Manorial documents

The 1922 Law of Property Act brought to an end the last meaningful function of manorial courts through the abolition of that form of land tenure known as ‘copyhold’. However, since proof of title to former copyhold land was in many cases contained within the books and rolls of manorial courts, it was essential that these records be preserved. In recognition of this the act reserved a statutory right of access to the original documents of the manorial courts.

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.

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 most important provisions of the rules are as follows:

  • no manorial documents may be removed from England and Wales without the permission of the Master of the Rolls. In practice this is never granted
  • owners or custodians of manorial documents are under an obligation to provide the Secretary of The National Archives: Historical Manuscripts Commission with brief details of any documents in their possession for inclusion in the Manorial Documents Register. Any change in ownership of manorial records must be notified to him
  • owners or custodians are required to ensure that any manorial documents for which they are responsible are kept under safe and proper conditions
  • should the Secretary of The National Archives: Historical Manuscripts Commission not be satisfied with the conditions in which documents are being stored he can direct the owner to place the documents on deposit in a repository which has been approved for this purpose. This will normally be the appropriate local record office

For further information about the historical and legislative background of the manorial system and the register, see the Manorial Documents Register.