The UK’s 2nd Domesday Book – the ‘Return of the Owners of Land’ 1872

Report on the occasion of the first facsimile reproduction of the 2nd Domesday of the United Kingdom and the presentation of the 4 volumes to the president of the Royal Historical Society, House of Lords, 4th December 2012:

On Tuesday 4th December 2012, a panel discussion and reception on the occasion of the publication of the facsimile edition and database of the Second Domesday of the United Kingdom of 1872 convened by Lord Laird of Artigarvan was held in Committee Room G of the House of Lords (in the written agenda for this event the following was cited: that this issue was “originally commissioned following a debate in this House on 19th February 1872”).

The discussion included contributions from Kevin Cahill, author of ‘Who Owns Britain’ and ‘Who Owns the World’, and chairman of Global & Western Publishing, publishers of the Second Domesday, Professor Peter Mandler PhD. President of the Royal Historical Society, Fiona O’Cleirigh, editorial director of Global & Western Publishing, and Ian Sheldon FRSA, designer and creator of the Second Domesday Database, and consultant at Hyperborea Ltd.

After an entertaining and comedic introduction from Lord Laird, Fiona O’Cleirigh began with a summation of the origins of the Second Domesday, giving a background as to how it came into existence in the first place. The actual name of the 2nd Domesday was ‘The Return of Owners of Land, 1873’. Fiona discussed how the 2nd Domesday presented the first complete picture of the distribution of landed property in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland since the Domesday Book of 1086.

Fiona gave a background as to the origins of why the document was produced in the first place, in that it came about as a result of a desire of the Victorian governing landed classes, many of whom sat in the House of Lords, to counter the rising public clamour, encouraged by some parts of the press, about what was called the “monopoly of land”. Claims were being made in regard to the findings of the 1861 Census that in the United Kingdom there were not more than 30,000 landowners; and though it had been repeatedly shown that this estimate arose from a misreading of the figures contained in the Census returns, seemingly its accuracy was consistently never disputed and the statement was continually reproduced. The most notable voice at the time was MP John Bright who raised the issue in the House of Commopns, citing the extrapolation of evidence from the 1861 census. Fiona cited how the landed classes who dominated the House of Commons and more particularly at the time the House of Lords moved to rebut these allegations by providing reliable and independent data to refute the attacks. The question was put in the House of Lords on 19 February 1872 by Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby (1826–1893) to the Lord Privy Seal “Whether it was the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to take any steps for ascertaining the number of proprietors of land and houses in the United Kingdom, with the quantity of land owned by each proprietor”. In 1872 Local Government Boards were ordered to compile a list of owners of land from ratings records. One return was prepared for England and Wales, excluding the Metropolis, and separate ones were prepared for Scotland in 1874, and Ireland in 1876. The Return shows the holding, in acres, roods and poles, and estimated yearly rental, of all holdings over 1 acre. All the statements and information contained in the Return, with the exception of the addresses of the owners, were derived from rating valuation lists for making assessments under the Poor Law, already held by every parish.

Upon publication, whilst the assertions there that not more than 30,000 landowners in the UK were safely rebutted, the landowners inadvertantly scored an own-goal with the publication. Their survey showed that in the England and Wales (excluding the Metropolis) return, just 710 people owned 5000 acres or more, and these 710 owned over 25% of the total land area of England and Wales. The return recorded that 269,547 people owned more than an acre of land and 703,289 owned less than one acre, out of a population at the time of 19,458,009.

The Returns are the longest parliamentary paper ever published and covered all 4 countries of the then United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Fiona mentioned that the original clamour on the issue of land
monopoly has to be seen in the context of a rising awareness of
perceived inequality and injustice at the time.

Kevin Cahill then spoke about the republication of the The Return of Owners of Land, 1873 and the creation of a database of all the records. Kevin mentioned at the start that in doing his research for his book ‘Who Owns Britain’ he initially found it very difficult to get a hold of a copy of The Return of Owners of Land, 1873. He commented along the lines that it was as if the document had been airbrushed out of history. No copy could initially be found at the House of Lords library (eventually it surfaced) and the Royal Agricultural Society claimed to have never heard of the document (they subsequently were found to be in possession of 2 copies). Kevin then went on to explore why the document – which he describes as the third of 3 great British historical documents after Domesday in 1086 and the Magna Carta. Kevin highlighted how there is no mention anywhere in the title (‘the Return of the Owners of Land’) or the 16 explanatory pages of the Crown’s feudal claim. Kevin put emphasis of the words ‘return’ and ‘owner’ in the title, as indicating that the landowners may have been in actual fact using the opportunity of this publication to assert their ownership title on their land, which they were in most cases the descendent inheritors of the original Norman barons of 1066. Kevin asserted that Pariament may have been in actual fact casting doubt on the ancient claim of the monarchy to own all the physical land of the United Kingdom, a claim he argues was reintroduced to England by William the Conqueror between 1066 and his death in 1087, having been a concept first established in the British Isles with the Roman Empire.

Kevin then went on to give a summary of what happened next. Kevin discussed how the document slowly faded out of existence. The impetus for land reform and land value taxation by MP Lloyd George and his Liberal government between 1916 and 1922 may have been informed by the land ownership pattern as revealed in 1873 and the legacy of political interest on the issue as a result of substantial press interest around the subject at the time. However, returning to the issue of ownership title, kevin drew attention to the significance of a little-known development in 1925 – a piece of legilation carried through the House of Lords called the Law of Property Act, which established in law that the Crown was transformed as the absolute owner of all land in England and Wales, and that all other hold merely an interest in an estate in land (‘fee simple’, generally known as ‘freehold’, or an interest in an estate for a term of years generally known as ‘leasehold’). The modern Land Registry created out of the Land Registration Act of 1925 incorporated none of the statistics from The Return of Owners of Land, 1873. Instead, from a blank piece of paper, from the date of it’s foundation onwards, the UK Land Registry has recorded only transactions in land. This means that land inherited under title remains unrecorded in the Land Registry, whilst registration of transactions in estates in land was rolled out over 65 years (ending in 1990), as compared to the 4 years it took to record the The Return of Owners of Land, 1873.

Ian Sheldon followed with a short summing up of the creation of the Second Domesday database, and a short speech by President of the Royal Historical Society – Professor Peter Mandler, followed by the formal presentation of the 2nd Domesday to the President of the Royal Historical Society. there followed a question and answer session with the panel and an enlightening ensuing discussion, with a few useful and interesting contributions from the floor, such as the point that Sweden has a full land registry which is also fully publicly accessible. On the suggestion from the floor that what is needed is a public clamour to expose the land monopoly of this country (by myself!), Lord Laird made the interesting point in response that of all the issues that he has received correspondence on, land ownership is one he has never even received a letter about. All interesting food-for-thought.

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