3.1 Documentary Sources


1. Common Land Online Database

The ‘Common Land in England’ website provides a searchable database of all registered commons in England (though, sadly, not in Wales), drawn from the Common Land Registers – you will need to look at the original registers to obtain full information of property rights on the common, and the database is not necessarily comprehensive, but it provides a useful starting point.  To access the basic data on the ‘Common Land in England’ site, go to http://common-land.com/ and

  • Enter the name of the civil parish in which the common you are studying lies in the box; then press the ‘Search Land’ button.  That brings up a list of commons in or near the place in question.
  • Click on the name of a common on the list to access some basic information.  This includes very brief summaries of the Ownership and Rights sections of the register; acreage; location; and (important when it comes to consulting the Common Land Register itself), the reference number of the common.  This is called ‘TVG Reg #’ on the website: on the Common Land Register this same number will appear as the ‘CL’ [= Common Land] number, which is the reference number unique to each common in a county.

Having obtained the ‘CL’ number and the basic data, you should then move on to consult the Common Land Register:

2. Common Land Registers

The Commons Registration Act 1965 required all rights claimed over common land to be registered. The resulting registers, held by the Commons Registration Officer of each county council, provide full details of modern property rights on common land.  To find the contact details of the registration office for the common you are studying, go to http://www.acraew.org.uk/index.php?page=commons-registration-authorities-contact-details  The registers are public documents but you should phone or email to make an appointment before visiting.  To save a journey to your county town, it would be worth enquiring locally to see whether copies of the Commons Register for the common you are studying are held locally (by the local commoners’ association, if there is one, for example).

The Register is divided into two sections, the Land section, in which ownership rights over the common are registered, and the Rights section, in which common use rights (rights of pasture, turbary and estovers, for example) are registered.

In both Land and Rights sections, each entry is given a number, which is recorded, with the date of registration, in the left hand column.  Entries in the Land section then give ‘Description of the land, reference to the register map, registration particulars etc’ – in other words, they define the common, giving its name and referring to the accompanying map which shows its boundaries, and they give the name and address of the person claiming ownership.

Information in the Rights section is divided into three columns:

  • Column 3: name and address of the person registering the right(s).
  • Column 4: ‘Particulars of the right of common and of the land over which it is exercisable’.  The class of common right (a right to graze so many sheep; a right of turbary; a right to take bracken, for example) will be spelt out as well as the area over which it is claimed (usually ‘from the whole of the land comprised in this register unit’ – i.e. over the whole common)
  • Column 5: ‘Particulars of the land (if any) to which the right is attached’. Most common rights were appurtenant to a holding of land or to a dwelling, details of which will be specified here.  If nothing is entered in this column, the common right is presumably ‘in gross’, i.e. a personal right not attached to a particular property.

Registrations were initially provisional.  If unchallenged, they became final and a note to this effect will be entered on the Register.  Where a claim was challenged the matter was resolved by the Commons Commissioners, whose decision will be recorded on the Register.  As rights changed hands, these changes could be registered, though many were not, with the result that many registers do not give an up-to-date view of ownership of property rights on a common.  Many are, in effect, a snapshot of rights as they existed in the late 1960s (the final date for registration was 31 July 1970), amended by Commissioners’ decisions, mostly dating from the 1970s and 1980s.

3. Commons Commissioners’ Decisions

Where provisional registrations made under the 1965 Act were subject to challenge, the Commons Commissioners took evidence and adjudicated.  Their decisions are available online on the ACRAEW (Association of Commons Registration Authorities) website at http://www.acraew.org.uk/index.php?page=commissioners-decisions. Clicking on the name of the county brings up a list of all the decisions for that county.  These lists are arranged by the title of the decision – which is not always easy to use, as an entry such as ‘The Quabbs, Llanfair Waterdine’ is listed under ‘T’ for ‘The’ rather than ‘L’ for Llanfair (or ‘Q’ for Quabbs)!  Clicking on the title brings up a PDF of the decision.

Commons commissioners’ decisions vary widely in length and detail, depending largely on the nature of the challenge or dispute being considered.  Some are of considerable interest to someone researching the history of a common, as they can contain a wealth of information about past use and property rights on the common.  They often include summaries of oral evidence given during the hearing to decide the case, which can be extremely informative.  Now that they are available online, it is well worth checking to see whether there are any commissioners’ decisions for the common you are studying.

4. Rules governing the use of common land

Having carried out the initial research in the three sources described above, you will probably move on to gathering local oral evidence (for guidance, see below).  We would also like you to try to ascertain whether any records survive recording local rules governing the use of the common in the period c.1850 to the present day.  If you have time (and relevant records survive – which is by no means always the case) you might like to look at these in some detail to see what conclusions you can draw about how use of the common was regulated in the past.

Many historic documents will be found in your local record office or archive centre or in your local studies library.  Some counties have more than one record office, so you may need to check which one holds the records relevant to your common.  To search for your nearest record office(s), look at your County Council website, and/or visit the national directory of archives covering England and Wales: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archon/.  These sites will provide you with opening hours, contact details and online catalogues, where they exist.

The classes of record most relevant to the history of common land fall under four main headings:

  • Manor court records.  Manor courts were the main bodies drawing up byelaws (or ‘pains’ as they were often called) to govern the use of common land in the period 1550-1750.  The courts declined during the 18th and early 19th centuries and comparatively few continued to meet – let alone to actively manage common land – by 1850.  Some did, however.  To find out whether manor court records survive from the estate which owned the common you are studying, search the online Manorial Documents Register (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/mdr/) or (where the online register has not yet been compiled for the county in question) your local record office.  Manor court records contain much obsolete, technical legal language: you’ll find a guide to this in the glossary and examples of classes of records on the Cumbrian Manorial Records website (http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/projects/manorialrecords/index.htm)
  • Parish council records.  Parish institutions also sometimes played a regulatory role over common land, and this is more likely to have occurred after a manor court’s demise.  The full extent of parochial involvement is not known, and whilst the records of one parish may contain substantial information, another parish may make no reference at all to common land.  The parish has been both an ecclesiastical and civic unit of administration, and data might be found in a range of records, such as churchwardens’ accounts, and the records of parish charities, overseers of the poor, the vestry, and parish councils.  Nineteenth-century legislation introduced new parochial bodies (e.g. the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and Local Government Act 1894) and these too might play a role in common land management or in issues of public access and recreation. Historic parochial records are usually now available for consultation in the local county record office, but some may still be in the hands of the relevant parish church or parish council.
  • Statutory bodies and local authority regulation of commons.  Some commons have been regulated by bodies established under Acts of Parliament, particularly in the later 19th century.  Where part of a common was retained as a shared pasture (often a stinted pasture) under the terms of an enclosure award, a local committee was sometimes created to manage this.  Other commons underwent schemes of regulation, such as those established under the terms of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, the Commons Act of 1876, or the Commons Act of 1899.  Approximately 200 commons were subject to regulation under the 1899 Act. Defra has published an online list of the 36 commons regulated under the 1876 Act: http://archive.defra.gov.uk/rural/documents/protected/common-land/1876commonsact.pdf.  Regulation typically involved the introduction of boards of conservators, public access, schemes of byelaws, and often also stinting of rights.  As with enclosure awards, the original or facsimile acts, awards and maps can be found in local and national archive offices.  The National Archives (TNA), London, has copies of the majority of awards and also holds files of correspondence relating to regulation.  See the TNA online research guide for more information: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/enclosure.htm.  In a handful of cases, boards of conservators were established under local acts specific to a particular area, such as the Malvern Hills Act 1884. In other cases, the local National Park Authority, or the district, borough, county or city council has played a key role in managing commons, often as the result of a regulatory act.  You may therefore wish to look at the council or local authority minutes and papers held by your local record office.
  • Commoners’ associations and similar informal local bodies.  On some commons (we don’t know how many, as no one has yet explored this) informal bodies were founded in which the commoners themselves got together to manage common land.  Some (such as the stintholders’ meetings found in parts of Yorkshire – see Fig. 4) can be traced back to the 19th century; many more, often called  ‘commoners’ associations’ were founded to help commoners deal with the requirements of the Commons Registration Act 1965 (see Fig. 5).

It would be worth making enquiries locally to see whether any documents recording the decisions and regulations laid down by bodies such as these survive for the common you are studying.  For example, during our own historical research project we were able to see the records of an early informal commoners’ meeting at Scales Moor (North Yorkshire), which remained in private hands.  Typical business included electing a herdsman and appointing a mole catcher, whose work was paid for by income from letting one of the stints (known as the ‘molegate’).  This is a remarkable document, shedding light on grassroots regulation of common land.

5. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (‘MAF’) Files in The National Archives

The National Archives, at Kew, hold numerous state records relating to common land.  Indeed, simply typing the name of your common into the TNA website search engine may reveal the existence of documents (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk ).  The majority of common land records can 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 1845-1899 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: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/common-land.htm.

6. Maps and plans

Maps are useful for establishing the boundaries of a common and for charting some aspects of the changing face of common land.  We suggest that you seek out and consult the following categories of cartographic evidence:

Maps accompanying Commons Registers. These maps, prepared under the requirements of the Commons Registration Act 1965, are the definitive maps showing the boundaries of the CL units.  They are held with the registers by the Commons Registration Officer for each county.

Ordnance Survey Six-Inch (1:10,560) maps.  In most counties, the first edition of these maps were surveyed and published in the mid-/later decades of the 19th century and subsequent revisions provide a series of later editions across the 20th century.  Detailed comparison of successive editions of the Ordnance Survey Six-Inch maps can allow you to chart some changes to ‘infrastructure’ on common land, such as the construction of roads and new sheepfolds.  The first edition of the series is available online on the British History Online website (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/map.aspx?pubid=270); good collections of later editions are often held by county record offices and local studies libraries.

Maps and plans showing management units (sheepwalks, heafs, for example) on a common.  These will only exist for some commons but, where they do, can shed important light on past use and management of common land.  They are most likely to survive in private hands or in estate collections or solicitors’ papers in connection with disputes.

7. Images

In the course of your research, you might find historic photographs, sketches, or paintings of your common, in private hands, or perhaps in local archives, which could shed valuable evidence on how the face of a common has changed.  These images might show historic features or activities (e.g. shepherds’ meets, sports, fairs etc) or may relate to specific events (e.g. an archived newspaper article).

You may like to take photographs of the common as it is today in order to illustrate your research.  In particular, you might wish to take photographs of the general topography and key features such as historic or archaeological structures, sheepfolds, lime kilns, way-markers etc.  If you also have historic photographs, you could attempt to produce a ‘then and now’ comparison.


(Text by A.J.L. Winchester and E.A. Straughton)