Sources - Commons - England and Wales

Description of sources 

Manorial records

From the medieval to the modern period, the institution responsible for management of common land in England and Wales was the manor court, and manorial records therefore form an essential historical source for commons research.  The manor courts produced a range of documents.  Perhaps the most important for common land management were the records of court sittings, which contain evidence of the use and regulation of commons.  These were recorded in court rolls, in loose paper sheets known as ‘verdicts’, and frequently, from the sixteenth century, in bound volumes or court books.  Ancillary manorial documents also of use to researchers include stewards’ papers, pain lists (lists of regulations and orders), jury lists, call lists (listing customary tenants and freeholders who owed suit to the court), admissions and surrenders (recording property transfers), and surveys.  Manorial records were produced from the thirteenth century to c.1925 and even beyond (a handful of courts continue to operate today) but the time span and survival of records varies greatly between individual manors, and many courts fell into decline across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Bailey 2002; Ellis 1994; Winchester and Straughton, online 2006).  Original manorial records can be found in national, local and private archives.  The National Archives, Kew, London, keeps the Manorial Documents Register (MDR) of all known surviving manorial records in England and Wales, providing locations, chronologies and archival information. 


General introductions to manorial administration and records include The English Manor, c.1200-c.1500 by Bailey (2002) and Using Manorial Records by M. Ellis (1994).  Adams (1975) also explains common manorial terms in Agrarian Landscape Terms: A Glossary for Historical Geography (1975). 


Numerous examples of manorial records have been transcribed and published, though coverage is far from complete.  Examples of the main classes of manorial records are also available on the web: see, for example, the Cumbrian Manorial Records Online Guide by Winchester and Straughton (online 2006).


Pain lists

A ‘pain’ was a byelaw or order imposed by the manor court jury in order to regulate activities within a manor, including the exercise of common rights (Ellis 1994, 60; Winchester and Straughton, online 2006).  A pain list or pain roll is therefore a manorial record of particular importance, comprising a written record of all the orders and resource-use rules applicable in a manor: a check-list or guide for stewards, court juries and officers.  Pain lists do not necessarily survive in large numbers – there is not a list for every manor, for example – but where they do, they provide a comprehensive picture of local customary law on the commons.  Some pain lists have been published (e.g.,  Winchester 2000).  Example of pain lists from two Cumbrian manors, dated 1597 and 1637, can be seen on the web in the Cumbrian Manorial Records Online Guide. An overview of published English bye-laws can be viewed here (PDF ).


Commoners’ or stint holders’ meeting minute books

In the wake of a manor court’s decline, some bodies of commoners and landowners decided to form new voluntary institutions to better manage their common land or stinted pasture.  These might take the form of a voluntary commoners’ association, committee or annual meeting, which produced a written record of the business discussed and decisions made.  These records take the form of ‘minute books’, and are usually modern in date (e.g. 19th-21st centuries).  The actual number of associations formed in the wake of the manor courts’ demise and the extent of the survival of minute books is not currently known on a national scale: this would certainly repay further research.  Although some volumes of minutes can be found in local archives, many are held by officers of commoners’ associations, particularly where the association remains active.  Some commoners’ institutions appointed officers such as herdsmen and reeves to help manage the common, and these officers may have maintained their own book of rules, stocking dates, records of fees paid, and stock numbers.


Parish records

Although the manor court was generally responsible for the commons, parochial institutions sometimes played a regulatory role, particularly where manorial governance was lacking or ineffectual, or where the tradition had been for a village meeting with powers to make byelaws.  In the wake of a court’s demise, commoners and landowners might turn to parochial structures as a vehicle for collective action on the common.  The parish has been both an ecclesiastical and civil unit of administration over time, producing a variety of institutions, officers and records.  Churchwardens played a primarily ecclesiastical role but in some parishes they were given wider civil duties, which might involve the use or regulation of commons in the parish: for example, in Barnes, Surrey, in south-eastern England, the churchwardens’ accounts for 1686-1760 recorded the sale of sand and turf from off the common (Tate 1969, 84; 106).  Similarly, the records of some parish charities or of the ‘overseers of the poor’ might include useful evidence on the commons if common land or rights had been set aside for the use or financial support of the poor (Tate 1969, 114; 118).  The parish ‘vestry’ was a primarily secular body which looked after a broad scope of civil matters, sometimes having charge of common lands, the appointment of agrarian officers, and of making byelaws on open field agriculture; they might also discuss proposed enclosures (Tate 1969, 162; 168).  Nineteenth-century legislation introduced new civil parochial bodies (e.g., the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and the Local Government Act 1894) and these too might play a role in common land management, or in issues of public access and recreation (Friar 2001, 310).  Thus parish records such as churchwardens’ accounts, vestry books and parish council minutes may contain useful evidence.  Historic parochial records are usually now available in the local archive office, but some may be found in the relevant parish church or in the hands of the civil parish council.  The standard work on parochial administration is W. E. Tate's The Parish Chest (1969).  See also The Local History Companion by  S. Friar (2001) and West's Village Records (1997).


Enclosure acts, awards and maps

Enclosure of a common involved the division and usually the dissolution of common land and rights.  In some cases this was carried out informally, leaving little documentary evidence, though private written agreements do survive.  However, much of the evidence for enclosure in England and Wales comes from the bureaucratic process of Parliamentary Enclosure: privatising common land and extinguishing common rights over it through a statutory act of Parliament.  Enclosure acts often exist in printed form; the successful passing of an act was followed by the drafting of a hand-written, legally binding enclosure award, which set out the terms of the enclosure, and listed all the beneficiaries and their allotments of land.  These are often, though not always, accompanied by maps showing the new allotments and boundaries (Adams 1976, 119-32; 186-8).  Enclosure records tell us a great deal about the transformation of property rights and land management in England and Wales; they also contain substantial evidence of the nature of common rights and land use traditions before an enclosure took place.  Original or facsimile acts, awards and maps can be found in local and national archive offices.  The National Archives, London, has copies of the majority of awards drafted after 1845, and copies of some of those predating 1845.  See the TNA online research guide for more information. For a comprehensive list of enclosure acts and awards in England, see Tate , A Domesday of English Enclosure Acts and Awards (1978); for a source-book for Wales, see Chapman's A Guide to Parliamentary Enclosures in Wale (1992).  A general introduction to enclosure records can be found in, S. Hollowell, Enclosure Records for Historians (2000). For a survey of enclosure maps, see The enclosure maps of England and Wales, 1595-1918: a cartographic analysis and electronic catalogue, by R.J.P. Kain (2010).


Regulation acts, awards and maps

Acts, awards and maps also exist for those commons which were subject to statutory schemes of regulation rather than wholesale enclosure.  Regulation, which emphasised the importance of public access, management and improvement, was the product of a political shift towards preservation of commons for health and recreation from the mid nineteenth century, initially focused on urban commons, and latterly involving rural commons also.  Most schemes of regulation were established under the terms of the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866, the Commons Act 1876, or the Commons Act 1899.  Regulation typically involved the introduction of boards of conservators, public access, schemes of byelaws, and often also stinting of rights (Straughton 2008, 51-64; 191-241).  Regulation generated a wealth of documentary evidence, including conservators’ papers, schemes of byelaws, and correspondence between commoners, conservators and Government departments.  As with enclosure awards, the original or facsimile acts, awards and maps can be found in local and national archive offices.  The National Archives, London, has copies of the majority of awards and also holds files of correspondence relating to the drafting of byelaws and levying of rates.  See the TNA online research guide for more information.  See the entry for Enclosure, above, for information on sources and general texts. 


Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (‘MAF’) files relating to common land regulation and policy

The National Archives, London, holds numerous state records relating to common land.  These records can mainly be found in the files of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food departments (MAF files).  Thus, for example, the main set of common land files are in MAF 25 (covering the history of individual commons, maps, orders etc.) and general policy files are found in MAF 48.  Many files deal with regulation of commons, under various statutes: for example, files relating to regulation of commons under the Enclosure Acts 1845-99 can be found in MAF 1, with schemes of regulation enacted under the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866-98 in MAF 4; documentation relating to regulation under the Commons Acts 1876 and 1899 (including schemes of byelaws) can be found in MAF 30; and byelaws issued under the Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act 1878 are in WORK 16.  Many more files of papers, minutes and correspondence exist, covering a range of subjects, including improvement schemes, animal disease and public access issues.  The National Archives has produced a guide to the common land sources in its holdings, from which the information above is drawn, which can be viewed here.  



Maps of commons generally accompany other documentary sources (e.g., enclosure maps, which show the land after parcelling into allotments) and do not appear in substantial numbers until the modern period.  However, landowners did sometimes produce detailed estate plans which can be of early date and of great historical value.  One series of maps which may be of particular use are nineteenth century tithe maps, since these may contain evidence of common landownership, area and boundaries.  The tithe was the tax traditionally levied in English and Welsh parishes in order to fund the church and clergy.  In the nineteenth century the tithing system was modernised under the Tithe Commutation Act 1836, and the subsequent process of assessing land values involved detailed surveys and mapping of landownership and land use in thousands of parishes across the country (Adams 1976, 39; Friar 2001, 436; West 1997, 201-5).  Tithe maps and associated records can be found in The National Archives, London, The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and local record offices.  Changes of ownership or changes of use may also generate maps: for example, a detailed series of maps were made of commoners’ sheepwalks, or grazing territories, in the Elan and Claerwen valleys, Powys, in mid Wales, when the lands were sold to Birmingham Corporation for the creation of reservoirs (Rodgers et al. 2011, 142, 144).  A survey of enclosure maps has been published by R.J.P. Kain  in The enclosure maps of England and Wales, 1595-1918: a cartographic analysis and electronic catalogue (2010); there is also a detailed survey of tithe maps, performed by R.J.P. Kain and R.R. Oliver, entitled The tithe maps of England and Wales: a cartographic analysis and county-by-county catalogue (1996).


Royal Commission on Common Land 1955-8

Between 1955 and 1958, a Royal Commission was appointed by Government to survey the extent of common land in England and Wales, and to enquire into the law and regulation of commons.  The published Report is an important historical document in its own right, and also contains useful historical and legal evidence (Report (1958), P.P. 1958, Cmnd 462).  Raw data and manuscript papers of the Commission are kept by The National Archives, London (e.g. TNA MAF 96).  Key data collected by the Commission was also later synthesised and published by two of its members, W. G. Hoskins and L. Dudley Stamp, in their landmark volume of 1963, The Common Lands of England and Wales.  This volume presented a historical study, regional analyses and county lists of commons (including concise information on location, area, characteristics and uses).  The results of the Royal Commission research should be treated with some care, as they were not necessarily comprehensive: for example, there was not always a clear distinction between commons and enclosed stinted pastures, and the Commission experienced particular difficulties in collecting accurate data for Wales, where there were inconsistencies in the definition and identification of common land.  Hoskins and Stamp noted that ‘The heart of Wales is in fact a vast succession of moorland grazings, the legal status of much of which is quite uncertain’, and acknowledged that their description of the distribution of Welsh commons ‘must of necessity be particularly incomplete’ (Hoskins and Stamp 1963, 226-7).    


County Common Land Registers

Under the terms of the Commons Registration Act 1965, all existing common lands and common rights in England and Wales had to be registered with the local county council.  Though modern, these county registers are often a useful reference point for historical research into individual commons.  They provide information on the number, location, area and property rights of commons in each county.  The registers must be used with great care, however, as they represent only those commons which survived centuries of enclosure, and there are often discontinuities between historical and registered property rights – these discontinuities are in themselves of research interest.  Registers must be consulted in the office of the relevant county council and generally take the form of large printed, annotated volumes, and loose maps, though some of these records are now being digitised.  A substantial series of ‘Commons Commissioners’ Decisions’ (conducted to resolve disputes over registration) are available on the web, and these often include historical data, references and testimonies. The complexities associated with using registers as sources are outlined in articles by Aitchison and Hughes (1982), and Birtles (1998).



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