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Researching the history of a place

You can use this guide to research local houses, properties, factories or public buildings.  

Getting started

Start by thinking about the history of the property as a part of the broader history of the city, suburb and individual families.

Talk to neighbours who have lived in the street a long time. They may be able to provide some useful information about the house. Search the internet using the address as this may give you some clues for further research.

For general overviews and introductions to researching the history of buildings and houses, try one of the following resources.

How to trace the history of your house by Des Regan and Kate Press is a useful book which you can borrow from the library. You can also search the Merri-bek Libraries catalogue for other published works, including published histories or conservation reports about some buildings in Merri-bek such as the Brunswick Town Hall, Brunswick Baths, Hoffman Brickworks that have not yet been digitised. Also look in the index of published histories on local areas. 

Please consider that you might find information about the property that could be upsetting.

Indigenous history

There is a good introduction to Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung history in Merri-bek on our Conversations Merri-bek website. Some general published works available for loan from Merri-bek Libraries include:

Early suburb history

Local history books sometimes describe early settlement such as Crown grants, parish maps or early subdivisions. Some key suburb histories are:

Heritage Studies

You can find historical information about heritage or significant local properties in local conservation reports, heritage studies or databases.

Victorian Heritage Database

The Victorian Heritage Database includes the Victorian Heritage Register which lists the state's most significant heritage places, objects and historic shipwrecks protected under the Heritage Act 2017. It's also home to the Victorian Heritage Inventory, which lists all known historical archaeological sites in Victoria. The database also stores the records of local heritage places, including those significant to Merri-bek and included in the Merri-bek Heritage Overlay. 

The database also contains the records of non-statutory listings held by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and the Victorian War Heritage Inventory.

You can find out whether a property is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register, the Victorian Heritage Inventory or is affected by a Heritage Overlay in a local planning scheme by using Heritage Victoria's 'Is my place heritage listed' search tool  on the Department of Transport and Planning website.

Heritage properties in Merri-bek

The National Trust website includes information on the more than twenty heritage sites the organisation maintains, including Pentridge Prison.

The Coburg Historical Society maintains files on well-known local properties on their website. The group has also compiled Moreland History Publications (PDF), which includes a list of articles in local historical society newsletters.

The Mansions of Moreland presentation for the 2018 Australian Heritage Festival includes information and pictures about some significant historical properties in Merri-bek.

Merri-bek Council’s heritage studies record the heritage significance of the heritage precincts as well as individual places within the municipality.

Street development and maps

You can also learn a lot about the history of your house from sources such as street directories, street histories, maps and plans.

Street directories and histories

Some street names and numbers have changed over time so it is a good idea to research the street history. Start with

Many street numbers may have also changed over time. For example,

  • Albion Street numbers changed 1955 - 1960.
  • Munro Street, Brunswick changed around 1928.
  • Park Street, Brunswick numbers changed in the early 1970s.
  • Sydney Road numbers changed from 1920s - 1940s.

To work out the number changes you can try using Postal Directories (see below). Follow the main resident names in the postal directories over various years to see how the house number changed around them. Sometimes the number change is listed on rate record cards.

State Library Victoria has PDF copies of Melbourne street directories 1912-1952 that also cover Melbourne suburbs. The directories include maps, street name indexes and advertisements.

Maps and plans

Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works maps available from State Library Victoria provide a detailed historical record of Melbourne streetscapes and environmental features.

The Coburg Historical Society has bound copies of the first MMBW maps of Coburg and Pascoe Vale 1909-49.

Royal Historical Society of Victoria has a large range of maps that can be viewed by appointment.

Auction plans, subdivisions and estate history

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, real estate companies produced many thousands of posters featuring maps of the lots available at upcoming auctions. Some of these posters have been scanned and made available online, but you may have to visit the institution in person to view other items in their collections.

Search the Merri-bek Libraries catalogue for a place or street name, or just search for auction plans to find posters of early subdivisions of estates.

State Library of Victoria has several thousand auction plans advertising auctions of land in early subdivisions as well as information on how to use auction plans for research.

The Coburg Historical Society also holds some subdivision auction posters.

Design and construction

The style of a building can give clues about the time the building was constructed. In Victoria, the main periods of house building were 1887-1890, 1920-30 and 1950 onwards. There was no building after April 1942 during World War II.

You can learn to identify houses from Early Victorian to Modern styles with the What house is that? booklet available on the Heritage Council of Victoria website.

Other published resources you can borrow from Merri-bek Libraries include:

State Library Victoria also has a significant collection of resources on architecture.

Building permits and plans

Full building plans were only required to be submitted to Councils after 1916.

Coburg Historical Society holds a Building Licence File Index for the late 1940s-1950s. 

Merri-bek Council has records for building constructions or alterations after 1994. See the Property information on the Merri-bek Council website for more information.

The local government authority in which the property is located may have changed. You may need to contact neighbouring Councils, such as City of Yarra, City of Moonee Valley or Hume City Council

The Public Record Office Victoria has a guide on how to research their Public Buildings Plans and Files.

You can find plans for some public buildings at State Library Victoria in their Architectural Drawings Collection.

Sale and ownership records


Titles can show when property ownership was transferred. This information was required after 1862. Titles can be searched online for a fee. See the Property information on the Merri-bek Council website for more information.

You can also find information about researching title records on the Public Record Office Victoria website.

Wills and probate

Owners of properties will specify in their Will who the property is to pass to upon their death. Probate documents may include important details such as property description, location, valuation, contents and reference numbers. 

The Public Record Office Victoria website has more information on the wills and probate records they hold, as well as tools to search for specific items online and some digitised documents.

Property sales advertisements and results

Advertising and auction descriptions can give good information about how a house has changed. Search for advertisements in the period before you know the house was sold.

You can find advertisements in many places, from newspapers to auction plans (see relevant sections in this guide). You can also search the street address on an internet search engine and old online property advertisements are likely to still be available.

Auction results are often listed in The Sunday Age or on property websites on Sunday.

There are businesses that package information about sales history of properties for a fee. These can be found online using search terms such as ‘property sales history’ in a search engine.

Rate records

Council rate records sometimes include a property or house description, information on building material, rooms, residents, owners and property valuations. 

In the past, rates may have been collected by a different Council. Sometimes rates were collected from tenants rather than owners. Records were organised by Council ward. Within wards records follow the path the collectors took. For Coburg and Pascoe Vales streets, use the index at the front of the Sands and MacDougall Post Office Directories for the years 1885-86 to 1937-38.

Wards, street names and house numbers sometimes changed over time. Lot numbers help limit the property you are researching. Lot numbers 1, 2 and 3 can be the result of re-subdivision and may appear more than once. If rates increased a lot in one year it could be due to major renovations or a new building being added to the property.

Rates information is not available for every house for every year. Please be aware there are gaps in records, particularly in the mid-1990s. Merri-bek City Council's Rates Department only hold rate information from 2008 onward.

City of Brunswick rates records

  • 1860 - 1959, 1971 - 1982, 1987, 1989 rates records are held on microfiche in the Les Barnes Local History Room at Brunswick Library.
  • 1860 - 1955, 1971 - 1977 rates records are held on microfiche in the Local History room at Coburg Library.
  • State Library Victoria holds City of Brunswick (1860 - 1930) rate records on microfilm.
  • Original rate books (1871 - 1981) are at the Public Record Office Victoria.

City of Coburg rates records

You can find the following rates records on microfiche in the Local History room at Coburg Library:

  • Pentridge District Road Board 1863 - 1868
  • Coburg District Road Board 1869 - 1874
  • Shire of Coburg 1875 - 1904
  • Borough of Coburg 1905 - 1920
  • City of Coburg 1921 - 1976

City of Coburg Rates 1863 - 1900 are on Ancestry Library Edition, which you can use at any Merri-bek Library. Select Victorian records. 

State Library Victoria holds City of Coburg rate records on microfilm (1918 - 1986).

Original Rate records for the City of Coburg (1863 - 1986) are at the Public Record Office Victoria.

City of Broadmeadows rates records

City of Broadmeadows rate records from 1863-1899 are also on Ancestry Library Edition, which you can use at any Merri-bek Library. Select Victorian records. 

Postal directories

Postal Directories are a good record of who lived at an address each year. To estimate the year the house was built you can try researching back in time until there is no listing of the house.

Sands and McDougall directories

State Library Victoria has digitised the Sands and McDougall Victorian postal directories from 1860 to 1974 and has made them available to view and search on their website

If you are searching by house or property, go to the Suburban Streets section. Find the suburb, then the street, then the house number. If you are searching by name of resident, go to the Alphabetical Index section towards the back of the directory.

Other postal directories

Some postal directories for Australian states are available for searching on Ancestry Library Edition. This can be accessed by logging into the Ancestry Library website. See Australian City Directories.

There are also postal directory holdings on microfiche at Merri-bek Libraries. These include the following:

  • Port Phillip Directories
    1839–1867 Brunswick Library
  • Sands & Kenny Directory
    1857–1861 Brunswick and Coburg Libraries
  • Sands & McDougall Directories
    1862–1883 Brunswick Library
    1862–1872 Glenroy Library
  • Balliere's Victorian Directory
    1868–1881 Coburg Library
    1868–1872, 1875, Brunswick Library
  • Wise's Post Office Directory
    1868–1900 (incomplete) Coburg Library
    1883–1890, Brunswick Library

Electoral rolls

Electoral rolls are arranged by electorate and surname, rather than by street or house number. You can't search Electoral Rolls by street or house number. You have to know the name of the resident first.

You can search Australian electoral rolls 1903-1980 on Ancestry Library Edition at library branches.

Brunswick Library holds some historic voter rolls from the 1960s to 1980s for the Wills electorate in the Les Barnes Local History Room. State Library Victoria also holds historic electoral rolls on microfiche.

Publicans Indexes

State Library Victoria holds the Robert K Cole collection of hotel records which you can search using the Cole-Tetlow index online.

The Public Record Office Victoria have an index to defunct hotel licences covering metropolitan and country hotels.

Newspaper articles

Some historic national, state and local newspapers are now digitised and available to search online.

Try searching with abbreviations as well as the full name of the street (St), road (Rd) or avenue (Ave). If you search on just a street name you will also find articles about other events in the street. Use inverted commas to keep the words together in the search, e.g. "Saxon Street", "Saxon St"

Trove Digitised Historic Australian newspapers lets you search the full text of a wide range of newspapers. Local newspapers include the Brunswick and Coburg Leader (1914 – 1929), the Brunswick and Coburg Star (1914 – 1916) the Coburg Leader (1890 – 1913) and the Broadmeadows Camp Sentry (1917). Major daily newspapers such as The Argus (1848-1957) and The Age (1854-1954) are also available.

You can search other historical and current newspaper databases through the State Library Victoria website. Some are available to search with a free library membership, while others are only available at the State Library.


Historic photos of specific properties can be hard to find unless they have a heritage listing and are on the Victorian Heritage Database.

There may be some old photos of the street or road. Try searching on the full name of the street as well as abbreviations, for example Dawson Street and Dawson St.

See Historic local photographs.