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Breaking the seal: The ownership of land

Updated Monday 20th March 2000

Land records provide a direct link to the upheavals of the past, as Bettany Hughes discovered.

The Long Man of Wilmington in the Sussex Countryside Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Bettany Hughes
From up here it's hard to imagine a more serene picture, but the land that we occupy has always aroused fierce passions. Land may not be the prized commodity it once was, but wars are still fought over it, and we get very hot under the collar about our right to roam or the siting of a new bypass.

History has left us a trail of documents cataloguing battles and negotiations over land use and ownership. Even so, ever since the Doomsday surveys of the 1080s, it's been very difficult to decide who actually owns Britain and, perhaps more significantly, whether we have the right to know who owns what.

In the early Middle Ages, the ultimate owner of all land was the King. He allocated land to his barons in return for their military service. But as time went on, and these lords became established in their manors, they grew more confident and more independent. They even set up their own legal system to rival the King's.

Landlords were constantly trying to assert the autonomy of the local manor, they didn't want the King to interfere, and they didn't want him to know how much they had. When it came to tenants' grievances or disputes over trespass, they would much rather sort it out on their own patch, in the so-called manor courts, rather than have some official of the King decide on the matter.

Kings College in Cambridge had a remarkable set of manorial court documents. I caught up with Phillip Schofield there, to learn more about them. From the mid 1200's the manorial court rolls give us unique insight into Medieval peasant society.

Well you're certainly going to get your money's worth out of this historical document aren't you?

Phillip Schofield
Absolutely. This is 1316, and this is a really, not atypical series of manorial court laws for the lands of the Abbey of Beck which are literally quite extensive. What you're actually seeing here is a presentation of manorial courts over a couple of years.

Bettany
So what specific cases does this roll deal with?

PhillipWell it deals with the typical range of material you would find in the manorial courts so that, for example, you would have entries dealing with people trespassing on the Lord's field, failing to maintain their ditches, letting animals wander. That sort of thing. You would also have transfers of land, registration of land, making sure he knows who his tenants are, and where the lands pass between them.

Bettany
Presumably though there were disputes over inheritance?

Phillip
There were certainly conflicts between peasants over this, I mean the tenants dispute over who has the right and for example if you go up to this court at Bledloe, another of the Beck manors. We can see there we've got quite a nice dispute going on where a husband and wife turn up and claim that the wife has claim to the land, through two generations of her own family. And they claim the land against someone called Hugo Bryan. Hugo comes into the court and defends this right, he says that the wife, her name is Matilda, has no real right to the land because her mother was a bastard and therefore the land shouldn't descend to her because bastards didn't have a right to inherit. And he wins, the jury supports him, so he keeps hold of the land and they lose.

Bettany
Extraordinarily, these manorial court rolls remain legal documents, right up until the 1920s. Today, in a country of owner occupiers we think of land owning rights as absolute. In the Middle Ages, it was different. There were far fewer land owners and they were more powerful, but they also had traditional obligations to sustain the local community. The manor was the heart of every Medieval community and every manor had its Lord.

Dr Harold Fox
Theoretically, every part of the manor was the Lord's property and I think this would also apply to the wind above the manor. So, when the wind turned the sails of a windmill, that was the Lord's property being used.

Bettany
Earls Colne in Essex is one of the best documented villages in England. There are records of its history going back over 500 years. What they make clear is that although the Lord did own everything, the villagers did expect to buy certain customary rights to use the land.

Bettany
Sarah Harrison is one of a team that created a website of all the existing records.

Sarah Harrison
Colne Priory owned Chalkley Wood, every single twig. There is for example, 8 pence for the underbrush, those are the twigs and so on, so to Simon Buckyer this year in the woods of Chalkley and of 14 pence was the bark there. So for William Sealey this year …

Bettany
So underbrush, that would be used for kindling and things?

Sarah
That's right - or even fencing - twigs and what-have-you were used for fencing. The 6 and 8 pence, as the farmer in Chalkley, was let to John Wheeler, bastor of Holstead.

Bettany
What is bast?

Sarah
Bast is the inner bark of mainly the lime tree.

Simon Leatherdale
Well you just cut this in order to separate the bast from the outer bark, and then it's a question of peeling the bast or bask.

Bettany
Simon Leatherdale works for the forest enterprise, he is busy returning Chalkley Wood to what it might have been like centuries ago.

Simon
That's a piece of bast and it would have been twisted to form ropes. The local economy had to have this wood. If it didn't have this wood, there would be no local economy. The local people would have no form of heating and buildings, they would have no fencing materials, they would have no building material, so they absolutely depended on it in the literal sense.

Bettany
In Suffolk now, to look at a disused military airbase of all things. Today, voicing rights and how land is used often has more to do with controversial planning issues. The Bentwaters airfield near Rendlesham may be developed into an international airport. And many local residents are unhappy about it. Two of its opponents are Rachel Bridges and Michael Flint.

Michael Flint
Well this is the Bentwaters airfield that the Americans established at the beginning of the Cold War. At first the Americans merely took over the old RAF facilities, but they have grown and built and it is now an absolutely enormous site. But the land has recently been bought by a series of overseas corporations, owned ultimately by a family of Lebanese jewellers, who live in Bangkok and they want to make this an international airpark with a take off about every 3 minutes throughout the day. You know, we have a huge tourist industry here, and you can't have planes flying low, taking off and landing all the time without upsetting tourists.

Bettany
Michael and Rachel are sure the redevelopment can be stopped if they can prove there was common land here which the community had to give up for the airfield.

Michael
We know what's happened over the last 30 years, it's been an airbase and now it isn't. We want to know what's happened for 100 years.

Bettany
Well, if the supporters of the scheme argue historical precedent, why shouldn't Michael and Rachel? We'll catch up with them later.

So much of Medieval Suffolk was owned by the church and, as I drove through it with Phillip Schofield, I began to realise just how much the ownership and use of our land has changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, there was an open field system by which the common people rented strips from the lord and farmed them in unfenced fields. It was an arrangement that lasted for centuries.

I suppose the first big sign of change in ownership came in 1536 when Henry VIII started to close monasteries. He took away their lands and the abbeys fell into ruins. like this one at Bury. If you look at the documents of that time, you can see that, whilst existing landowners increased their stake, there were also new types of land owner such as merchants and lawyers.

But the biggest change was undoubtedly enclosure. Ever since the Middle Ages, a gradual process of fencing off and hedging fields had been underway. It happened more in certain parts of the country than others, but by the mid 1700s enclosure was stepping up a gear.

Dr Brian Short
The impact on the landscape was enormous. The Midlands in particular were severely affected by enclosure. It was the great landscape reshaper. Many poor and small farmers lost out at that time - they were often given allotments which were uneconomic, and they sold them out and became a kind of landed proletariat who, thereafter, had to sell their own labour for money, rather than having land to live off. So it affected enormously both the landscape and society at the time.

Bettany
I hear Aylesbury has some pretty good enclosure records, showing just how things changed. Enclosure replaced the strip field system. But what happened when the strips disappeared? Leigh Shaw-Taylor is the man with the answers.

Leigh
This is drawn up in 1799, a map of Weston Turville just south of Aylesbury. Prior to the enclosure, there were three very large open fields. One here, one here and one here, and a small one down here.

Bettany
So big field but still with the tiny strips.

Leigh
That's right. So, as a result of enclosure, the Commissioners, having decided who had what land and what rights, then reallocated people, consolidated lots of land. Elizabeth Saunders for instance gets this big rectangular piece of land here, the Mercer Company get this block here, and here, and another piece here - they're big land owners, Marquis of Buckingham this one here.

Bettany
The perceived wisdom is that enclosure took away the farming rights of the peasantry. This isn't strictly true. By the 1750s enclosure was regulated by government. You needed an Act of Parliament and about 4,000 such acts were passed by 1810.

As part of the process, a committee would visit your village to establish who had common right dwellings. The cottages owned or rented, with rights to use the land. Leigh followed up a number of these. Robert Fitkin owned one cottage. His tenant, James Burnham was a labourer and he would have lost his rights to land with enclosure. But interestingly, he was untypical. Only 6 of this village's 50 labourers had common land rights. And what you don't have to begin with, you can't lose.

Bettany
And so who are the winners, I mean who's really benefiting from this situation?

Leigh
Definitely the big landlords, who get higher rents, rents can double at enclosure, and probably farmers, the more substantial farmers.

Bettany
And can you still see the physical effects of this in Weston Turville today?

Leigh
Very much so. The landscape of Weston Turville is very much the one created by the Georgian enclosure.

Bettany
Leigh and I then headed off to find Robert Fitkin's common right cottage.

Leigh
You often get a lot of new roads laid out across the fields and so on, or where the fields were. Within the villages the layout seems to be much the same.

Bettany
I find it amazing that six million acres were enclosed. That's half the villages in the country.

Leigh
Here we are.

Bettany
So what are we looking for on the map now?

Leigh
Well, we're just approaching where this roundabout now is, was the village green, and we need to go left here. And in 1798, set back on the right hand side of the road we're about to turn into, were 5 cottages and that one we can see is the first one beyond the pub. The pub's more recent and it's been built in front of these other buildings. The green was wider, that's the second one.

Bettany
Do you think it's this half timbered one?

Leigh
They're both half timbered so it's not immediately obvious which is the older of these two.

Bettany
Hello.

Leigh
We're looking at the 1798 enclosure land, we think this might be the house that belonged to the carpenter called Robert Fitkin.

House owner
I certainly bought the house off a Fitkin, Benjamin, who claimed to be an architect but I think he was really a jobbing builder. The Robert I don't know. That was over 40 years ago.

Bettany
Gosh, because the one that we are looking at would have been alive 200 years ago.

Leigh
Well this must be the house although is this is this two houses.

House owner
This is two houses. I bought it as two separate houses and made it into one.

Bettany
So it probably is it, isn't it?

Leigh
Yeah, it's one of the two anyway.

Bettany
We're going to go and see if we can find any closed fields now.

Incredible that! There were Fitkins living in that cottage for over 200 years.

Leigh
If you walk down here we should come to where the middle field used to be before the enclosure.

Bettany
So they are really quite useful maps like this, even in a modern village?

Leigh
We can still use this map to find our way round the village and the footpath still cuts diagonally across this field here which is exactly how it's shown on the enclosure commissioners' map of 1799. So 200 years, it hasn't shifted at all.

Bettany
It's very good, it's still a footpath.

Leigh
And exits in the far, far corner. So this field is just as it was laid out by the enclosure commissioners and here we are. This is the ridge and furrow right here - can you see the ridge?

Bettany
Absolutely.

Leigh
And you see them repeated. Each one of these was one of the strips we're looking at. Or like one of the strips we were looking at on the map of Silbury, and looking in that direction there would have been not a hedge in sight.

Bettany
Right.

Leigh
But just hundreds and hundreds of these strips at various orientations.

Bettany
So how come these strips have survived enclosure?

Leigh
Well, these strips are actually made originally by people ploughing round the strip, and ploughing up one side and down the other, and the plough's turning the soil into the middle, and people did that repeatedly for hundreds of years. Now this field has been put down to pasture immediately after enclosure, so it's not been ploughed, and because it's been pasture ever since this pattern has never been disturbed.

Bettany
Is it possible to say generally whether they were a good or bad thing?

Leigh
Depends very much who you were I think. It was very clearly a very good thing for landlords and farmers - for labourers it's much more of a mixed bag. There are six labourers here who lost common rights to enclosure, and that was probably catastrophic, but a much larger group who didn't have any, and it very much depends on whether employment went up here afterwards or went down. In the long run, it's inconceivable that agriculture could have stayed in the state that it was and would still be there 200 years later.

Bettany
Meanwhile Michael and Rachel continue the fight against the airport. At the Public Record Office they are trying to find out how the land which became Bentwaters airfield was used in the past.

Michael
So this is the tithe map of 1840 of Rendlesham parish which you thought might be a good idea to look at. I suggest what we try and do is we try and find Walnut Tree Farm, because we know that's in the middle of the present Bentwater site. There's Walnut Tree Farm …

Rachel Bridges
And that's been completely consumed by the airport …

Michael
So what we can see from this is, very sadly, there was no common land in 1840. OK.

Bettany
They then turned to a survey commissioned in 1910 by the Liberal Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

Michael
Let's see if we can find the one that's got Walnut Tree Farm.

Rachel
There it is, there is Walnut Tree Farm. Look - two walnut cottages.

Michael
Splendid.

Rachel
That's how it got its name.

Michael
That's fascinating - that makes the search worth the effort. But otherwise it's all the same isn't it - no changes at all. It's incredible.

Rachel
And of course this area was littered literally with various local faces, all up the wall. And most of it has now been ground up and returned to agricultural use.

Michael
So what did we find? No common land. If only we could have had common land then we would have had the same arguments as they had at Greenham Common, which succeeded there. Well, we must fight on other battle fields but there are no surprises here, that's one thing.

Bettany
Well, Michael and Rachel must now pin their hopes on the report which the local council has commissioned into how the airfield should be used in the future.

Well into the 1800s, land was wealth and status. It gave you power locally and, more likely than not, nationally. Landowners dominated government. If you weren't a landowner it was virtually impossible to get a peerage. And if you didn't have land and wealth you couldn't even vote. But things started to change during Victoria's reign. Certain reformers argued that too much land was concentrated in the hands of too few people, but they didn't have hard facts to back up their case. In the 1870s the Prime Minister, Lord Derby, vehemently denied their claim and to prove his point he commissioned a survey of land ownership throughout the British Isles.

The survey of 1872 listed by county all the people who owned land. How much they had, and what it was worth. He also produced a massive indigestible statistics which needed someone to analyse them.

Brian
When the survey was actually looked at by a man called John Bateman, whose book of the acre-ocracy of England was published two or three years later after the survey was done, what he actually came up with was the notion that something like 25% of the land of England and Wales was actually owned by about 700 great people . And that a huge proportion of the land was owned by something like a few thousand people . So it was actually, it boomeranged back on him and really it did show that at that time still, landed wealth was very, very prominent.

Bettany
The Derby Survey made crystal clear what many had believed. The political fall-out was enormous. In the 1880s the renewed demands for electoral change lead to the third Reform Act of 1884-5. 60% of all men, two thirds of them working class, were given the vote. Democratic power was supplanting the landowners forever. As Disraeli predicted, the politics of the next few years would be dominated by a tax on the landed interest.

I'm off to Scotland, where some of the largest estates would be found. There is no doubt that land owners were in a crisis at the end of the 19th century. There might only be a few powerful families, but they were worried. Worried by global food production, and a new rich buying into land, and by liberal reformers who, spurred on by the results of the Derby survey, might do something radical.

The land owners were nervous. They could see a weakening of the traditional link between land owning and political power. By 1910, a Liberal Prime Minister. David Lloyd George, decided they were ripe for plucking.

Professor Roy Campbell
Lloyd George's idea was to value the land, in 1909 or thereafter, and tax any appreciation in the capital value thereafter. The landlords were politically unpopular among advanced liberal opinion, so that's why he wanted his survey.

Bettany
The entries in the survey are detailed. Take this one for the Earl of Galloway.

Roy
Galloway House, parks, house, offices and garden lodges, cottages, and garden, smithy, sawmill and part of woodlands and shooting, everything. And you turn over the page, gallery, house, back to the grandeur, dining room, double library, drawing room, boudoirs, private chapel, billiard room, several sitting rooms, nurseries, over 30 bedrooms (wow, lost count!). Now that was still carrying on, the grandeur was there, but I can point out when you look at the financial records, they're under pressure.

Bettany
The Galloway rent ledger showed there was a problem with one of the tenant farmers that seemed to sum it all up.

Roy
At the beginning of 1895, 100 years ago, the tenant was in arrears to the tune of £741.00. At the end of the year £796.00. The end of 1896, £867, 1897, £923. Arrears were rising.

Bettany
Now that surprises me, I have to say, because I am interested that they are allowed to get away with that. Because you think of the landlord tenant relationship as being a much harsher one, that if you didn't pay up your rent, you're out.

Roy
Well, sometimes that happened, but what I'm trying to point out is that at another sight when you get beneath the obvious and beneath the political propaganda which was growing at the time.

Here's an example, that same tenant, writing in 1899 when his arrears were coming up on £1000: "I am sorry to say that I will not be able to make a large payment at the end of the month, owing to missing the sale of my cattle last autumn, and no prospect of selling before the May markets". A little later: "I am informed that you give tiles for drains when the tenants open them up". So you can see he's not paying off his rent, the arrears are mounting, but he still expects the land owner to provide the assistance he needs.

Bettany
It's interesting that Lloyd George should then commission his survey out of which he hoped to make a lot of money.

Roy
Yes, but it's interesting that the affluent land owners were usually those who had non agricultural or non land resources. If you were solely dependent on agricultural land and it wasn't proper quality, then you were in difficulties.

Brian
It's very interesting that Winston Churchill, who was working side by side with Lloyd George as a liberal, as he was in those days, referred to it as the weeping of the dismal dukes. But they were very worried that there were people within the liberal ranks who would like to see that survey or the results of that, a full list of who owned what and how much it was worth, being used in the future for land nationalisation.

Bettany
That of course never happened. But the Galloway estate was typical of estates all over the country which, faced with rising costs, falling income and death duties, were broken up and sold. Mind you, looked at as a whole, the 20th century didn't see massive changes in ownership that you might have expected. Arguably it's our land records, and what they don't tell us, that have protected the landlords' interests.

It's only been since 1994 that land owners have been legally required to register their land and only then when it changes hands. Of course, that doesn't include huge tracts of the country that have been owned by the same institutions for generations. It's also only since the 1990s that the public have had access to who owns what, here at the Land Registry - and even now there is no record of what the land is worth. As the centuries have progressed, the land owners have become increasingly good at keeping that information to themselves.

A couple of months on, and at last Suffolk postal district council has published the report of the enquiry it commissioned into the local military base. Rachel and Michael are delighted with it.

Michael
Rachel, wait 'til you see this. Although securing economic benefits for the community is a laudable aim, there is no evidence to suggest that these benefits could be delivered only by an airport development. Other less intrusive and less harmful options for reusing the base should be explored.

Rachel
That says it all.

Michael
Now does this mean it's all over?

Rachel
No it doesn't, because the planning committee and the four councils have to decide whether to accept it.

Bettany
At 7 o'clock they attend a meeting to hear whether the council will accept the report.

(At the meeting a vote is taken)

Bettany
So, the airpark on the Bentwater site will not now go ahead.

 

 

Michael
I think the word was out that the decision had been taken and therefore the people who were very much in favour of an airport didn't bother to show up, and I think they're quite sensible.

Rachel
There is a real possibility that we can help to restore perhaps something of the heath of the forest and indeed the very profitable agriculture that went on there.

Michael
Greenham Common is the nearest example we have where there was an old American airbase which turned into a successful science park or industrial zone and there is no reason why that shouldn't happen here.

Bettany
The pressure on land usage today is enormous. The demand for houses, motorways and out of town shopping has made knowledge of the ownership of land all the more valuable. It's an astonishing thought that perhaps more was known about who owned what at the time of the Doomsday Book than is known today.

But there may come a time when the simple need to know who owns this cramped island forces a future government to compile a 21st century Doomsday survey. Digitally of course!

 

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