How to look for records of... Land requisitioned for war

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1. Introduction

The law dictionary definition of requisitioning is ‘demanding necessaries for a military force’. In this sense, the impressment of horses and the billeting and victualling demands which have been made by armies in all eras may be considered requisitioning. However, it was only during the twentieth century, and particularly during the two world wars, that the impact of warfare on all aspects of government resulted in widespread requisitioning of land and buildings, both for military purposes and for civilian functions directed at the war effort, especially food production. The development of air warfare in the First World War created an urgent need for extensive pieces of flat land for airfields, and much land was requisitioned in advance of being purchased.

Although records in The National Archives include much material on the requisitioning of property during the two world wars, there is no single consolidated and comprehensive list of such property. Much of what survives relates to applications for compensation and to assessments of the value of requisitioned real estate.

Most government departments took an interest in the requisitioning of property for one reason or another and in the subsequent payments of compensation. Searches of Discovery, our catalogue, using such terms as ‘requisition’, ‘compensation’, or ‘acquisition’, together with an appropriate date range, will produce many other potentially useful references in addition to those cited in this Research Guide.

2. First World War: the legislative framework

Although there had been a number of statutes governing the purchase and / or leasing of lands for military purposes (of which the principal still in force in 1914 were the Defence Act 1842 and the Military Lands Act 1892), the first large-scale requisitioning of land for government purposes took place during the First World War. Successive Defence of the Realm Acts from 1914 onward gave the government wide-ranging coercive powers during wartime, and the Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act 1916 provided specifically for the requisitioning of land. Land was requisitioned for airfields, allotments and accommodation for government departments. The Office of Works carried out work for other government departments on land acquisition and the erection and conversion of buildings for wartime purposes.

The Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act 1916 provided that questions as to compensation or to the purchase price of land were to be settled by a panel of referees appointed by the Railway and Canal Commission. This panel became known as the Land Values Reference Committee.

The Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act 1919 provided a mechanism for resolving disputes over payments to owners after the end of the war.

3. First World War: records in The National Archives

War Office files on the Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act 1916 are in WO 32/2655-2663.

Acquisition and Valuation of Land Committee, 1917-1919: records, including agendas, minutes and circulated papers of both the main committee and the sub-committees considering compensation, mines and transfers of lands are in LCO 3.

Land Values Reference Committee: the register of references to arbitration of cases under the Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act 1916 and the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act 1919 fills eighteen volumes and covers the period 1919 to 1947: LT 5/21-36, LT 5/46-7.

Numerous Treasury files discuss policy and practice, including:

  • Acquisition and Valuation of Land Committee: T 1/12308 (paper 15534); T 1/12338 (paper 25275); T 1/12446 (paper 3117)
  • Compensation claims, 1920-1921: T 161/81/2 (file S.6363)
  • Work of the official arbitrator in disputed cases, 1929-1930: T 163/41/10

Post-war files of applications, orders, etc, made to the Railway and Canal Commission under the Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Acts 1916 and 1920 are in J 75.

Ministry of Reconstruction files on the post-war disposal of War Office land, buildings and other property are in RECO 1.

4. Second World War: the legislative framework

In anticipation of the coming war, the Directorate of Lands and Accommodation of the Ministry of Works in 1938 set up a central register of accommodation, which was used during and after the Second World War in the acquisition and requisitioning of land and buildings for the service departments and in the allocation of accommodation for civil servants.

During the Second World War, land was requisitioned under the Defence (General) Regulations 1939 made under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939. The need for compensation was recognised from the outset, and compensation was assessed under the Compensation (Defence) Act 1939.

The Second World War saw the enactment of a number of other statutes granting various powers to acquire land for government use or for the support of the war effort. Among these were:

  • Agriculture (Miscellaneous War Provisions) Acts, 1940 and 1941
  • Landlord and Tenant (Requisitioned Land) Acts 1942 and 1944
  • Requisitioned Land and War Works Act 1944
  • Town and Country Planning Act 1944

During the Second World War, a total of 14.5 million acres of land, 25 million square feet of industrial and storage premises and 113,350 holdings of non-industrial premises were requisitioned by the State. (First Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, 1947: House of Commons Sessional Papers 1946-47 (96) VI. ) The War Office alone requisitioned 580,847 acres between 1939 and 1946. (WO 32/16666, paper no 41A.) Land and buildings were requisitioned for an enormous range of uses, including battle training areas, airfields (both civil and military), mines, habitable buildings for persons inadequately housed, railways, oil pipelines, underground deep shelters, fire services, factories, schools, hospitals etc.

The requisitioning of land for military purposes often seemed to conflict with another of the government’s principal objectives, namely the maximisation of food production. Much agricultural land was requisitioned, and while it was decided in principle that where an entire farm was given over to the military it should be excluded from the National Farm Surveys, the National Farm Survey records do contain incidental information about requisitioning (see below).

In 1939, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries was empowered to create County War Agricultural Executive Committees (CWAECs) throughout the country. These committees were empowered to control and direct agricultural production in wartime and, to that end, to take possession of land, and to requisition, inspect and enter property. The records of the CWAECs are in MAF 80 and are likely to contain information about the effect of military requisitioning.

After the end of the War, a number of provisions deriving from the requisitioning of land were made:

  • Requisitioned Land and War Works Acts 1945 and 1948
  • Town and Country Planning Act 1947
  • Agriculture Act 1947
  • Requisitioned Land and War Works (Compensation)Act: the Government Oil Pipe-Lines Regulations, 1948
  • Town and Country Planning Acts 1944 and 1948 (Registration of Orders and list of Buildings) Rules 1948
  • Land Powers (Defence) Act (Registration of Way-Leave Orders etc) Rules, 1958

During the later part of the Second World War, and after the War, the Ministry of Works dealt with the derequisitioning of property taken over for government use, as well as with compensation claims in respect of requisitioned property, the disposal of surplus buildings and stores, the removal of temporary defence works on private land and the restoration of the land. Requisitioned land on which development of permanent value had taken place was acquired formally, as were cross-country oil pipelines.

After the termination of hostilities, it was decided that some of the land requisitioned to increase food production should be retained for agricultural purposes, and under Part V of the Agriculture Act 1947 the Minister of Agriculture acquired powers to compel purchase of any requisitioned land which was not sold voluntarily to him, in order to maintain its full and efficient use for agriculture. Such land was then managed by the Agricultural Land Commission, set up under the Act, until it was decided that it was appropriate to dispose of the Ministry’s interest in it.

During the 1950s, and in particular after the Crichel Down inquiry of 1954, it was government policy that land held by the Ministry should be sold and that forestry land should be transferred to the Forestry Commission. Although Crichel Down was not strictly speaking a case of requisitioning (the site was purchased by the Air Ministry in 1940), the public interest aroused by its post-war disposal resulted in the setting up of a public inquiry: the records of the inquiry itself are in MAF 236; other series containing relevant records include AIR 2, AIR 19, CRES 35, CRES 44, MAF 109, MAF 140, MAF 142, MAF 227 and MAF 245.

5. Second World War: records in The National Archives

Perhaps the most informative series of records about individual cases is WORK 50, the Government Property Registers. These include (WORK 50/23-29) requisition, compensation and settlement registers relating to property taken over by the state during the Second World War in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey. Similar registers relating to other counties do not survive. The registers give addresses of requisitioned premises; names and addresses of claimants (usually owners) and agents/solicitors; the government department which used the premises; dates of requisition, derequisition and claim for compensation; amount of claim and sum agreed.

The list below sets out some of the other major sources among the records.

5.1 Military

Air Ministry files about requisitioning, derequisitioning and compensation are in AIR 2/16897-16912.

HLG 102 includes post-war files about compensation for and disposal of requisitioned land. HLG 102/291 is about claims for increased compensation under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act 1945 as opposed to the Compensation (Defence) Act 1939.

A register of cases heard before the General Claims Tribunal set up under the Compensation (Defence) Act 1939 and subsequent Acts is in LT 7. A small selection of case files is in LT 6. Both these series include material relating to requisitioning and damage by civil as well as military departments.

MAF 48 contains a number of files about the requisitioning of agricultural or common land, and about compensation for wartime allotments.

The records of the National Farm Survey contain references to the requisitioning of land for military purposes. For more information about these records, see the research guide, National farm surveys of England and Wales, 1940-1943.

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Divisional Office records in MAF 145-149, MAF 157-182 include numerous files about the requisitioning and derequisitioning of land.

Records of the War Works Commission which was established under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act 1948 are in T 180. They include a number of individual case files.

Files of the Treasury Land and Buildings Division in T 226 cover such subjects as compensation for compulsory acquisition, and the Requisitioned Land and War Works Acts 1945 and 1948.

Registered files of the Treasury Solicitor in TS 46 relate to case work undertaken on behalf of the War Office. The files relate to transactions, claims and advice across a broad range of topics including matters arising from wartime requisition of land, buildings and horses for defence purposes, and arbitration in disputed valuations. Post-war claims for damage to property arising from derequisitioning are also included in the series.

A substantial number of files, some dating as late as the 1970s, relating to the derequisitioning of buildings and lands and to compensation paid by the War Office is in WO 32 (see especially code 5A).

5.2 Agricultural

MAF 142 contains files about the outworking of the Agriculture Act 1947, especially section 85 which relates to the serving of notices and certificates for the acquisition of requisitioned land (for example, MAF 142/111 and MAF 142/402).

MAF 143 includes a number of post-war files about land requisitioned by CWAECs. MAF 143/49 contains a schedule of requisitioned common land. MAF 285 contains records concerned with the disposal of requisitioned land under Part V of the Agriculture Act 1947, and includes material relating to methods of disposal of individual pieces of land and buildings and the Land Settlement Association, which managed small holdings on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

5.3 Extinguishing of public rights of way

Many rights of way were closed on requisitioned lands. See the records listed in section 6 of our Public rights of way research guide.

6. Requisitioning of land since the Second World War

Detailed statistics of land held by the War Office down to 1965 are in WO 32/16666.

A number of other government departments have continued to acquire land since 1945. A search of our catalogue using ‘requisitioned land’ and an appropriate range of dates will indicate the wide range of material which has been deposited in The National Archives.

7. Further reading

Successive editions of the Manual of Emergency Legislation (published by HMSO) are useful compendia of relevant statutes effective in the First World War. A set covering the years 1914 to 1919 is in The National Archives Library (343.01).

S.M. Krusin and P.H. Thorold Rogers, The Solicitors’ Handbook of War Legislation (London, 1940), is a useful compendium of relevant statutes effective in the Second World War, also in The National Archives’ Library (343.01).

An interesting case study is Patrick Wright, The Village that Died for England: The Strange Story of Tyneham (London, revised edition 2002) in The National Archives’ Library (942 Dorset).

Gerry Rubin, Private Property, Government Requisition and the Constitution in 1914-1927. (London, 1994) available in The National Archives’ Library (341.66.RUB).

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 128