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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.
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 , 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.
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.
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].
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. However, in 1798 the government offered taxpayers a chance to redeeem their Land Tax by making a lump sum payment. A uniform set of records was compiled listing all the payers in England and Wales that year [IR 23 in The National Archives]. The list, arranged by parish, is not indexed by name, but against the entries of those who redeemed their tax (and a large proportion of the population began to do so) are numbers in red ink that may be linked to the Redemption Certificates [also in The National Archives]. It has recently been noted that by linking the master set of the returns to the certificates it is possible to identify all the various properties of a given person. That may have great value for the genealogist in tracing movement and/or identifying persons of the same name See R. W. Hoyle, 'Who owned Earls Colne in 1798 ... or how to squeeze more from the Land Tax' in The Local Historian, vol. 11, no. 4 (November 2011) pages 267-277.
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; 2nd ed. 2004].
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.