their resources.

Here's how to get started:


Deeds and certificates of title

These give the legal description of a piece of land (usually a block number, section number and survey district or township) and the various transactions recorded against it in chronological order, including previous owners' names. Usually there is also a small plan.

Find the certificate of title number in your home's purchase documents or the rates information page on the Dunedin City Council website and take it to the Dunedin office of Archives New Zealand, which holds copies of certificates of title for Otago-Southland up to the early 1970s, as well as the handwritten deeds which preceded certificates from 1851. Both documents relate to land, not houses, but the date when the first owner took out a mortgage can be a good clue as to when a home was built there. You can also search using the full name of a previous owner.


Archives New Zealand

Take identification to register as a reader, and a camera, because most of the land documents are too big and too fragile to be photocopied. The catalogue and the indexes for the deed system are available at but staff recommend visiting in person, so they can give advice on using the Reading room (556 George St) open weekdays 9.30am to 5pm.


Plans, rates books and valuation rolls

The Dunedin City Council archives include a variety of records for the area administered by the Dunedin Town Board (1855-1865), its successor, the Dunedin City Council, and the local authorities that have merged with the council over the years.

These include rates and valuation rolls from 1858, which can show owners, occupiers, what was on the land (such as house, stables, theatre, hotel) and a legal description, which can be converted to a current address. Changes from year to year can show when houses were built or ownership changed and are particularly useful in the case of older houses, because building permits are available only from 1901 onwards (and then only a sample).

The council is the first stop for house plans from this point on, though extensive practice records for a few specific architectural firms can be found at the Hocken Collections.

Architectural drawings can provide a large amount of information, from the slope of the land to the type of timber used, the design of fireplaces and whether there were servants' quarters, but remember that modifications were sometimes made before building started.

Building and drainage permits held by the city council provide owners' names and a legal description of the property.

Building permits also give the names of architects (if they signed the plans) and builders, while drainage permits contain information about demolitions.

Archives NZ has plans for many of Dunedin's state houses as well as old maps from the Lands and Survey Department, which are useful if you have a legal description of a block of land but no idea where it is located.


Dunedin City Council archives, lower basement, civic centre. Make an appointment to visit by emailing The first half-hour of assistance is free.

Certificate of title number

Go to and search by address.

Hocken Collections

90 Anzac Ave, phone 479-8868. Search for archives and photos at and find a guide to researching residences at Guide.pdf.



Many libraries and museums hold photos from around the country and many of them are available online. The Hocken, for example, has more than a million historic images, including more than 30,000 which have been digitised and are available on Snapshop.

You can also explore PapersPast, a digitised online collection of New Zealand newspapers, and select illustrations as the search option.

Search by street name, owner's name or suburb but also think laterally. Check photos which were taken from one suburb looking into another, or look for your house in the background of photos of other subjects: processions, nearby schools and churches or the commissioning of tram cars.

The Hocken Collections include aerial photos of Dunedin from about 1949 (ask staff for these). There is generally a better photographic record of the inner city and a zoom function means often you can pull detail out of wider contextual views.

The Dunedin City Council has aerial photos of the city taken at 10-yearly intervals since 1947 (useful if you are looking for an old house that has disappeared), and general photos (many of which show street works but also have houses in the background).

Hocken snapshop:

Dunedin City Council's online photos:

National Library (particularly good for White's Aviation aerial photos from the 1940s to the 1970s):

Te Papa (good for 19th and early 20th-century images):

Auckland City Libraries:



One of the best ways to trace the occupancy of a house year by year is through street directories (such as Stone's and Wise's), which are found at the Hocken and the third floor of Dunedin Public Library. Many list occupants (not necessarily owners) by surname, as well as by street name and trade. Be aware, however, that streets may have been renumbered and that generally only the male heads of households were included.



Sometimes substantial homes were photographed and described in detail as building work neared completion or when soirees and other social events were held there. Search PapersPast under the name of the home, the architect, or the owners listed on the certificate of title (which may take you to their obituaries).

Dunedin Public Library has the Otago Witness and the Otago Daily Times on microfilm and its southern regional news index is useful for accessing relevant information in these titles.


PapersPast: (for digitised newspapers and periodicals):

Southern regional news index:



Information about how your house has changed can be uncovered when you redecorate. Original wallpaper or newspapers on the walls can help date the house.

You may also find old paint schemes, original fittings stored in the basement or a sketch of proposed work scribbled on a wall by a builder.

Finding out who used to live in your home can be an exciting part of the project and once you have names, you can find out more about them by using records that may have little or nothing directly to do with buildings. These include school admission registers, birth and death notices, obituaries or records of local community groups.

Finally, descendants of early owners can be among the richest sources of information, with stories that bring the home's history to life and take it beyond just a collection of names and dates.


This old house

Successfully finding out when your house was built and who has previously lived in it can come down to determination and an ability to think laterally.

As you search, keep in mind that houses were sometimes renumbered, street names were often changed to avoid duplication and some records from the former boroughs that merged with the Dunedin City Council are missing. A list of street name changes (along with the original 1858-1860 rates book) can be found at


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