Who lived in your house before you? Toronto woman solves house mysteries

by Maya Akbay

Maya Akbay, Evan De Souza, Robin Burgoyne, Tichaon Tapawamba in an interview at Centennial College journalism February 2012.

Every house has a story… and with the help of Robin Burgoyne’s business, you can learn yours.

Robin Burgoyne is the founder of Caerwent HouseStories, a business in Toronto that researches the history of any house or building in Toronto. Clients receive this information in a presentation of their choice, whether it be a hardcover book with pictures, a chart, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Burgoyne has always been interested in history and the stories of people. It is the reason she studied history as a student. Burgoyne says that after working as a production co-ordinator in the film industry, she realized it wasn’t her true calling. From then on, she realized her interest in houses could be turned into a career.

In fact, talk of houses at the dinner table was a common occurrence when Burgoyne was a child.

“Growing up, there were two facets to my story. My father was in real estate,” said Burgoyne, in an interview at Centennial College journalism school in Toronto, in February.

The connection doesn’t end there. Her great-great-grandfather also founded a brickwork in Wales; and the company is named after the village of Caerwent where Burgoyne’s family is from.

The process of finding a house’s history is a long and patient ride that includes a lot of research time and dedication. Burgoyne says it can take more than 100 hours of research sometimes, including paying regular visits to places like the City of Toronto Archives and the Toronto Reference Library, where she is a regular. Burgoyne extensively looks at everything from the building permit of the house to finding out who built it in the first place, as well as old newspaper articles about the house. Roaming old newspapers about an ad someone could have put in about the house in question is an act that surely requires a person’s utmost devotion and interest, something that Burgoyne definitely possesses.

“Finding the names of the relatives…[you need a] combination of logic but also instinct,” she said. “Another time when I was looking for relations, let’s say Joe Blow… I found someone that lives in the same area…I thought maybe that’s the son! And turns out it was. Also, making connections.”

It wasn’t exactly an easy ride at the beginning when Burgoyne left the film industry and went about starting her own business. Burgoyne had the help of government-funded Self Employment Benefit Program in 2007, where she learned how to start a business.

“[It wasn’t] just the financial support, but the moral support people gave me… Saying ‘You can do it, keep going.’ It was really great,” said Burgoyne.

Perhaps this is where her appreciation of helping others started, as she now holds workshops to teach people how they can research the history of their homes themselves.

A hardcover book about the history of a house from Caerwent HouseStories has a price range of $1,089 to $1,389 , while a scrapbook costs $650.