Historical and legislative background of the Manorial Documents Register

The 1922 Law of Property Act brought to an end the last meaningful function of manorial courts through the abolition of the form of land tenure known as ‘copyhold’.

However, since proof of title to former copyhold land could still depend upon the account of the admission and surrender contained within the books and rolls of a manor court, it was essential that these records should not be lost or destroyed. The Act therefore reserved to all persons with an interest in enfranchised land a statutory right of access to the original court rolls or books of the manor concerned.

To ensure that these and other manorial documents were properly preserved an amendment to the Act (section 144A) made in 1924 placed them under the charge and superintendence of the Master of the Rolls. The Master of the Rolls was also authorised by the statute to make Rules giving effect to this charge.

For the purposes of the rules, manorial documents were defined as “court rolls, surveys, maps, terriers, documents and books of every description relating to the boundaries, wastes, customs or courts of a manor”, but excluded “deeds or other instruments required for evidencing title to a manor or agreements or draft agreements relating to compensation, or any documents which came into being after 31st December 1925”.

The Master of the Rolls issued the first Manorial Documents Rules in 1926. At the same time he ordered a register to be kept recording the individual nature and location of the documents concerned.

A Manorial Documents Committee was established in 1925 and at the request of the committee the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries supplied details of known records from its files under the Copyhold Acts, and the Chief Inspector of Inland Revenue asked local tax inspectors for similar information, which they derived mainly from income tax schedules.

Their returns, which comprise lists of manors and details of ownership of title, are held here under the reference HMC 5/6-8. They are available for public inspection. They were not intended to be a complete record of the existence, or ownership of manors and should not be treated as such.

As a result of the information received from these lists, and from responses to advertisements placed in the national press seeking information, the committee was able to correspond with likely owners and custodians of manorial documents and to begin to record information relating to the nature and location of manorial documents.

This correspondence is held here, also in the HMC 5 class. Until 1937 it is arranged in strict chronological order, but after that date it is arranged alphabetically by name of correspondent within each year. Correspondence with record repositories, local authorities and societies forms a separate series within HMC 5 and is arranged by repository within county.

Until 1959 a register was maintained for the Master of the Rolls by the Public Record Office. Following the implementation of the Public Records Act 1958, responsibility for its care passed to the Historical Manuscripts Commission. In 1959 revised rules were issued and the rules were further amended in 1963 and 1967 when the protection to manorial documents was further extended. (The Manorial Documents Rules 1959, The Manorial Documents (Amendment) Rules, 1963 and 1967, Statutory Instruments 1959 No. 1399, 1963 No. 976, 1967 No. 963.)

The results of the various methods of the committee’s enquiries were recorded on a Manorial Documents Register (MDR) which was arranged on a county basis. Information was entered on to a printed form or ‘return’ which included details of the manor name, the parish in which it was believed the manor lay and the county.

Details of the custodian or repository in possession of the documents and the identity of the lord and steward of the manor are noted along with brief details of the documents, their covering dates, and remarks on their physical condition. Under the heading sources of information will be found references to the IR and MAF lists, and to other sources used by the committee to establish the name of the manor.

As a network of county record offices became established in England and Wales in the 1940s and 1950s and with the establishment of the National Register of Archives in 1945, the major source of new information added to the Manorial Documents Register became the lists submitted by these offices for inclusion in the National Register of Archives, which were systematically trawled for references to manorial documents.

The Manorial Documents Register also continued to receive separate returns of deposits of manorial documents from repositories until around 1970 when the requirement was dropped and repositories were allowed to include details of deposits of manorial documents in the returns submitted for inclusion in Accessions to Repositories.

Over the years many of the original returns have been heavily annotated, particularly where collections have moved from private hands to repositories, or between repositories.

These original manorial returns are held here under the reference HMC 9.

From 1959 the Historical Manuscripts Commission engaged on a project to transfer, on a piecemeal basis, the information from the original returns to a slip index. By 1992 all counties other than the East, North and West ridings of Yorkshire, the whole of Wales and a part of Wiltshire had been transferred to slips.

During the same period a separate parish index was compiled which indicates the manors included in the ancient ecclesiastical parishes. Unfortunately, the sources used for gathering this information were not recorded.

Following a pilot project on Cambridgeshire, a project began in 1992 to load the information on manorial documents in Wales onto a database. The aims were:

  • to improve the quality and quantity of the information
  • to enable users to search the Manorial Documents Register in a greater variety of ways
  • to provide wider and remote access
  • to enable us to maintain and update the Manorial Documents Register more easily and efficiently

The project was run in association with the National Library of Wales, where the majority of manorial records for Wales were located. It was recognised that the existing information was not of a sufficient quality or consistency for it to be loaded straight onto a database. Revision and upgrading of the information on manorial records formed a major part of the project during which a methodology and descriptive standards were developed.

In 1995 work began on computerisation of the English counties with the North, East and West ridings of Yorkshire. The project was run in association with the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York. The methodology established for Wales was followed closely and a prototype developed for England.

In 1999, the computerisation of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight was completed following a one-year project run in association with Hampshire Record Office, which was followed in 2002 by the computerisation of Norfolk, undertaken in association with Norfolk Record Office. In 2004, the computerisation of Surrey and Middlesex was completed.

This was led by Royal Holloway, London, in association with Surrey History Centre, London Metropolitan Archives and The National Archives, supported by the Marc Fitch Fund. The computerisation of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire North of the Sands was led by Lancaster University in partnership with The National Archives and the Cumbria Archives Service, funded largely by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the computerisation was completed in 2006.

In April 2008, the computerisation of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire was completed, led by Royal Holloway, London with The National Archives, Berkshire Record Office and the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies as partners, with the support from the Marc Fitch Fund, Buckinghamshire Record Society, Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society and Buckinghamshire Family History Society.

A project to computerise the Hertfordshire section of the MDR in association with Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies has been completed.

As of August 2016 there is 38 completed counties, another seven are in progress and seven are awaiting computerisation. Please see Manorial Doccuments Register Counties Map for latest progress.