Friday, October 30, 2020

Who Owns England? "A guide to Modern Domesdays"

 I could have used a Ukrainian Domesday book last week when asking about farmland ownership and avoided tumbling down the neo-Nazis and Victoria Nuland and the Maidan rabbit hole..

From Who Owns England:

“The King [held] a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out… what, or how much, each man had, who was an occupier of land in England, either in land or in stock, and how much money it were worth.”

So speaks the Ango-Saxon Chronicle on the compilation of Domesday Book by William the Conqueror – the greatest swag-list ever created. Having seized all England for the Crown after the Conquest, the king was in his counting-house, counting out all his money.

It’s unusual that what is essentially a government tax assessment should still be remembered by the bulk of the population a thousand years after it was carried out. But then, Domesday is unusual. It was an unprecedented piece of documentation, unparalleled in Europe at the time, and to this day remains a legal document that is still valid as evidence of title to land.

Curiously, however, people have forgotten about England’s Modern Domesdays. At least four times in the past two centuries, governments have carried out comprehensive appraisals of who owns England. The record books, maps and valuation tables that make up these surveys are far more relevant to who currently owns this island than the scrawlings of a Norman king. Yet they lie gathering dust in our national archives, hidden from view, forgotten. This is a guide to the Modern Domesdays.

1) Tithe maps (1830s-40s)

Since before the Norman Conquest, it had become customary for peasants to pay to the Church one-tenth of their produce, levied in kind. This continued, despite the Reformation, up until modern times. Then in 1836, the Tithe Commutation Act allowed tithes to be paid in cash rather than in goods. This necessitated the creation of accurate maps of all land, including who owned it and who occupied it.

Some of the tithe maps that were created made use of the earliest series of Ordnance Survey maps, drawn up during the Napoleonic Wars. Others were the first detailed maps of their area in existence. As a result, they varied in quality considerably. About 1,900 of the maps – one-sixth of the total drawn up – were ‘sealed’ by the Tithe Commissioners, denoting them to be very accurate. The rest were a mixed bag, ranging from half-decent maps to sketches. Even so, they remain valuable records, because of what accompanied them: Tithe Apportionments, ledgers setting out the owners and occupiers of each field and parcel of land. Today they reside in the National Archives; a few counties have digitised their tithe maps and put them online, but not many (e.g. Cheshire, East Sussex, Norfolk).


Tithe maps were, therefore, the first attempt since the original Domesday to survey the owners and occupiers of all land in England and Wales. Though to modern ears the concept of Church tithes sounds medieval, the appearance of the Tithe Maps in the 1840s were a sign of modernity: the replacement of feudal dues with the cash economy, the use of modern military cartographic methods to map out the lie of the land. Meanwhile, the Victorian state was taking an increasing interest in monitoring its burgeoning population through ten-yearly censuses, with the 1841 Census being the first to record the names of all individuals in a dwelling. This, unwittingly, was to sow the seeds for the second Domesday of modern times.

2) The Return of Owners of Land (1873-5)

The 1861 Census provoked a commotion amongst radicals, as its records seemed to show there were just 30,000 ‘owners of land’ in the whole country – though without revealing how much each owned.

The 15th Earl of Derby – himself a major landowner, and the son of the former Conservative Prime Minister – sought to disprove these claims. Addressing the House of Lords on 19th February 1872, he asked the Lord Privy Seal, “Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to take any steps for ascertaining accurately the number of Proprietors of Land or Houses in the United Kingdom, with the quantity of land owned by each?”

An accurate survey would be a public service, Derby went on, for currently there was a “great outcry raised about what was called the monopoly of land, and, in support of that cry, the wildest and most reckless exaggerations and misstatements of fact were uttered as to the number of persons who were the actual owners of the soil.”

Viscount Halifax, responding for the Government, agreed, opining that “For statistical purposes, he thought that we ought to know the number of owners of land in the United Kingdom, and there would be no difficulty in obtaining this information.” (My emphasis.)

edward_stanley_15th_earl_of_derby 1stviscounthalifax

Above: The 15th Earl of Derby, left; Viscount Halifax, right.

Halifax duly tasked the Local Government Board with preparing a Return of Owners of Land. The Return was not produced by sending out surveyors, like the original Domesday, but by compiling and checking statistics already gathered on land and property ownership for the purposes of the Poor Law. This in itself was no mean feat: as is noted in the preface to the Return, “upwards of 300,000 separate applications had to be sent to the clerks in order to clear up questions in reference to duplicate entries”. No maps were made, but addresses were recorded.

The Return of Owners of Land was finally published, “after considerable but unavoidable delay”, in July 1875. (You can browse the c.1,000 pages of Vol 1 on Google Books, here). Its initial conclusions gave heart to the landed governing classes: there were, in fact, some 972,836 owners of land in England & Wales, outside of London. Yet 703,289 were owners of less than an acre, leaving 269,547 who owned an acre or above. Even this, the clerks pointed out, was likely an overestimate, based on county-level figures: anyone who owned land in multiple counties would be double-counted.

It fell to an author and country squire, John Bateman, to interpret and popularise the Return. In 1876 he published The Acre-Ocracy of England in which he summarised the owners of 3,000 acres and above. It became a best-seller, going through four editions and updates, culminating in Bateman’s last work on the subject in 1883, The Great Land-Owners of Great Britain and Ireland. Bateman’s analysis confirmed the radicals’ worst fears: just 4,000 families owned over half the country. Meanwhile, 95% of the population owned nothing at all. The landed elite had been exposed....


I was going to link to this version of "The Great Land-Owners..." but on second thought the presentation of the version in the text above is easier on the eyes.