Sources - Commons - England and Wales

Research fields sources can be used for 


Evidence of historical regulation of common resources can be found in a range of sources, but the greatest volume of material will be found in manor court records and, where these exist, in commoners’ association minute books. Manor court rolls, verdicts and court books provide data on court sittings, including the date and venue, the name of the lord and steward, and the names of the jurymen; they detail the offences and offenders presented to the court, the level of fines levied for misdemeanours, any byelaws or orders issued for the regulation of resources, and the appointment of court officers. Pain lists provide evidence of the schemes of byelaws enforced on common land.These records therefore comprise a rich seam of qualitative data on institutional rules and operations; and quantitative analyses could be made of the type and number of offences/offenders, and the monetary value of fines levied.Though of immense value, these manor court records should be treated with some care.The span of manorial records may not be a reliable indication of the survival or successful management of the common resource itself, and indeed do not provide certain proof that orders made and fines demanded were successfully enforced.The activity of a court, and the importance given to commons management, varied greatly between manors, and the court system is generally believed to have been weaker in Wales than in England. 


Commoners’ association minute books, which generally appear after the demise of a manor court, detail matters of business, agreements and decisions, and the appointment of officers (chairperson, secretary, treasurer, herdsman etc.).  Elements of administration may also be found in parochial records.  Studies which have used manorial records, minute books and parochial records as a source include the studies of Rodgers et al. (Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present; 2011) and E.A. Straughton (Common Grazing in the Northern English Uplands, 1800-1965; 2008). Birtles (1999) has used parish records to look at the use of common land by parish authorities Detailed studies of the manorial regulation of commons include those of Dilley (1967), Neeson (1993), Winchester (2000), and De Moor et al. (2002).


Access and property rights

Property rights gave individuals different levels of access to common land within a manor depending on the nature of the right and the means by which it was limited or quantified.  The nature of property rights varied. Common rights were generally attached (‘appurtenant’ or ‘appendant’) to specific dwellings or fields, and could not be severed, thereby anchoring rights to a particular locale and resident community.  For example, grazing rights to upland common land in the valley of Eskdale, Cumbria, in the north west of England, were attached to specific farms and houses: these common right dwellings were identified in a manorial award of 1587, which remained an important guide to property rights in Eskdale into the twentieth century (Rodgers et al. 2011, 94-6).  However, some common rights were classed as personal property (rights ‘in gross’) which could be sold or leased independently of property, showing a looser or more flexible connection between user-community and land.  Moreover, grazing rights might be limited by one of two alternative means – the rule of levancy and couchancy, or stinting – and this could change over time.  It was the manor court which traditionally determined access and regulated the exercise of common rights: for example, by enforcing the rule of levancy and couchany, by introducing stinting, or by identifying specific areas where an individual commoner could cut peat or bracken.  They also preserved a balance of power between the lord’s rights and those of commoners.  Manor courts also recorded the transfer of customary property in court documents, referring to these transactions – and also the documentary papers – as ‘admittances and surrenders’.  Since common rights were usually attached to customary properties, it is possible to use these documents to trace the transfer of rights; in some cases, court records specify the transfer of rights separate from property, particularly where these are stinted.  Enclosure acts, awards and related correspondence also provide substantial detail on property rights and the process of privatisation, containing evidence of landowners’ and commoners’ claims to rights or interests in the land, and the allotments they were given in consequence of enclosure.  In the modern context, the County Common Land Registers provide details of landowners and common rights holders as known at the time of registration.  Though the registers are not always up-to-date or reliable, they may contain useful clues as to how common rights have been transferred and re-defined over time.  The records of Commons Commissioners’ inquiries (held to resolve registration disputes), many of which are available online, often involve an examination of the historical evidence of property rights, thereby providing useful information and references.


Property rights and access to the land are discussed in Rodgers et al. (2011); the role of stints is discussed in  Winchester and Straughton (2010).  In many areas common land was seen as a subsistence resource for the poor and landless, and the provision or – conversely – limiting of their access was a contentious issue, often laid bare by the process of enclosure.  Access to, and uses of, common resources by the poor and landless sections of the community is a theme for a number of historians, for example King (1989), Humphries (1990), Woodward (1998), Shaw-Taylor (2001), and Hindle (2003).


Enclosure and dissolution

The enclosure and demise of commons can most easily be traced through enclosure acts and awards.  Enclosure was a bureaucratic procedure, generating large volumes of correspondence which shed light on the more contentious aspects: disputes over rights and boundaries, inclusion and exclusion of commoners, and the process of implementing new land divisions.  When a common was enclosed, this usually marked the demise of the common land use system and institution, though in some instances it in fact heralded a new stinted pasture.  For example, an enclosure act and award for the common lands of Thornham, Norfolk, in the south east of England, included the stinting of grazing rights on the saltmarsh common, and set in place a system of management by common reeves (Rodgers et al. 2011, 168-70; 173-4).  Parliamentary enclosure has long been an important subject of historical debate in Britain and there is therefore a vast body of literature exploring social, regional, national and colonial aspects of enclosure.  Useful introductory texts are to be found in Turner (1980), Neeson (1993), Chapman and Seeliger (2000), and Whyte (2003).


Many of those common lands which remained unenclosed, and continue to exist today as open green spaces, also suffered a form of institutional or agrarian collapse, as the traditional structures of regulation broke down and/or traditional agricultural uses faded.  The records of manor courts can be studied to show the demise of manorial administration and the withdrawal from common land management.  In the aftermath, some commoners developed new successful systems, while others struggled with an institutional vacuum for a considerable length of time – even to the present day.  Studies looking at the collapse of traditional institutions and their aftermath include Parkes (2005), Straughton (2008), and Rodgers et al. (2011). One important study looking at crises in sustainable communal land management is that of Turner, Beckett, and Afton (2003).      


Social and cultural history

The use and management of common land is a social activity, and whilst the records of manor courts and associations are often formal and lacking in personal detail, they can nevertheless reveal something of the power relations, kinship networks and economic relationships within a community.  Records such as jury lists and call lists provide evidence of the individuals involved.  The meetings of a manor court or commoners’ association also represented an important social gathering, particularly in remote rural areas.  Manor court records reveal that court sittings were often held in a public house, and some involved a traditional set meal.  Social and agrarian activities on the commons were inextricably linked through the pastoral calendar: activities such as the shepherds’ meets (when shepherds met at a public house to socialise and exchange stray sheep), sheep drives (when all animals were brought off the common) and shearings, often involved a substantial collective effort, and indeed, still do on many upland commons.  Thus, though it is an elusive subject, manorial records, association minute books and related correspondence can be used to identify the user-community, and to explore breaks and continuities in the culture of the commons.  The classic text on common land customs and culture is Customs in Common by E.P. Thompson (1991). The links between urban culture and common land is discussed in Bowden, Brown, and Smith (2009), whilst the cultural construction of landscape is explored in recent works by Nicola Whyte (2007; 2009). 


Legal conflicts

Evidence of conflict over resources is contained in manorial records and minute books, and also in legal documents, such as court papers and solicitors’ files.  Conflicts were typically caused by disputes over property rights (e.g. individuals overstocking their right), territorial boundaries, public access, encroachments and enclosures.  Legal battles between lords and commoners over the terms of enclosure of, or access to, a common, often generated useful legal evidence and witness statements which describe property rights and local land-use traditions.  Commoners and landowners might turn to the legal domain when customary law had broken down or failed to provide resolution.  In certain instances, case law redefined the meaning of property rights.  Interacting levels of law are discussed in the work of Rodgers et al., Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (2011). Legal disputes feature in a number of studies of common land and rights, including the studies of Hindle (1998), Short (1999), and Cowell (2002). The contemporary law of commons (with a discussion of the historical context and cases) is outlined in The Law of Commons by Gadsden (1988).  There is scope for further research or a systematic study of the many legal cases involving common land, and of the redefinition of rights through case law.


Urban commons

Commons have performed an important cultural role in urban environments, having both agrarian and civic functions.  Some urban commons were administered by town or borough authorities rather than a manorial estate, and therefore have a different institutional history from their rural counterparts; others began as manorial and agrarian resources which became civic as towns grew to encompass them.  As well as providing grazing for livestock, urban commons were often the venue for recreation and sporting events, visiting fairs and circuses, and religious and political meetings; they were also used for industrial processes, housing, hospitals, barracks, reservoirs and other utilities (Bowden, Brown, and Smith 2009).  Research into the history of urban commons has been spearheaded by Henry French (see, for example, French 2000 and 2003).  A national archaeological study has also been published by Bowden, Brown, and Smith (2009). Nevertheless, much of the focus of historical research has been on the rural sphere, and there is therefore scope for using sources such as manorial and borough archives to uncover the distinctive uses and institutions associated with urban commons.


Commons preservation movement

The history of conservation and landscape preservation in England and Wales is inextricably linked to the history of common land.  By the late nineteenth century, in the wake of widespread losses of commons, and in the context of an urbanised society, the political ethos began to turn towards preservation of commons.  This movement led to the formation in 1865 of the Commons Preservation Society (known today as the Open Spaces Society), which in turn led in 1895 to the formation of a land-holding body, The National Trust, which became a major owner of common land across the country.  To date, the history of common preservation has received relatively little in-depth research, one important exception being Ben Cowell’s work on the Commons Preservation Society (Cowell 2002). A discussion of the preservation movement also occurs in an article by R. Allen (1997) and in the work Common Grazing in the Northern English Uplands, 1800-1965 by E.A. Straughton (2008). Records which reveal aspects of the commons preservation debate can be found in a variety of MAF files at The National Archives, London – including files relating to commons regulation.  Records relating to individual commons belonging to The National Trust are usually to be found in the nearest local archive office.  The Open Spaces Archive is kept at the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University.  


Recent research projects

Information about recent research projects on English and Welsh commons can be viewed here ( PDF).



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