Delving into deeds

Pick your way through the dry legalese and deeds can tell the human story of your house.

A complete series of title deeds is a joy for house history. They let you peer into past lives. Was your house passed down through one family? Then your deed bundle may contain mortgages, marriage settlements and copies of wills. If your house was sold many times, there could be sale deeds galore. Alcock's Old Title Deeds is an invaluable guide to their types and clauses.

Deeds survive from as far back as the twelfth century, carefully preserved as proof of ownership. Sadly some deeds were destroyed after a change in the law of England and Wales in 1925 made it unnecessary to horde old deeds. But all were not lost. Thousands of redundant deeds have been deposited in local record offices.

Even where the deeds themselves are gone, there is hope. The details may be recorded. Many owners anxious to safeguard their title had the entire deed or its core points carefully copied. Huge numbers of deeds were recorded on the rolls of the royal courts at Westminster, the property registers kept at Edinburgh Castle, or in local registers and private cartularies. This piecemeal approach eventually gave way to national registration. Scotland led the way, establishing a national public register of deeds in 1617. The rest of the British Isles gradually followed suit.

One common way of recording the gist of a deed sequence is an abstract of title. If you have bundles of deeds for your house, you may find an abstract or two among them. It makes sense to read them first. Once you have the bare bones of the story, you can fill in the details from the deeds themselves.

What you might find

What else could you find in your deed bundle? That depends on the date of your house. Medieval deeds were written on small pieces of parchment in Latin. You need to be armed with guides to old handwriting and Latin terminology to embark on these, not to mention a table to convert a medieval date of saint's day and regnal year into modern form. The deed will always give the names of the parties involved, but the description of the property is often curt to the point where it would be hard to tell which house it is, if the deed were separated from later ones for the same house.

Later deeds can be more forthcoming and easier to read, though you need to wade through more legalese to find the interesting bits. Don't miss the building description. Changes to that could provide clues to alterations. Look out especially for any building clauses in the earliest deed. You might even discover the original plans. A Georgian developer could have an architect design the overall look and then lease individual plots to local builders. The leases would include instructions about the materials and the façade. If you are lucky you could find an elevation signed by the architect.


Online resources for medieval deeds

This article was first published in Living History October 2003.