How to look for records of... Land ownership, use and rights: common lands
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1. Why use this guide?
This research guide provides advice on finding and understanding the different types of documents that exist for common land. It highlights some of the principal sets of records held at The National Archives and flags up others held elsewhere. Broadly, the records held here provide information of the following kinds about common land:
- the tenure and use of land, including records which may contain information which has a bearing on historic rights of common in particular places
- the preparation, passage and implementation of legislation regulating common lands, mainly dating from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries
- government policy in regard to common land
This guide is not a statement of law and The National Archives cannot provide legal advice or offer any legal interpretation of the information contained in the records.
2. What is common land and who owns it?
Common land is land subject to rights enjoyed by one or more persons to take or use part of a piece of land or of the produce of a piece of land which is owned by someone else – these rights are referred to as ‘rights of common’. Those entitled to exercise such rights were called commoners.
It is a popular misconception that common land is land owned by the general public and to which everyone has unrestricted right of access. All common land is private property, whether the owner is an individual or a corporation. Historically, the owner of the common was normally the lord of the manor. Today many commons are owned by local authorities, the National Trust and other bodies for the public benefit, but not all commons offer total access to all comers. Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (popularly known as ‘CRoW’), there is a new right of public access to open country and registered common land, subject to certain defined restrictions.
3. Historical rights of common
Historical rights of common were usually of five kinds, although there were others:
- of pasture: the right to graze livestock; the animals permitted, whether sheep, horses, cattle and such, were specified in each case.
- of estovers: the right to cut and take wood (but not timber), reeds, heather, bracken and the like.
- of turbary: the right to dig turf or peat for fuel.
- in the soil: the right to take sand, gravel, stone, coal and other minerals.
- of piscary: the right to take fish from ponds, streams and so on.
These rights related to natural produce, not to crops or commercial exploitation of the land. They were almost always subject to limitations on quantities (usually enough for the domestic needs of the commoner) and sometimes subject to seasonal restrictions (such as during game-breeding periods).
In modern times, rights have been defined in less tangible terms, including access to light, air, recreation and so on.
4. Getting started: search tips and key records
This section describes how you can search for records at The National Archives and in which sets of records it might be worth focussing your searches. Other useful record series and departments are highlighted in sections 5 to 9 of this guide.
4.1 How to search using keywords
Searches begin in our catalogue, which contains short descriptions of the records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself. You can search the catalogue using keywords and dates. Use the advanced search option or the series searches to restrict your search results to records of a specific government department (and its predecessors) – departments are identified by a letter code (see section 4.2 for some of the most useful departments for records of common land and for links to series searches).
Searches with the following keywords will return catalogue results – combine any of these terms with a place name (county, city, town, district, parish) to hone your results:
- common land
- rights of common
- commons or common
- common land survey
- common land registration OR register
You can also try:
- Royal Commission of Common Land
- common land policy
4.2 Key records
The most substantial quantities of records in The National Archives relating to common land are among the records of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Departments (MAF). Within the MAF department is a division of records of land tenure, enclosure copyhold and tithes, and land use and improvement. This division contains many of the primary series for records of common land, including those listed below.
Click on the series reference to search within the records of that series (for the ranges of multiple series, click on the range and then on ‘Details’ to search any series):
- MAF 25 – the principal series of registered files relating to commons; many of these files include accounts of the history of particular commons, draft orders, maps and so on.
- MAF 24 – these are claims made to valuers by landlords and other parties claiming rights of common and the valuers’ awards themselves. Many commons were defined or affected by enclosure awards. For more information on this subject see our Enclosure awards guide.
- MAF 145 to MAF 149 and MAF 157 to MAF 182 – these are records of the divisional offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and may include files about commons.
There are also some papers about commons among the records of the Treasury Solicitor (TS).
5. Surveys of common land
Use the following keyword combinations to search our catalogue for records of common land surveys:
- common land AND survey
- commons AND survey
- common land AND Royal Commission
- common land AND report
Several surveys of common lands were made for Parliament. The most important of the surveys was the so-called Common Lands Census of 1873-1874 which was published as House of Commons Sessional Papers 1874 lii 383.
The 1865 Survey of Commons and Open Spaces within a 25-Mile Radius of London was published as House of Commons Sessional Papers 1865 xlvii 757. The original returns submitted for this survey are among the records in series OS 25, an Ordnance Survey series split into seven pieces by county in our catalogue. The maps annexed to these returns are very fragile and will not be available until conservation work has been carried out.
6. Common land in manorial records
You may find information about common land in manorial records. The National Archives holds large quantities of records, covering many centuries, relating to the estates of the Crown as well as some records of privately-owned manors submitted as evidence in equity proceedings, particularly in the Court of Chancery.
The Manorial Documents Register, maintained by The National Archives, records the whereabouts of manorial records (excluding title deeds). For more advice, see our guide to Manorial documents and lordships and how to use the Manorial Documents Register.
7. Common land requisitioned for war
Many areas of common land were requisitioned for agricultural or military use during the Second World War. A schedule of such lands is in MAF 143/49.
8. Common lands in forests
The records of the Forestry Commission include many references to common lands in forests. The New Forest Claims Act 1854 provided for the registration of common rights in the Forest. The registers created under the Act are in LRRO 5/20 and LRRO 5/23; a printed version is at F 24/107.
Not until the passing of the New Forest Act 1949 were maps made to show the lands subject to common rights. These plans are 1:2,500 Ordnance Survey maps, marked up in manuscript. Similar plans were later made relating to the areas added to the Forest by the New Forest Act 1964. All these plans are in MPO 1 (formerly in F 2).
Series WORK 9 contains records of the commissioners appointed under the Epping Forest Act 1871 to enquire into rights and claims over the forest, and some records of the arbitrator appointed to settle disputes arising from the provisions of the Epping Forest Act 1878. As the individual pieces in this series are not described in much detail, it’s best to browse this series rather than search with keywords.
Statutory copies of the maps made under the New Forest Acts 1949 and 1964 are held by Clerk to the Verderers in Lyndhurst, Hampshire.
9. Records of regulation, legislation, registration and policy
Files about general policy affecting commons are in MAF 48.
9.1 Legislation from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries
A long succession of Acts of Parliament governed the regulation of commons between the mid-19th and the early-20th centuries. The most important series of records held at The National Archives in relation to these acts, are:
- Awards of regulation under the Enclosure Acts 1845 to 1899 in MAF 1
- Schemes regulating the use of common land in metropolitan areas under the terms of the Metropolitan Commons Acts 1866 to 1898 in MAF 4
- Commons Acts 1876 and 1899: schemes of regulation in MAF 30, HLG 65 (after 2 February 1959), and BD 3 (Wales after 1964)
- Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act 1878: bye-laws in WORK 16
- Commonable Rights Compensation Act 1882: records in MAF 2
- Law of Property Act 1925: declarations and limitations in MAF 3, HLG 59 (after 2 February 1959) and BD 1 (Wales after 1965)
There were also numerous local Acts.
9.2 The 1955 Royal Commission on Common Lands and the 1965 Commons Registration Act
The confusion created by this slew of national and local acts led in 1955 to the setting up of a Royal Commission on Common Lands. The records of the Commission are in MAF 96. They include a substantial number of files of evidence which often contain information about the history of individual commons as well as material on general issues relating to commons.
The Commission’s report led to the Commons Registration Act 1965 which provided for the registration of common land and of town and village greens. The registers were to be maintained by county councils. Registration began on 2 January 1967. The Commons Registration (Time Limits) Order 1966 provided that registration should take place by 31 March 1970; this was extended by an Amendment Order to 31 July 1970. These registers are now normally in local record offices.
9.3 The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000
In addition, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, (CRoW) requires the Countryside Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales respectively to prepare for England and Wales maps showing all registered common land and all open country. These maps, to be produced in draft, provisional and conclusional stages, are or will be held by local authorities.
Information about the CRoW Act 2000, with links to the online text of the Act and to a variety of information research guides and guidance notes is available on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Information about mapping under the Act, undertaken by the Countryside Commission, is available on the Natural England website, run by the Commission.
9.4 Official notices and announcements
Official notices of intent to regulate, register and the like were usually published in the local press and the London Gazette.
10. Other sources of information
Interest groups and dispensers of general advice on common land issues include:
- The Open Spaces Society
- The Foundation for Common Land
- Association of Commons Registration Authorities – the Commons Commissioners was a statutory body comprising expert lawyers in commons law who were appointed to adjudicate disputed applications to register common land and greens under the Commons Registration Act 1965. The body was abolished in September 2010. The website features a section on Commons Commissioners’ Decisions, organised by county
- London Metropolitan Archives – holds records relating to acquisition and subsequent management of Epping Forest and other open spaces by the Corporation of London under the City of London (Open Spaces) Act 1978
Sometimes commoners sold or otherwise disposed of their rights. Such transactions were usually private agreements and as such are not usually among records held in The National Archives.
11. Further reading
A useful, if now somewhat outdated general book on the history of common land is Dudley Stamp and W G Hoskins, The Common Lands of England and Wales (Collins, 1963).
J M Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
Edward Carter Kersey Gonner, Common Land and Inclosure (Macmillan and Co, 1912)
G D Gadsden, The Law of Commons (Sweet and Maxwell, 1988)