England Land and Property

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England Gotoarrow.png Land and Property


Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 all the land of England was technically owned by the Crown. Under the feudal manorial system which subsequently developed, the Crown made grants of land to earls and barons who in turn granted smaller areas to knights in return for the provision of a set period of active military service in the field called ‘knight service’. Over the years this service was slowly commuted to a money payment called ‘scutage’ and it had practically disappeared by the end of the thirteenth century, though feudal tenure was not finally abolished until 1660. These people were not Knights in the modern sense and would remain esquires unless they paid the heavy fees for knighthood (something that they were supposedly obliged to do after 1306 if their property was worth more than £40 a year).

Someone who held land in this way direct from the Crown was a ‘tenant-in-chief’ and if a tenant-in-chief held several villages he might sublet one or more of them to other men in return for similar services. If he and the recipients held administrative courts for their villages then those villages were called manors. Estates that had been no more than a farm or an agricultural unit thus became a jurisdiction, the lord being responsible for the good behaviour of his tenants. A landholder might hold several manor courts for his different villages and large landholders might hold land in the jurisdiction of several different manorial courts. By the end of the thirteenth century the manor court was used to enforce and regulate the labour services of the ‘villeins’ or subtenants who held their small amounts of land by agricultural service, produce or cash, according to ‘the custom of the manor’.

The lord of the manor usually had two courts, a court leet which dealt with petty law and order matters and a court baron which dealt with land leased from the manor by copyhold (i.e. a copy of the entry of the court rolls) the villeins having, by 1500, become the copyholders of the manor. Courts leet continued to play a part in the local administration of justice in the Tudor period, prior to the growth of the Courts of Quarter Sessions. However, an important but slowly diminishing area of copyhold manorial land continued to be administered by the lord’s court baron. The remnants of manorial jurisdiction continued into the twentieth century but by a slow process of sale and enclosure of land, and a transition from tenant service to monetary payments of rent or for a lease, the importance of the manor had greatly diminished by the early seventeenth century.

In early times the usual method of transferring freehold land was by ‘livery of seisin’, a symbolic act of transfer of a piece of the property, usually a turf or clod of earth, witnessed by the community. The copyholder would similarly deliver a rod or wand to the lord of the manor or his steward who would pass it to the new tenant. No writing at all was strictly necessary, but it became common to provide evidence of these transactions by means of a deed of feoffment (possession) or, in the case of copyhold, by an entry on the court rolls. It was difficult to escape the fees payable to the feudal lord following such a public act and so, prior to 1660, people regularly looked for ways in which land might be conveyed secretly though it was also important, by some means or other, to place on record a ‘title’ to any property obtained.

The legal documents that proved a person’s ownership and/or rights to land in England or Wales came to be called their title deeds. Anyone selling, mortgaging or transferring land to another person or institution transferred with it the title deed(s) by which he or she had first acquired that land. Over the years, a growing chain of documentation was thus built up that was produced and transferred at each sale or mortgage of the property. A typical bundle of title deeds would consist of former conveyances, deeds of bargain and sale, copies of entries on manor rolls, probate copies of wills, marriage settlements, mortgages, perhaps a summary of the most important records called an ‘abstract’ of title, and sometimes other miscellaneous papers that might include earlier descriptive sale particulars of the property or auctioneers catalogues.

In 1925 an Act of Parliament decided that those to whom property had been conveyed within the last thirty years did not in future need to provide evidence of their title going back more than thirty years. For many properties these bundles of title deeds, many stretching back hundreds of years, were thus overnight made redundant for all practical purposes. Many thousands were destroyed, the parchment being frequently used to make lamp-shades, but many thousands more (if they survived the destruction of the Second World War) eventually found their way into county record offices and may today, if they have been catalogued, be traced through the nationwide catalogue Access to Archives (A2A), covering about 400 record repositories and accessed at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a.

Although the authorities in the City of London and of many other borough towns recorded transfers of land from early times and there were other attempts to introduce some form of deeds’ registration, only the counties of Yorkshire (the West Riding from 1701, the East Riding from 1707 and the North Riding from 1735) and Middlesex (from 1708) had registries of deeds such as were known from early times in Scotland and in Ireland from 1708. England and Wales did not introduce a national registry until 1862 and even then registration was voluntary. Compulsory registration began only in 1899 and is still far from complete.

It is thus frequently a major problem to trace the ownership, descent and transfer of land in England and Wales. As well as by outright sale, mortgage or lease, land might pass from a parent to a child in a manner determined by common law (a freehold passing to the common law heir), by manorial custom, by previous arrangement or ‘settlement’, or by will. Records of the collection of local and national taxes, such as the Hearth Tax and the Land Tax, and of church tithes (all described below), may to some extent indicate who owned what, and there are other records which evolve from ownership, but the overall picture that emerges is patchy, varying greatly from parish to parish.

Wills, for instance, are a poor indication of a testator’s land-holdings. They were usually drawn up when the testator was ill or dying. Arrangements about the land may have been made earlier. If a few pieces of land are mentioned, these are likely to be recent purchases, indicating only that the testator was prospering. Valuations for probate will not normally include the land, though the value of leaseholds is occasionally included. Early wills are often striking in the manner in which they show land scattered across several parishes and in the types of holdings that are mentioned.

Freehold land, that can be bought, sold or bequeathed at any time, may appear alongside land that is leasehold or rented for a fixed number of years (usually a multiple of seven, or for a fixed number of stated lives) and alongside copyhold land held from the lord of a manor by a copy of the entry on the court roll. The nature of these holdings should always be noted as in each case they may lead to other records.

Domesday Book

The first general survey of the land of England, known as Domesday Book, was compiled by order of William the Conqueror in 1086. The entries were arranged by county in two books under the name of the manor, and show the names of the tenants-in chief and their sub-tenants (the names of the tenants before the Conquest also being noted). They record the number of hides of land in the manor (a hide was about 120 acres); the number of ploughs on the demesne (that part of the manor reserved for the lord’s use) and the number of ploughs available to the tenants; the number, but not names, of homagers (jurors on the manor court), villeins (unfree men who held their land by agricultural service to the lord), cottars (cottagers), serving men or slaves, free tenants, and tenants in soccage (renters); the extent of the woodland, meadows, and pasture; the number of mills and fish ponds; how much land had been added or taken away; and the gross value of the manor in 1086 and in the time of Edward the Confessor.

The survey is not entirely complete and lacks coverage in the City of London and some other major towns as well as the counties of Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland and Westmorland. Some other counties are incomplete. The many problems of the survey’s interpretation are discussed in David Roffe, Domesday: the inquest and the book (2000).

The text of Domesday in its abbreviated Latin and a translation were printed in county volumes edited by John Morris as Domesday Book (38 volumes, Chichester, England: Phillimore, 1975-86) [FHL book 942 R2d]; there are complete indexes of places in volume 36, of persons in volume 37 and subjects in volume 38. An online transcription is available at http://domesdaybook.co.uk. The personal names are indexed in K.S.B. Keats-Rohan and David E. Thornton, Domesday names: an index of Latin personal and place names in Domesday Book (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1997) [not in FHL] and there is a careful commentary on what is known about the people involved and their subsequent histories in K.S.B. Keats-Rohan, Domesday people: a prosopography of persons occurring in English documents 1066-1166 (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1999) [FHL book 942 H2] andDomesday people: II, Pipe Rolls to Cartae Baronum (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2002) [FHL book 942 D3].

Record Indexes and Transcripts 1090-1600

Following Domesday Book there is a period of a hundred and fifty years in which the descent of land can only be traced, if at all, with the greatest difficulty. There is then a great variety of classes of record in The National Archives, normally in abbreviated Latin before 1733, which may provide relationships. However, unless there are printed calendars the searcher will have many problems which will not easily be overcome. Brief summaries of some of the main series are given here but the various explanatory leaflets provided by The National Archives should be consulted for further guidance and for their valuable lists of finding aids and publications, some of which may be consulted in other libraries or online. For the majority of searches at least the county involved will be needed and there are, of course, no overall indexes of names or places.

The TNA Guide ‘Legal Records Information 7’ provides links to the many classes of record in The National Archives that contain enrolments of deeds from 1227 to c.1930 and there are other Research Guides in the Legal Records Information series.

The portal http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk provides most valuable links in its ‘Sources’ section to the many medieval texts (prior to about 1600) that have been published and indexed online.

There are microfilms of many of the printed works and of some of the major manuscript calendars and indexes at The National Library in the Family History Library. Entries in the Family History Library Catalog may be found via the Place Search under ENGLAND – PUBLIC RECORDS, or ENGLAND –TAXATION, or GREAT BRITAIN – PUBLIC RECORDS, or GREAT BRITAIN – PUBLIC RECORDS.

Patent and Close Rolls

The record of those to whom the Crown granted property and who thus became tenants-in-chief commences only in the thirteenth century. Grants and confirmations of lands by the Crown to private individuals and public bodies were from 1201 to 1702 recorded, with much other matter, on the great series of Patent Rolls (C 66). At the same time, and particularly after 1381, large numbers of deeds between private persons were enrolled on the payment of fees on the backs of the Close Rolls (C 54), a practice that continued into the twentieth century though the numbers reduced greatly after 1862. Both series are at The National Archives where the main calendars and indexes are on open access.

Those who died holding land direct from the Crown were subject to Inquisitions Post Mortem when an escheator would summon a jury to declare on oath what lands the tenant-in-chief held at the time of his death, by what rents or services they were held, and the name and age of the next heir. The lands of those heirs who were under age (21 for males and 14 for females) remained in the wardship of the King until they came of age whereas adult heirs paid a fine and performed homage to the King. The records which run from 1235 to 1660 are also at The National Archives. There are abstracts for some counties and indexes at the Family History Library. In a Place Search in the Family History Library Catalog look under [COUNTY], ENGLAND – LAND AND PROPERTY.

Feet of Fines and Recoveries

Because an entry on the rolls of one of the royal courts was regarded as binding upon all persons it became customary to create and transfer interests in land by bringing collusive actions in the Court of Common Pleas so that the resulting agreements were registered.

There were two principal methods by which this was done. In the first, called the Final Concord or Fine, the purchaser (who was the plaintiff or querient) alleged that the seller (the vendor or deforciant) had agreed to sell the property in question but had failed to do so. Before the court could reach a judgment the parties came to an out of court settlement (the Final Concord) and an order was then made which gave the purchaser the freehold of the property. The final judgment was recorded three times on a sheet of parchment which was then cut into three pieces with wavy cuts. The top left and right pieces were given to the seller and the purchaser and the bottom piece, or foot, was retained by the Court and enrolled. The resulting records in the Court of Common Pleas, called Feet of Fines, run from 1182 to 1834 (CP 25), but the later ones are little used by genealogists. They give the names of the parties, who may include a husband and wife or father and son, and provide a very brief description of the land being sold.

The second collusive action was the Recovery, in which the purchaser (or demandant) brought a case against the vendor (the freeholder or tenant-in-tail) to ‘recover’ the property, claiming that he had been ejected from it by a fictitious third party (given a name such as Hugh Hunt or Richard Rowe). The vendor would call on some other person as a ‘vouchee’ to vouch for his title and when consulted out of court by the purchaser the vouchee would disappear, allowing judgment to be made for the purchaser. The latter would then be given a freehold which effectively dispensed with any remainder or entail which there may have been on the property, indeed the process was often gone through for that purpose alone. The resulting deeds, which are recorded on the Plea and Recovery Rolls, continue to 1834 (CP 40, 43). There are manuscript lists, arranged by date, at The National Archives (see the‘Legal Records Information 7’ guide online mentioned above).

Statute of Enrolments, 1535

In 1535 the Statute of Enrolments required that the transfer of freehold land should be by deed and that these deeds be enrolled either in one of the Courts at Westminster, such as Chancery or Kings Bench, or with the Clerk of the Peace of the appropriate county in Quarter Sessions. Town corporations which had their own courts of record were exempted. Title deeds now often took the form of straightforward deeds of bargain and sale.

The obligation to register deeds was not a great success, and as time went by fewer and fewer land transactions were recorded, though the 1535 Act was not repealed until 1924. An Act of Parliament in 1706 described it as ‘of little or no use’. Of the deeds that were registered most were recorded, as mentioned above, in Chancery on the Close Rolls, but there are others in the Exchequer and in the Court of King’s Bench. In many cases there are good lists and indexes of them at The National Archives (see the links provided in the above mentioned online ‘Legal Records Information 7’). Those on the Close Rolls, for instance, are clearly written, give the full names of the parties and show the county. The deeds themselves were registered in full.

Also enrolled on the Close Rolls from 1737 onwards (C54) were some 35,000 deeds which transferred land for charitable purposes, including nonconformist chapels, schools, burial grounds and charities. These are well indexed by place.

Lease and Release

The obligation to enrol a deed was to a very large extent circumvented by simply granting a lease for a year on the land you wished to sell and then on the following day giving or ‘conveying’ the lessee the right of future possession (the ‘reversion’) of the land mentioned in the lease. These two documents together were called a ‘lease and release’. This form of conveyance became popular and remained so until 1845, but the lease did not need to be registered and was not enrolled. Any bundle of title deeds dating to before 1845, however, will contain examples.

The seventeenth century lawyers were adept at finding other ways around the requirement to register and although the Statute of Frauds in 1677 required that the transfer of freehold land (‘by enfeoffment’) be evidenced in writing, lack of reliable evidence was often so prevalent that it became difficult to borrow money on the security of land.

However, historians believe that in most English villages, and many English towns of the early modern period, most property and land was conveyed through the manor courts [Christopher W. Brooks, ‘Manor courts and the governance of Tudor England’ in C.W. Brooks and Michael Lobban,Communities and courts in Britain 1150-1900 (London and Rio Grande: Hambledon Press, 1997) page 49; not in FHL].

Commons and Encroachment

In medieval times many village manors had areas of woodland and waste which were used by the parishioners. On payment of a fine and an annual rent to the lord of the manor, they might build a house in these ‘commons’ and stay, though after 1589 the house was supposed to have four acres of land attached. Instances of this type of ‘encroachment’, often disputed when new-comers from outside the parish were involved, are found in manorial records even as late as the eighteenth century and in lead and coal mining areas to a later date. In a large manor with plenty of wasteland such a process, producing extra rent for the lord, aroused little or no opposition.

In villages where an open-field system prevailed the tenants on the manor had the valued right of grazing their cattle on any field which lay fallow, on all the fields after harvest, and, more importantly, on the commons. They did not own the common but, usually in direct proportion to the size of their holding on the manor, they had the right to pasture their animals, to cut peat and to fish, to take fallen wood and to dig for sand, gravel and stone there. These rights were naturally of great importance to cottagers and small farmers.


Because of the scattered nature and uncertain tenure of so many of their holdings small local farmers naturally looked for ways in which to consolidate them and to make them more productive.

In Tudor England and particularly in the midland counties, the complete amalgamation of farms, often so that they could be more easily converted from arable (for the growing of cereals) to the more profitable pasture (for the rearing and fattening of livestock, both sheep and cattle), became a particular problem. The process, called engrossment, in which the unwanted farm house so often degenerated into a labourer’s cottage, fewer men were employed and their cottages completely decayed, was recognised by contemporaries to be a great evil, but attempts to reverse the process met with little success.


However, often following some engrossment and an exchange or purchase of strips in the open fields that resulted in one person or a small group of farmers owning most of the land in the parish, enclosure by general agreement of the owners would take place. Sometimes the process was a piecemeal one over a long period. New fields were laid out with hedges and walls following the old curving ridges and furrows formed by many years of strip farming as seen, for instance, in the Peak District. The many ploughmen were then replaced by a few shepherds. The rights of the commoners to the previous uses of these lands were extinguished by this process which extended also to a proportion of the common itself, its area being slowly diminished over time.

Enclosure was actively promoted in the midland counties of England in the sixteenth century and was fiercely resisted. In areas where there was only a small amount of common or waste great depopulation resulted and the effects were marked in Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. Continued enclosure of the open fields in these areas in the seventeenth century probably brought great gains in productivity but it completely disrupted old style communal husbandry and brought great hardship to many.

In some regions, the West Country, in Kent, in Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk, and in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, which had much larger areas of woodland and moorland, the enclosure arrangements, which had often been carried out in pre-Tudor times, had less marked effects.

If the records of these agreements survive they are usually found in estate papers, though some, as with other agreements about land which resulted from collusive law suits, where the parties were acting in concert merely to get the matter on record, are found in the records of the Court of Chancery. This is particularly so in the seventeenth century when the whole process gathered speed. Some enclosures were then also arranged by parish officials in the vestry or in the manor court.

Parliamentary enclosure

When the agreement of all those involved could not be obtained, enclosure was, from 1604 onwards, sometimes brought about by private Act of Parliament and the minority was overruled. The first such Act was in 1604 but in the late eighteenth century and particlarly during the Napoleonic Wars, when corn prices were high, they became frequent. In 1836 a General Inclosure Act was passed which eased the procedures if two-thirds of the possessors of open field rights, in number and value, were agreed, but an individual Act was still required if a common was to be enclosed. Many Acts, indeed, related only to commons and wastes. The spelling 'inclosure' is often used for the legal process and 'enclosure' for the physical one. Another Act in 1845 set up Inclosure Commissioners to supervise future arrangements, but these Acts, except in Wales, were by then becoming less frequent. The last was in 1914.

The later enclosures, with all the detailed work required, might take several years to complete. Their mark on the landscape is the characteristic square or rectangular field.

The record of the allotment of land called the 'award', with the names of owners and tenants, together with a detailed map, is either in the county record ofice or in The National Archives. All are listed in W.E. Tate's A Domesday of English Enclosure Acts and Awards (Reading: University of Reading, 1978) [FHL 942 R2] and John Chapman's A guide to Parliamentary Enclosures in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992) [FHL 942.9 R2].

One of the most controversial aspects of this subject is the way in which enclosure affected the small farmer, cottager and squatter. The liberal social historians J.L. and L.B. Hammond in The Village Labourer (London: Longmans Green, 1911) [FHL 942 H2] said that it was fatal to these three classes but the great growth in population between 1540 and 1640 (when it all but doubled) undoubtedly also helped to create the mobile labour force dependent on wages, which is usually blamed upon it. Where common survive, smallholdings have not necessarily flourished, but you may still see cattle graze an unenclosed heath, watched perhaps by their owner from the glassy shelter of a telephone kiosk.

Hearth Tax 1662-89

The first major record that gives a national coverage (after 1086) is the Hearth Tax, introduced in 1662 and collected twice a year until Lady Day 1689, but usually providing names only in 1662-6 and 1669-74. It provides a fair listing of occupiers of houses in England and Wales, excepting only most of Radnor.

In 1662 every occupier was required to pay a tax of two shillings a year for each hearth or stove in his property. Many people were exempt: those who received poor relief, those who occupied houses worth less than twenty shillings a year and had an annual income of less than £10 a year, and those who paid neither church nor poor rate. However, the assessments generally include even the exempted hearths. Where they survive they give some idea of the relative wealth of the people in the parish, though the exact location of the houses may be more problematical.

The majority of surviving lists are in The National Archives but copies of these may be found with the few surviving local returns in county record offices. A major programme is on foot to get at least one year for each county into print. For full details see Jeremy Gibson,The Hearth Tax (Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 2nd edn. 1996) [FHL book 942 R43].

Trends from 1680s to 1870s

It is thought that by the late 1680s perhaps a quarter to a third of all the land was owned by small proprietors, mostly working their own holdings. The remaining two thirds were owned by larger landlords. There was, however, a trend away from smaller to larger estates over the next two hundred years and by 1873 the amount farmed by smallholders had declined to about a tenth of the whole.

To what extent this was caused by people consolidating their holdings and by enclosure of common land or by other factors, such as businessmen and merchants buying country estates is much disputed. Situations varied greatly in different areas. Exact statistics covering the whole country do not exist until 1873.

Throughout this two-hundred years the terminology also changed. Those who had described themselves as husbandmen and yeomen in the seventeenth century gave way to people who described themselves as farmers. The term husbandman, as indicating a small-holder (it was also used to indicate anyone involved in agriculture), was largely replaced in the first half of the eighteenth century and the term yeoman in its second half. The genealogist Bethel Bouwens once defined a yeoman as a person who drove a plough at times and lived in his kitchen. More often than not he owned his land whereas the later farmer probably leased it.

In parishes enclosed at an early date, the small owner-occupier had ceased to exist by the late eighteenth century. These villages, where the land was owned by one man or a small group of men, where poor immigrant labourers were excluded, where there was a minimum of public houses and disorder, and where nonconformist chapels might not exist, unless the landowner himself were nonconformist, are the ‘close’ or ‘closed’ villages of history.

They are to be differentiated from ‘open’ villages where these paternalistic controls were lacking and where many poor labourers might live and walk out to work in other places, where industries sometimes flourished and where there might be a number of small-holders.

Of course many places do not fit easily into either category but it is sometimes helpful to think in these terms. If your ancestor lived in a closed village the estate records may be an important source of information about him.

Estate Records

Any large landowner will acquire numbers of documents as evidence of title, needed if any property is to be mortgaged or sold. He will also create other records for administrative purposes. These estate records will arise regardless of whether the properties are owned by a private individual or family, a corporation or charity, a London City Company, the church or a university or college, county council or whatever.

Estate surveys

An estate will also generate more record when there is a change of owner and the new man wants a clearer picture of his revenues perhaps in order to raise money or perhaps after a difficult period with lax officials and low revenues. A land surveyor is then commissioned to make a survey of the estate, summarising the situation about every piece of property held, its extent, the manner of its holding, and quite often the use to which the land is put. The accompanying large-scale map may be the earliest available for the area, some dating from the sixteenth century.

Such estate surveys were more frequent before 1700, but they are sometimes found at later dates, particularly when estates changed hands. At Therfield in Hertfordshire, where the main manor was owned by the Dean and Chapter of St Pauls, for instance, a new survey was made in 1724. Every field was listed, each with its map reference, statute measure, tenant’s name and index number. At the end an index of tenants shows their total land in each field.

As part of this survey the history of each tenement was traced in the court rolls to make sure that every rood or perch of manorial land was accounted for (there were 40 perches in a rood and four roods to an acre). Any disparities which needed further investigation were noted.

Tenants and Leases

As time went by and estates grew larger the records would be split to form different series. Where there are many properties, there will need to be not only a simple rental, in alphabetical order of the names of tenants and giving basic details about the tenancy, but also some record by place.

For their London properties the Dean and Chapter of St Pauls kept a book, starting about 1740 and running for more than a hundred years, showing by street details of the leases of the houses they owned. Successions of tenancies within the same family can clearly be seen. In each case the book shows the date, the length of lease, the nominal rent (which remains the same over a hundred years), and the fine (paid at the renewal of the lease) and the clear value, both of which go up very sharply over the years. Leases for twenty-one years were usual but in this instance leases for fourteen years were most common.

Although the fine system survived on church property into the nineteenth century, elsewhere the system of levying fines on the grant or renewal of leases was gradually abandoned by landlords after 1660. They sought then to maximise their income and began to grant instead short annual leases to their tenants for as much as they could get in what came to be called rack rents.

Where there are many leases there may be a chronological record showing when these were due to fall in, so that decisions about the future of the properties can be made in advance. The agents for the St Pauls estates kept a book with sections for different categories of lease. One list of leases for three lives covers all their estates and gives details of the property leased, the date, the value of the fine at its last renewal, together with the name, ages and addresses of the ‘lives’.

Leases for three lives are said to have been popular in the west of England and leases for twenty-one years in the east. Those for three lives, in which three living people (not necessarily related) were named, were cancelled or ‘determined’ at the end of 99 years, fresh names being added to the original three on payment of a fine. Although it was unwise to include the names of children who might die young this form of lease was generally considered more favourable than those for a fixed term of years.

Rentals and labour books

On the larger estates with good records the rentals, when used alongside the estate labour books, are a rich source of information about employees. Shane Beaver provides a good example from the records of the Marquis of Salisbury’s estate at Hatfield [Hertfordshire People, no. 64 (March 1998) page 13; FHL book 942.58 D25h] where Richard Oakley, a labourer, did hedging and ditching. Richard Oakley started by renting a house from Charles Kidman, who farmed Suttons Farm and was a tenant of the Marquis. As a sub-tenant Richard Oakley does not himself appear in the records (a standard problem with sub-tenants on estates and manors), but when Charles Kidman gave up the farm in 1881, Richard Oakley became a tenant of the Marquis and appears in the estate book. His wife and children appear in the labour book doing ‘twitching’ (weeding) at 2s 6d a day. The books show how, on becoming a parkman in 1894, he moved to one of the park lodges, and later, on retirement, to one of the estate’s cottages in Hatfield New Town.

Sales and advertisements

Many estate and family papers contain printed advertising material about properties which have been sold in the past and many advertisements about farms in particular have appeared in local newspapers. These may relate to sale, at the end of a tenancy, of farm equipment (both for cultivation and the making of cheese) and of livestock, showing their numbers and breed.

An article in The Local Historian (vol. 28, no. 1, February 1998, pages 36-49) [FHL book 942 B2ah] analysed the advertisements in the Derby Mercury from their first appearance in the 1780s. There were about 4,000 in seventy years. Small family-operated tenant farms of less than fifty acres were a characteristic of that county but it would be worth looking for a notice about a sale of stock whenever a tenant-farming ancestor dies.


Where the owner of a property held an administrative court for his tenants, a ‘court baron’, then the property was a manor. A manor rarely coincided exactly with a township or parish and there was great diversity in size and operation. The large parish of Cottenham in Cambridgeshire included six different manors, whereas the manor of Wakefield covered a hundred and fifty square miles.

The estate of a large landowner as described above might include several manors as well as any freehold properties with tenants for which the owner held no court. On the other hand a small estate might consist of one manor, with the lord living in the manor house and farming the home farm himself.

The lands which the lord farmed directly and which were not leased out were called the demesne lands. By the seventeenth century the majority of manors were farmed out for a fixed rent. In these cases the bailiff became the farmer and took the risks and the profit. The ‘farm’ was not always an agricultural unit but could equally be a group of town houses, such as with the Bishop of Ely’s Manor of Holborn in London.

The court baron

Even if all the lands were leased out, the right to hold the manor court was kept firmly in the hands of the lord of the manor. His steward then had no managerial responsibilities on the estate but would run the court. For that he would need to be a lawyer. The court book and any official copies made from it, except for ten years in the Commonwealth, will be in Latin until 25 March 1733, but the other court records will probably be in English. Many later court books (i.e. after 1660) have contemporary indexes.

Where there is a court baron and the descent of copyhold land to be seen to, the books may continue until this form of land tenure was abolished in 1922. In that year all properties that were then copyhold were made into freeholds.


Many courts had disappeared long before 1922 because it had been held at least since the seventeenth century that copyhold could not be newly created. Once there was a change of tenure, from copyhold to leasehold or to freehold, then the copyhold was extinguished, the land was ‘enfranchised’, and it could not be copyhold again.

Copyholders had paid a heavy entry fine and then a nominal annual rent. This, from the sixteenth century, the landlord (the lord of the manor) if he could, had steadily replaced with the more lucrative leasehold.

Agreements between landlords and their tenants enfranchising copyhold lands were, from 1841, assisted by special Copyhold Commissioners and their records and those of the compensation which was agreed and paid following the 1922 Act are in The National Archives.

Records of Courts Baron

As mentioned above, estate and manorial records are very similar. They may both contain the valuable surveys there described. However, the manor had, in addition, the records of the manorial court. These may be quite voluminous and survive from much earlier periods than most estate records.

The court baron recorded four broad categories of business: sales and purchases, inheritances, mortgages, and rentals.

  • Sales and purchases. A sale or purchase was called a surrender and the purchasers were admitted to ‘the use and behoof (i.e. benefit) of’ the property.
  • Inheritances. The copyholders were the ‘customary tenants’ of the lord of the manor, and the customs of the manor might allow for holdings to be inherited or passed from one generation to the next in a number of different ways.
    When a copyholder died, the heirs had to report the death to the court within a year and a day. Failure to do so could, at least in theory, lead to the property being forfeited. If the copyholder had left a will, this was usually produced when the death was reported. Whether or not there was a will, the heirs or devisees (the recipients under the will) had to ‘pray to be admitted’ to the property as tenants. In a few rare cases, such requests were not granted. Some courts recorded the wills in full, some merely mentioned their production.
    Many copyholders were allowed to devise (or bequeath) their lands to the ‘uses’ (i.e. the purposes) specified in their wills. The larger holders would, if possible, get this power confirmed in their lifetimes by surrendering their land to the lord for the uses specified in their wills.
    A woman could be a customary tenant if she inherited land as a widow or spinster. If she married, her property became her husband’s, but the court would not normally allow him to do anything with it without her agreement, she being examined separately for that purpose.
  • Mortgages. Many entries on the court books relate to mortgages and the disputes which arose from them, but the complex transactions are often extremely difficult to understand. For a simple mortgage the copyholder surrendered his property to the use of the mortgagee, who was admitted as the customary tenant, subject to the proviso that the capital sum and interest was paid in the year, otherwise the surrender was void.
  • Rentals. Renting property to an under or sub-tenant was a common practice but few such sub-leases were recorded by the court baron, most being for short periods of a year or less. Rentals for longer periods, typically seven years or multiples of seven years, with the appropriate surrenders and conditional admittances, are normally recorded.

Manorial Register

Because of the importance of manorial records as evidence of title, the Master of the Rolls was, after the 1922 Act, given powers to draw up rules for their control and custody. From this grew the Manorial Documents Register recording their ownership and location which is maintained at The National Archives.

The Register indexes are alphabetical by manor within each county but there is a list by parish of the manors in each. Manorial and estate records and surveys are frequently not in the record offices of the appropriate counties but deposited far from home. The location lists of the Manorial Documents Register, of which some counties are online [1], should lead one to the right repository.


For further details see Peter Park, My ancestors were manorial tenants: how can I find out more about them? (London: Society of Genealogists, 1994) [FHL book 942 D27]; Mary Ellis, Using Manorial Records (Kew, Surrey: Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1994) [FHL book 942 7JJ] and D. Stuart, Manorial records: an introduction to their transcription and translation (Chichester, England: Phillimore, 1992) [not in FHL]. See also the articles An_admission_to_Copyhold Property and English Manorial Court Records as a Source for Eighteenth- and Nineteenth Century Families.

Rates and Taxes

One might think that some indication of the extent and perhaps of the location of a holding of land within a parish might be found from the record of the taxation of that land. However, very few past records of the collection of the irregular county rates seem to survive. What survives is usually the record of the total rateable vale and not of who paid for what.

Poor Rate

Records of the collection of the poor rate may survive in some parishes, if one is very lucky, even from the sixteenth century, though more often from the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

The lists of householders, drawn up by the Overseers of the Poor, do not normally provide more than their names though after 1834 the occupiers also appear, with the amount assessed and collected. As in all local account books here and there will be found mention of houses that, perhaps, have not paid a fair share or have fallen down or been subdivided.

Town Rates

In the towns these rate books, particularly for the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are an extremely important source, typically listing street by street, owners and occupiers, the rental value and the rate paid.

In towns rates were levied not only to pay for the poor but for ‘paving, cleansing, lighting and watching’. Their survival varies enormously from rate to rate, from place to place, and from period to period and it is difficult to generalise about them. Very few have been indexed but whatever rate books survive should always be searched as they invariably give a better picture of the householders than printed trade directories. They are descried in John West, Town Records (Chichester, England: Phillimore, 1983) [FHL book 942 N2].

Land Tax

It is the national or parliamentary taxes, like the Hearth Tax described above, that begin to give a clearer overview of property ownership and occupancy.

The Hearth Tax had been replaced by the Land Tax in 1692, though records from that date are quite rare. However, from 1745 to 1832 duplicate copies of the Land Tax assessments were supposed to be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace in each county as a record of those qualified to vote at elections for members of parliament. This was not done regularly until 1780 when a fine was imposed on those assessors who failed to return the duplicates. In that year printed forms were introduced which record not only the owner but also the occupier. As a result there is usually a good run in most county record offices from 1780 until at least the Reform Act in 1832.

These lists, which follow much the same order year after year. Often start with the larger properties and go down to the smaller one. The farms are named, occupations may appear, and when there is a change of tenancy something like ‘Mrs Lorrimer for late Edward Chapman’, will appear. That wording may, however, be used for several years and it is sometimes little indication of the actual date of death. The returns quickly show, from the number of landowners mentioned, whether the ancestral parish was an open or closed one.

David Iredale, writing in The Amateur Historian [vol. 7, no. 6, pages 182-9] as long ago as 1967, showed in a very practical way how actual properties can be located on the ground with the aid of a tithe map (see below) and then traced back, perhaps a hundred years, by using the Land Tax. This was done with great effect by a group at Ashbourne in Derbyshire to recreate the physical history of that town as is described in Michael Turner and Dennis Mills,Land and Property: the English Land Tax, 1692-1832 (Gloucester, England: Alan Sutton, 1986) [FHL book 942 R2].

However, the returns are not always so helpful. Very large numbers of smaller landholders do not appear and it is sometimes difficult to identify particular holdings because of the way in which ownership was so often scattered across a parish.

The surviving records are listed county by county in Jeremy Gibson, Mervyn Medlycott and Dennis Mills, Land and Window Tax Assessments (Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 1993) [FHL book 942 R4].

Window and House Tax

Running parallel with the Land Tax, the Window and House Tax was first introduced in 1696 and lasted until 1851. When it started every occupier was taxed at two shillings a year, houses with ten or more windows paying an additional eight shillings, though those who did not pay the church or poor rates were exempted. The number of windows at which one started paying the tax changed over time.

These returns survive only sporadically (there are lists in the Gibson Guide mentioned above), though they may usefully pre-date the Land Tax. Like the Land Tax they are arranged in descending order of number of windows so they usually provide no indication as to where the houses were in the parish.

Very occasionally there are returns of the Inhabited House Tax, which commenced in 1777, and in a few places, for example in some parishes in Kent, there are combined registers of window, house, servants, horse and carriage taxes, surviving just for one or two years in the late 1770s or 1780s.


Many are familiar with the above described taxes on land and houses, but there is another record which may be much more valuable because of its application to all types of landholding. This is the record of the collection of tithe by the church. Where detailed tithe records survive over a period of years they can bring a parish to life in a way which few other records do.

The Rector of Therfield kept a note of ‘Tythes due harvest 1718’ for his parish in Hertfordshire, part of a record running from 1701 to 1761. The parishioners are taken roughly in alphabetical order with a note of their acreage. Edward Beal the tenant of Mr Pointer’s 69 acre farm and of other lands, all listed, has ‘orchard, dovehouse, cows, sheep, pigs &c’.

At nearby Walkern there is a record from 1740 to 1814, from which it is possible to reconstruct the tenancy histories of many properties.. With part payments of tithe at Christmas and Lady Day, the record also shows the collection of the customary Easter Offering of four pence. We are helped by an incoming Rector, who in 1776, made a careful survey of the land holdings in the parish. For a farm at Bassetts Green he noted, ‘Richard Collins Tenant, Miss Nichols, Landlady, Rent £10 10s per Annum’, and that, ‘Collins complained that the land was very poor and the measures short. I therefore agreed to consider the whole as only ten acres’ instead of the twelve indicated, 3s 6d being collected for each acre.

The payment of tithe in kind, the administration of which was extremely time consuming and caused great annoyance to everyone concerned, not least the nonconformists, was slowly superseded (as in the last example) by money payments and these in turn, if enclosure took place, were usually replaced by an allocation of land in the parish.

In 1836 the Church of England was obliged to accept the Tithe Commutation Act which replaced any existing tithes (whether paid in cash or in kind) with rent-charge payments. These payments continued to 1936 and were then replaced with annuities which ceased completely in 1996.

The tithe awards and the large scale maps created following the1836 Act are of great importance for the identification of individual properties, listing all the landowners and their tenants in almost eighty per cent of the parishes in England and Wales. They are frequently the earliest large scale maps to survive for any given parish, providing details of field names as well as of land usage at that time. Over sixty per cent of the parishes which were enclosed between 1757 and 1835 got rid of the tithing system when organising the enclosures described above (an allotment of land being given in lieu) and in those cases there will be no separate Tithe Award.

These records are the subject of Roger Kain and Richard Oliver, The Tithe Maps of England and Wales: a cartographic analysis and county by county catalogue (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995) [FHL book 942 E7]. Usually there are copies of the maps both at the appropriate county record office and at The National Archives.

Land Registration

Cities and Boroughs

In the City of London and in many other boroughs where local customs prevailed, transfers of property had, from early times, been enrolled by the city fathers. It was a privilege which was jealously guarded, partly because of the fees involved, well into the nineteenth century and as a result borough towns usually have a more complete record of transfers and leases than elsewhere.

In the City of London, for instance, the Court of Husting enrolled deeds (though not of Corporation property) and wills of citizens. Although the wills have been printed from 1258 to 1688 [Reginald R. Sharpe, Calendar of wills proved and enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, 1258-1688 (2 vols. 1889-90); FHL book 942.1/L1 S2], they and the deeds continue (with a gap 1717-1838) to 1976.

County Registration

Although the 1535 Act allowed for the registration of deeds with the Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions, very few deeds seem to have been registered locally. In Middlesex only one deed survived, written on the cover of a sessions roll in 1594. In Kent, however, there is a register 1596-1672 and at Nottingham a run from 1615 to 1668. Perhaps further away from the influence of the courts in London greater numbers were registered. In Devon the registered deeds start in 1536 and 1,300 were registered in the sixteenth century. In all counties registration petered out in the 1670s.

However, transactions relating to the estates of Roman Catholics were enrolled between 1715 and 1791, when full copies of the deeds and leases involved were recorded and most counties have some later miscellaneous deeds deposited for enrolment.

Public works

In the eighteenth century road diversion plans began to be deposited with Clerks of the Peace and indicate properties adjoining the old and the new roads, often providing the names of the owners and occupiers.

From 1793 all proposed public works like canals, railways, harbours and turnpikes had to be properly surveyed and a plan of the route or location left with the Clerk of the Peace for public inspection. A ‘book of reference’ was usually compiled, giving brief descriptions of the properties affected and the names of their owners and occupiers. Other similar plans may be found amongst the records of the companies that built and ran these works.

These ‘strip’ plans may be found in county record offices for any public utility, including water, gas and electricity undertakings.

Private Acts of Parliament

Many such scheme were promoted by private Acts of Parliament and in these cases copies of the plans, some as detailed as twenty-four inches to the mile, are to be found in the Parliamentary Archives. Many schemes were opposed by local residents and expert witnesses were often employed. The database of witnesses in committees on opposed Private Bills 1771-1917, available at the The Parliamentary Archives (U.K.) but not online, provides access to many of these previously un-indexed records.

Land Registration

It was the lack of evidence of land transactions in the seventeenth century and the problem of raising money on land that led eventually to the foundation of the modern Land Registry (in 1899). The first of many Bills to create a national registry was introduced as early as 1649, but without success.

In 1663, however, a local registry was established for some 90,000 acres of the Fens in East Anglia, an area known as the Bedford Level, which had recently been drained. All conveyances by indenture, except for leases of less than seven years, were recorded until the corporation was abolished in 1920. The resulting 132 volumes of registers are now in the County Record Office at Cambridge.

Middlesex and Yorkshire

In 1701 the Justices of the Peace in the West Riding of Yorkshire petitioned Parliament to set up a registry there, so that the manufacturers of cloth could borrow money against their freehold lands. The clerks in Chancery who were enrolling deeds under the 1515 Act opposed the idea but in 1704 a registry for the West Riding was inaugurated. Similar registries were then created in the East Riding in 1707, in Middlesex in 1708 and in the North Riding in 1735. That for Middlesex included Westminster but not the City of London; those in Yorkshire excluded the City of York. However, proposals to create registries in other places were warmly resisted by the local borough corporations which would have lost their fees.

The resulting registration in Middlesex and Yorkshire was remarkably complete. The only deeds which escaped were leases of less than twenty-one years and those relating to copyhold land. The registration systems in the two counties were very similar. Only ‘memorials’ or short summaries of the deeds were registered. These memorials showed the date, the names and addresses of the parties and of the witnesses, and a description of the land. In general more detail was recorded in Middlesex than in Yorkshire, and in Middlesex the nature of the transaction was generally stated. Plans often appear from about 1800 onwards. However, in Yorkshire deeds of bargain and sale were recorded in full, and in the North Riding from 1735 any deed could be entered in full if the parties wished. There are fairly full annual indexes in each registry but in Middlesex the grantors’ or vendors’ names alone are indexed, in full alphabetical order from 1828, and there is no index of places after 1718. In the one year 1800 the number of registrations in Middlesex was just over 4,000; in 1880 it had grown to 42,250. The records of these local registries are described at length in ‘The deeds registries of Yorkshire and Middlesex’ in the Journal of the Society of Archivists, vi (1980) 174-86 [FHL book 942 B2ja].

Although, as described below, a voluntary national registration was introduced in 1862, these local registries in Middlesex and Yorkshire continued their work. The Middlesex Deeds Registry was not closed until 1938. Its records are now at the London Metropolitan Archives and described in the LMA Information Leaflet Number 38 (2010). The indexes only have been microfilmed 1709-1837 [FHL microfilms 989685-79].

In Yorkshire compulsory registration did not commence until the 1970s and it was only then that the three local registries at Beverley (for the East Riding), Northallerton (for the North Riding) and Wakefield (for the West Riding), were closed, their records now being housed at the record offices in those towns. They have all been microfilmed.

National Registration, 1862 and 1899

In 1862 Parliament established a nationwide but voluntary Land Registry in London for the registration of all titles to freehold or leasehold land. It was a complete failure and by 1899 only 5,021 titles had been registered. In the latter year compulsory registration was, therefore, introduced, firstly in the County of London north of the River Thames, and then progressively in the rest of London and, in the twentieth century, very slowly in other counties.

The Land Registry

‘The object of registering title to land’, as the official leaflet states, ‘is to create and maintain a register of land owners whose title is guaranteed by the State and thus simplify the sale (transfer) and mortgage of such land’. The genealogist should not expect too much of it. Although the Land Registry holds details of about fifteen million properties in England and Wales, this is thought to be only about 68% of the total. Leases of land of twenty-one years or less are not recorded.

The actual Register gives, apart from the Title Plan showing the extent of the registered land, a bare minimum of detail, set out on a page in three sections:

(1) The Property Register identifies ‘the geographical location and extent of the registered property by means of a short verbal description’ which means that it gives its address. To this may be added a note of any rights which may benefit the land, such as a right of way over adjoining land. For leaseholds, brief details of the lease are given.

(2) The Proprietorship Register specifies the quality of the title, whether it is absolute or not, gives the owner’s name and address, and states whether there are any restrictions on his or her power to sell or mortgage the property.

(3) The Charges Register records any mortgage on the property and any other rights and interests to which it is subject, such as leases, rights of way or covenants, restricting its use.

Prior to 1990 these register entries were not open to public inspection but anyone may now inspect them at the appropriate Land Registry and obtain copies. There is a Public Index Map which shows each piece of registered land, its title number, and whether it is freehold or leasehold. Sections of the Index Map (of which there are altogether 425,000, each showing on average about 55 neighbouring properties of which about 35 will be registered) are held in the map stores in each of the twenty-three District Land Registries in England and Wales. These Index Maps may be seen or postal searches made in them without charge. Copies of individual Index Map Sections may also be obtained for a fee. If the land has been registered then copies of the Register Entry and of the Title Plan may be obtained for small fees.

The Land Registry in London publishes various free Explanatory Leaflets including Land Registry Public Guide 1 – A guide to the information we keep and how you can obtain it (available online at http://www1.landregistry.gov.uk/upload/documents/public_guide_001.html).

It should be stressed that there are no indexes by name and that the entries provide no information about title deeds prior to the date of the first registration of the land, only excepting those specifically referred to on the register itself as described above.

Return of Owners of Land (Modern Domesday Book) 1873

In 1873 returns were called for, compiled from local rating records which rarely survive, of those owning more than one acre of land (an area 70 yards square). They showed that although 270,000 people or organisations owned more than an acre, just 7,000 people owned four-fifths of all the land in the United Kingdom. Perhaps three times the first number owed less than an acre but their names were not included.

The printed county sections of this ‘Modern Domesday Book’ for 1873 cover all the United Kingdom except London [FHL book 942 R2L, 2 vols; also MF 1,696,632 item 6; also CR ROM; BYU Harold B Lee Library book Cs 435.09 R48 1992]. The volumes list the owners, their addresses, the total area of land owned within the county and its estimated rental. They do not show where in the county the land was located.

Valuation Office 1910

It was the intention of Prime Minister Lloyd George’s Finance Act of 1910 to partially address the unequal distribution of land and property by taxing, at its sale, any increase in a property’s value which was thought to arise from local amenities that had been provided at public expense. As a fixed basis from which to measure increases in value, a survey was made of the whole of England and Wales between 1910 and 1913. A team of surveyors wrote detailed descriptions and valuations of every house with the names of their owners and tenants (but not necessarily the occupiers) in Field Books (IR 58 at The National Archives) to which key reference is made through some 55,000 Valuation Office Record Maps (IR 121 and IR 124-45) However, the records are not entirely complete. Some additional working maps and valuation books may be found in county record offices but others have been destroyed. The whole expensive idea was a failure and it was abandoned in 1920.

However, the records at The National Archives are a major source for land ownership in that period. See Geraldine Beech and Rose Mitchell, Maps for family and local history (Kew, Surrey: National Archives, 2004) [FHL book 942 E77] and Brian Short, The geography of England and Wales in 1910: an evaluation of Lloyd George’s ‘Domesday’ of landownership (Sussex, England: University of Sussex, 1989) [FHL book 942 R2].


This article has been revised and adapted with permission from three articles by Anthony Camp on 'Land Owners and occupiers in England and Wales' in Family Tree Magazine (UK: http://www.family-tree.co.uk) vol. 16, no. 3 (January 2000) pages 19-21; no. 4 (February 2000) pages 27-28; and no. 5 (March 2000) pages 27-28.