Various England Land Records in Parish Chests (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: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Open-Field Agriculture Enclosure[edit | edit source]

Enclosure means the hedging, fencing or walling of open land and was carried out over many hundreds of years in different ways. The early work was largely private and piecemeal and the later ones usually more systematic by Act of Parliament. Nowadays we can recognize the benefits to agricultural productivity, but centuries ago the process pitted the richer farmers who became wealthier, against the vast multitudes of the poor who lost their rights to free grazing and wood from the common lands. David Hey’s (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. ) most intelligent discussion of a complex problem, is summarized here.

The enclosure process typically involved firstly the amalgamation by exchange or purchase of strips of land into a larger holding, which could be done easily in parishes where there were very few landowners. The resulting parcel, of whatever shape, was then simply hedged or walled according to local supply of materials. Sometimes the agreements can be found in parish records.

The other, more contentious process, involved the former wastelands and commons. Small portions of wastelands, especially woodlands, had been gradually assarted, or brought into cultivation, from the Middle Ages. This resulted in no harm to the poor if the remaining common lands were extensive, and generally increased productivity for the parish. In the southern parts of England, where there was plenty of moorland, woodland and marshland, pastoral farming took precedence, few fields of cereals were planted as sufficient could be bought at market, and thus little land was enclosed.

The situation was different in the populous midlands, where commons were much smaller and farming organized in large communal open fields. Enclosure had more detrimental implications since the poor depended upon an ever-decreasing amount of common land to make ends meet. Overall increased productivity tended to favour the larger farmers at the expense of the poor. By the early 16th century the central government was already concerned about the trend to convert arable land to pasture to benefit from rising prices for meat. As farmers attained their own enclosed land, rather than having to rely on communal decisions on the open-field plan, they could do as they pleased with their fields. Sheep and cattle increasingly displaced men in the midland counties of England, and the value of enclosed land was placed at three times that of unenclosed land, even though the initial costs of hedges, fences or walls were high. The process was relentless, however, even though it may have taken 200 years to enclose all the open fields in any particular parish.

When agreement could not be reached by purchase or trading of strips or plots of land in order to amalgamate holdings, then a private or public Act of Parliament could force the will of a major landowner over minor one(s). If the owners of 75-80% of the land wanted enclosure then the act was passed; note that this didn’t mean 75-80% of the owners! The first such act was in 1604 but they were rare until the mid 18th century, when they became common up to the penultimate one in 1870; the last holdout enclosure took place in 1914. Parliamentary Enclosure was therefore only the final stage in a process that had been evolving for centuries. In contrast to the odd-shaped plots formed by enclosure by agreement, the 5,570 acts for parliamentary enclosure in England and Wales resulted in rectangular fields. The process was that the act named commissioners and surveyors, the land was then surveyed, claims considered, and allotments awarded in proportion to the size of the common rights of the various owners.

The records emanating from the parliamentary enclosure procedures are of obvious value to the family historian since they consist of:

  • Enclosure awards containing a schedule describing the position and acreage of the new allotments, with their owners and tenants.
  • Maps made by the surveyors, often the earliest one available for a particular parish or township.

Copies of these were kept in the parish chest, but are now conserved at county or local archives, and are in current use to elucidate boundaries, rights of way and ownership. In open-field parishes all of the land is mapped, but elsewhere only the wastelands and commons are discussed, except where tithe commutation took place at the same time. David Hey should be consulted for further details.

Many general works on enclosure and some enclosure awards are available on film, predominantly from central England (Bedfordshire to Yorkshire). Examples of enclosure awards include those from Stillingfleet, Yorkshire 1753 (FHL film 2093918), Baslow in Bakewell parish, Derbyshire 1826 (FHL film 1041697), and Woodchurch, Cheshire 1836 (FHL film 2106348).

Land Tax[edit | edit source]

The Land Tax was something our ancestors had to live with for 270 years, and although most records are in Quarter Sessions some have been found in parish chests. Imposed first in 1693 and usually at a rate of 4/- in the pound in the spring, it became perpetual in 1797. Most surviving records date from 1780 when duplicates had to be lodged with the Clerk of the Peace so that they could be used to establish qualification for parliamentary voters. There are fewer surviving records after 1832 when franchise reform obviated the need for the duplicates. In 1798 landowners were able to be exonerated (buy themselves out), and the tax redeemed, for a fee of 15 years purchase (Fitzhugh, Hey, and Gibson and Mills)

There are assessments of the value of the land, and returns which consist of lists of houses, their owners and occupiers, and the tax paid. They are naturally useful in finding the whereabouts of householders within a county, but it should be realized that occupiers, and certainly not owners, did not always actually live at these addresses.

As with other rates (see section on highway rate), a single return is far less useful than a good long run of them, wherein can be seen the changes in occupation and ownership over time. These may indicate by widowhood the death of the head of the husband, or by new names who inherited, started leasing or bought the property. The actual values should not be construed as market values, but only as comparative estimates of the standard of living of the occupiers. An example showing three years, but without the values and actual taxes paid, is shown below.

Camberwell Land Tax 1829-1831[edit | edit source]

The values and taxes paid have been omitted from this extract.

J and W Wooley
Willm Bond

Wm Dransfield

1829 Jas Gaylor
1830-1 Henry Bugbird

Thos Dickinson
1829 Jas Harman
1830-1 Thos Cole

1829 Dransfield or occ
1830-1 Thos Cole

1829 Thos Cole
1830-1 Goodman

Jos Bradford
Willm McKenzie

Ann Cousins
Ann Cousins

Sarah Cousins
Sarah Cousins

Surrey Canal Co.
James Law
Wharf and Sheds
1829 Fras Putland or occ
1830-1 no name

Hundreds of land tax records are on microfilm, either from Quarter Sessions or parish chest collections. Some indexes have been produced, for example for Hampshire 1800-1832 but with some records from 1775-1899 (Neville 2000), and Surrey 1780-1832 (Neville 1997), both of which can be found at their county archives and elsewhere. A useful article was prepared by Janet Heskins (Land Tax Records are a Worthwhile Source for Family Historians. Journal of One-Name Studies Vol 7 #1, page 8-9).

Parish Councils[edit | edit source]

Newly formed in 1894 when they took over all the civil functions of the vestries—but there are some early records found in parish chest for example oaths of office and lists of those in attendance.

Councillors’ Oaths of Office 1896 Whitwell, Isle of Wight, Hampshire
FHL film 1526198

Local Government Act 1894
                                   Members Declarations on Acceptance of Office
I,William Rayner, having been elected PARISH COUNCILLOR for the Parish of Whitwell Hereby Declare that I take the said Office upon myself, and will duly and faithfully fulfil the duties thereof to the best of my judgement and ability.
      Dated this 15 day of April 1896
                                           William Rayner
THIS DECLARATION was made and subscribed before me,
William Cook, a member of the Parish Council of the above-named Parish.

The next Declaration is by William COOK, witnessed by Albert PAIN, the next by Albert PAIN witnessed by Samuel BEEDEN, the next by Samuel BEEDEN witnessed by Austin HUNT, and so forth.

Attendance at Parish Meeting 1894 Whitwell, Isle of Wight, Hampshire FHL film 1526198

Minutes of Parish Meeting held at the School-room, Whitwell on Tuesday the Fourth day of December 1894, at 6.30 o'clock in the evening.

On the proposition of Mr Eli Pett and seconded by Mr Thomas Reynolds, Mr Albert Bull

There were present Messrs Daniel Morgan and James Bowers, Overseers, and Edward Beeven, Assistant Overseer, also Messrs
Francis Beavis James Beavis
Henry Downer Austin Hunt
James Dennett Moses Revd Robert Bennet Oliver
Albert Pain Albert Plumbley
John Plumbley William Plumbley
George Abbott Samuel Beeden
Alfred Chiverton Charles Chiverton
James Chiverton Joseph Coleman
William Cook Henry Corney
Samuel Cotton George Dyer
Robert Feakes Albert Ernest Gell
Thomas Gell Robert Hayward
Albert Hunt Charles Hunt
Walter King George Lewis
James Lowe James Lowe
Henry Norris James Norris
Oliver Norris John Petchey
Harry Phillips Isaac Plumbley
John Plumbley Maurice Plumbley
William Rayner John Russell
William Russell Charles Satter
Frank Scovell Joseph Stallard
Then several pages of minutes of the meeting.......

Arnold-Baker provides a description of parish administration in the mid-20th century with extracts from all the appropriate legislation from 1838-1957.

Water Supply[edit | edit source]

A topic of increasing interest during the 19th century, with much debate ensuing, and occasional records appearing in the parish chest, such as the following.

Water Supply at Whitwell, Isle of Wight, Hampshire 1886
FHL film 1526198

Minute Book No 1. The Whitwell Water Supply

Minutes of Meeting held at the Whitwell National School on Thursday 21st January 1886.

Revd R. B. Oliver Chairman
Messrs S. Beeden, T. Gell Parishioners
W.H.C. Clarke, Col. Currie, D. Deputation from the Rural
Morgan Sanitary Authority
Dr. Groves
Mr. Cocker Inspector
Mr. T.R. Saunders Advising Engineer and
Representing Wm Spendlove, Old
After much discussion Mr Saunders propounded the details of a plan which he had prepared, for obtaining a supply of pure water from Whitwell Farm and carrying the same by a two inch main to the most populous parts of the Parish....................

Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records 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

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