Name: Melanie Backe-Hansen
Job title: House Historian
Time in current role: 4 years
Melanie is a freelance House Historian. Visit her website here.
Why did you decide to go freelance?
My first career steps were rather different to what I do now, but they greatly impacted my development into a niche career as a house historian. I completed a history degree, but after graduating I spent years working in marketing and PR for a publishing company. However, in 2006 I was looking for a new opportunity and found a unique role as an in- house historian for estate agent, Chestertons. With the combination of my skills in historic research along with marketing and PR, I had the perfect skill-set to research the history of the houses that were for sale or to let, while also writing the stories of the houses to be used in marketing material and to generate publicity for the firm and the individual homes.
After six years with Chestertons, I had written my first book and was working on my second, while also getting several requests for private house history commissions. It soon became clear that I might be able to do this on my own. After stepping out as a freelance house historian in early 2012, I’m fortunate to have my dream job researching the history of houses across the UK.
What are the key functions of your role?
My role involves a variety of elements but the core of what I do is research and write. Researching the history of houses involves visits to archives and libraries (all over the country depending on where the house is situated) compiling details from a range of different sources to fit together the pieces of a puzzle to find the story of the house. I focus on the social history of houses, telling the stories of former residents and owners, and building up the details to tell the story of the house from before it was built through to the current owners. Once the research is completed I then bring together all the elements and write the history as a report or most often as a bespoke book for the home owner.
Along with the research and writing, I also give talks and lectures, write articles, and contribute to the press and media – all of which might involve different areas of research and writing.
Talk us through your typical working day
Every day will be different depending on the priority. If starting a new house history project, I might be spending my day in the archives researching a range of different sources. The sources for house histories are often held in different places, so this can involve travel to different parts of the country. If I’m completing a project I spend long hours writing and this may be at home, in the library, or often in a local cafe! On other occasions I might be meeting clients or potential clients, as well as speaking with journalists or filming for television. It will always vary. For example, at the moment I have two upcoming talks to prepare as well as two articles to write while completing the history of a house in Soho and another in Hertfordshire. So I’m spending a lot of time working from home and the local cafe, writing and working through notes and research.
Your favourite part of the job?
This is tricky as I love most parts of my job, but I think my favourite is researching. I absolutely love uncovering stories from the past. By delving through seemingly ordinary sources such as tax records, deeds, newspapers, or electoral registers, I can find the voices of the past and being able to tell their stories is a real privilege – I simply love it!
…and the part you could do without?
Like many people who are freelance the constant thought that work is never guaranteed is always an added pressure. It might sound fun or glamorous to be working in a cafe all day, but I’m also often working long hours and weekends, and it can be very difficult to switch off. The other challenge is also being your own business manager, so doing things like chasing invoices is an element I’d rather do without.
How would your clients describe you in three words?
I’d hope that my clients would describe me as methodical, detailed and professional.
Plans for the future?
The most immediate plan for the future is being able to squeeze in more time to write my third book. This is a challenge while freelancing and focusing on client work but I hope to make more time in the coming months. I also hope to take on more work in television. People often ask, “Why isn’t there a TV programme about house histories?”. After many conversations with different production companies, I hope to one day answer, “There is now!”.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring freelancers?
I never thought I would be brave enough to step out on my own as I’m not naturally entrepreneurial, but I was blessed with finding myself in a dream job that I love. This helps enormously as it can be tough sometimes, but if you have a strong idea and believe in what you’re doing as well as having some the practical things in place, such as contacts and opportunities, then be brave and step out. LLY