Posted in For Solicitors

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Twenty-five years ago the land register was opened to public inspection and compulsory land registration finally came into effect across the board in England and Wales. Yet it is still possible to search the Land Registry for a property and fail to find its details. This article takes a brief look at the history of land registration and outlines some of the specialist services that Anglia Research offers solicitors to help them establish property ownership.


English land law evolved from feudal origins and throughout most of our history there has been no formal legal requirement to register the transfer of land between parties. However, the obvious need to have, and preserve, a legal record of a conveyance led to the fine of lands system.

This was a fictitious dispute in the Court of Common Pleas where the purchaser (querent) would bring a case against the seller (deforciant) to remove his title to the said lands. The court would issue a final concord (fine) and this would describe in some detail the property and its rights.

A specimen of a fine from 1303

The fine was copied into three parts, all on one large sheet of parchment. The first part went to the seller, the second to the buyer, while the third part was written at the foot of the parchment and was the court copy. The parts were separated by a wavy line so that if there was a dispute the three parts could be matched together again. The court copy was known as “the foot of the fine” and the collection of these records are referred to as “feet of fines”.

There were other methods of registering title to land, for example by paying a fee to have a copy of a deed registered and preserved among the records of the court. But, it was a piecemeal, ad hoc system – and with records scattered between central and local courts, it was wide open to abuse.

“For the preventing of frauds, thefts and deceits”

In 1648 the Leveller John Lilburne wrote: “For the preventing of frauds, thefts and deceits, there be forthwith in every country or shire in England and the Dominion of Wales erected a country record for the perfect registering of all conveyances, bills and bonds, upon a severe and strict penalty.”

Unfortunately, his radical proposal for compulsory land registration across England and Wales took almost 350 years to come into effect.

From the mid-16th century to the mid-19th century numerous land registration bills came before Parliament, but every attempt to create a more rational system failed. Nevertheless, in the 18th century local deeds registries were established in Yorkshire and Middlesex.

Finally, in 1862, a central Land Registry was set up. Registration was voluntary, but compulsory registration gradually spread from county to county during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now, according to the Land Registry, over 80% of England and Wales is registered and much of the land that remains unregistered is “most likely to be owned by the Crown, the aristocracy or the Church.”

However, because registration is compulsory only when land changes hands, unregistered properties still come on the market. When they do, establishing ownership can be a headache.

How can Anglia Research help?

Anglia Research offers a full property and land repatriation service, tracing property owners or their next of kin who have no readily ascertainable address or contact details. However, as an additional service to professional clients, we offer searches of the Yorkshire and Middlesex deeds registries. Depending on the property location, we are often also able to conduct searches in municipal or county records offices.

Our specialist researchers and paleographers will identify the relevant property transactions and transcribe the details you need.

Ian MarsonIan Marson, our Yorkshire-based associate, explains:

“The Middlesex deeds register extends from the early 18th century to around 1940, while the three Yorkshire deeds registries (depending on the Riding) cover the early 18th century up to around 1970.

“None of the registries hold any deeds, but they do have the abstracts of the transactions, which are known as memorials.

“To search the registry you need the name of a person who owned the property at a given time. Once you have a name, you then have to search the calendars of deeds year on year looking for an entry that shows that the person either bought or sold the property.

“Having located the transaction you then have to use the reference to find the volume, folio and page where the memorial is recorded. Then it is a case of reading the details of the transaction: who bought the property, the extent of the land, any rights of way, mineral or mining rights, and of course the names of the parties involved.

“Unless you know your way around the registry, it’s a time consuming process and, unless you’re a palaeographer, the records as they get further back in time become more and more difficult to read.”

Local deeds registry searches

For solicitors struggling to establish who owns a property, specialist researchers such as Ian represent a simple and speedy solution. For more information, please see our specialist services page or contact us.

For information about Anglia Research's full property and land repatriation service, please go to our tracing property ownership page.


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