England Land Holders, Title Deeds, Leases (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Who Holds the Land?[edit | edit source]

It has been estimated that at the time of the Hearth Tax (1662-1689) about two thirds of the land in Britain was held by large landlords, and about one third by small owner-occupiers. For the next two centuries the trend was to larger estates, for example by engrossment, purchase, encroachment or enclosing the waste. By the time of the 1873 Return of the Owners of Land only a tenth was in the hands of smallholders (Camp 2000). The large land holders included:

  • A few aristocratic families who consistently augmented their holdings by inheritance, marriage and well-timed purchases. They had rents from agricultural land and urban properties, royalties from mines, revenue from overseas plantations, as well as interest from investments in industry, canals, turnpikes and government stock.
  • Some larger businesses such as bankers, brewers, ironmasters and other industrialists who bought land from small landowners as it became available and could amass quite large estates.
  • Bodies such as the church, universities, schools, hospitals, railway companies, city livery companies and charitable organizations.

As the amount of land in small and middle-sized estates decreased smallholders (less than 30 acres) were having a really tough time. Kain and Prince (Tithe Surveys for Historians, 2000) discuss the political and economic ramifications of this situation. Small owner-occupiers tend to be rare in so-called closed parishes which had been enclosed at an early date. Here the land was held by one or a few men who regulated the village life according to their own tastes and where everyone is noted in their estate records. Typically the large landowners discouraged immigrant labourers, rowdiness and drinking and only allowed non-Anglican chapels if they were themselves of that persuasion. Open parishes were the opposite, where poor labourers might live (and maybe walk to a closed parish to work), and nonconformity, smallholdings and perhaps also industries flourished. Naturally, there are intermediate types of parish between the strictly closed and open types.

The severe depression in British agriculture in the last two decades of the 19th century caused rents and land values to decrease, and the introduction of the death duty in 1894 was a death knell for many struggling land owners. Many sold all of part of their estates before World War I and Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History, 1996) remarks that after 1918 the breaking up of the large estates increased substantially. The buyers were either the sitting tenants or public and private institutions. The growth of home ownership has redistributed much to the middle class, but a few large bodies such as the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust, utility companies, investment groups such as pension funds and the Church of England still hold huge acreages. However, there are several wealthy individual landowners remaining today as well.

Here we concentrate on the records of potential use to the genealogist which add much to the bare facts of christening, marriage and burial found in church records. Here we see them actually living their lives, with family, friends, business associates, and are given insights into their characters exemplified by the way they managed their affairs. Complete runs of title deeds or manorial court records are rare, but there are sufficient long runs for the family historian to gather material about some of their ancestors.

It should be noted that the terminology used to describe those holding land has changed over time. The 17th century descriptors, yeomen (those owning their own house and land), and husbandmen (those who leased small holdings), gave way to the 19th century farmers, most of whom leased their land (Camp 2000).

Title deeds[edit | edit source]

A title deed is a legal document providing evidence of title to land, property or rights. The great bulk of most estate and personal muniments is composed of title deeds so their relevance for family history is obvious. In theory, deeds only relate to land held in freehold and burgage tenure, but this was not always adhered to. The vendor needs to produce the deed by which he acquired the property and, until recently, the series of deeds showing previous ownership even if it was through hundreds of years. The law was changed in 1925 so that a vendor only had to show evidence of title for the previous 30 years, providing he had acquired it within that period.

The form of title deeds has changed several times since the Middle Ages describing the property in varying detail. The present conveyance document dates from 1840 and includes a plan. Vendors, purchasers and agreed prices are noted and many such deeds go well back to the 17th century. 19th-20th century deeds contain:

  • œThe lawyer’s summary or abstract.
  • œThe title deeds.
  • œA plan.
  • Supplementary documents used to prove the title are often found, such as wills, certificates, examinations, marriage settlements, family trust deeds and even complete family trees, particularly where the descent was complex.
  • Other papers which might include contracts for sale and auctioneers’ catalogues.

The changes of 1925 meant that thousands of ancient deeds were no longer needed for legal use. Many millions have been deposited in county archives, the British Library, and TNA by historically-minded lawyers, bankers, and owners and most have been calendared (summarized). Some are in archives or libraries outside Britain, and some remain in private hands. Sadly, too many have been lost or are decaying in basement storage areas, particularly in solicitors’ offices, building societies and banks, where they are supposedly in safekeeping. Solicitors do not own them so throwing them out, or worse, selling parts of a collection to dealers, is a breach of professional responsibility (Alcock). Researchers having any influence with lawyers should tactfully suggest that their old junk will be welcomed by the relevant archives who will carefully preserve it as historically meaningful collections according to their provenance. In 1981 Christopher T. Watts (Solicitors Records and the Family Historian. Genealogists Magazine Vol 20 #5, page 168-169.) described an example of what a solicitor’s filing room might hold and the ongoing collaborative efforts needed by the legal profession and archivists; progress has been made but further efforts are still urgently needed.

Deeds and Leases
[edit | edit source]

Deeds and leases were the documents created to confirm the agreements made between people over rights or property. The transfer (also known as alienation or conveyance) took many forms. They are written in a complex format and the family historian needs to look for certain distinctive passages amongst the plethora of legal verbiage. These are introduced by phrases in large bold lettering typically as shown below.

Chart: Structure of a Post-Mediaeval Deed 

THIS INDENTURE The introduction
BETWEEN Names of the parties. There can be any number of parties, and one party can consist of many individuals. Residences and occupations are usually given
WHEREAS Recitals of previous transactions which place the present deed in context, and allow the researcher to identify former deeds.
NOW THIS INDENTURE WITNESSETH This is the testatum or terms of the present contract
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD This is the habendum which gives the length of the contract and any conditions and restrictions.
IN WITNESS THEREOF This is the testimonium where the representatives of the parties sign and impress their seals.

Deeds of Title[edit | edit source]

Deeds of title come in many shapes and sizes, from mediaeval ones a few inches long, to 18th century Lease and Releases for a large estate which could run to a dozen skins of parchment each a yard square. Most were written in Latin until the mid-16th century, although many of these have been published in English later; but all after 1733 are in English. The major problem is their sheer bulk and repetitiousness, but armed with a simple guide to the types and structure of these documents it will not be difficult to find the essential items of interest to the family historian. A recommended basic guide is that written by Julian Cornwall (An Introduction to … Reading Old Title Deeds) , who approaches the subject from an historical perspective and gives examples of the more common types. N. W. Alcock’s (Old Title Deeds, 2001) more detailed treatise concentrates on the process and is eminently readable with many clear examples and translations of a much larger range of material.

Many deeds bear seals ranging from simple wafers to elaborate armorial ones, and pendent seals may be encased in a tin box or skippet. Seals have been known to have been detached by accident or by ignorant collectors, but if a deed has neither a seal nor a signature then it has probably not been executed, that is the transaction was never completed. If a deed has a herring-bone pattern of cuts across it, it means that it has been cancelled.

Bundles of deeds may also contain documents relating to the finances and organization of a business or industry operating from the premises. These could include partnership agreements and dissolutions, insurance papers, debenture deeds (guaranteeing that the loan on the property will be the first charge on its assets in the event of bankruptcy), and sale or mortgage of the property to raise capital or repay creditors, and schedules of debts and information about any bankruptcy.

Archivists and enthusiasts have compiled many finding aids including lists, indexes of places and people, (but unfortunately not often of people-associated-with-places), transcriptions, and translations to their original and enrolled deeds. Where they exist they should be consulted first as they save most of the hard work.

A good knowledge of local topography from large-scale maps and gazetteers is necessary as farms, hamlets and local area names often occur. The smart family historian consults all deeds for an area, knowing that their ancestors may occur as witnesses, tradesmen or tenants even if they have no deeds of their own. A county archives usually has some deeds for every parish, but equally typically, does not have everything for any one of them; the archivist’s help should be sought in identifying the location of others. A random sample of finding aids from the FamilySearch Catalog shows:

FHL fiche 6073986(2)
Deeds, ledgers, maps etc. of Tonbridge {Kent] and nearby parishes 1686 – 1949. Detailed abstracts of land ownership and estate records, maps and numerous wills.
FHL fiche 6070432(1)
Deeds from Guildhall Library. Detailed abstracts of land ownership of Frindsbury, Harrietsham and Lenham parishes [in Kent].
FHL film 0476650
Somerset, Devon and Dorset Deeds, including index.
FHL film 0917523 – 4
A Calendar of the Deeds Enrolled within the County of Devon, indexed by surname and deed number, covering 1536-1763.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.