How can title deeds help my family history research?

What are title deeds?

This might seem like a simple question with a simple answer – a legal document that is signed and delivered, most commonly transferring the ownership of freehold property or legal right which have been in use for centuries although before the Statute of Frauds Act 1677 written documents or deeds were not necessary to transfer land.

Before the 14th century deeds may exist which simply record the ‘ceremony’ of the transfer of land. The ‘ceremony’ known as ‘Feoffment with livery [delivery] of seizin [possession]” was all that was necessary and entailed the feoffer (vendor) and feoffee (purchaser) attending the land with witnesses and the feoffer gave the feoffee a handful of earth from the land (or a blade of grass, twig, oral declaration) to symbolise the transfer of the property. Because this was a public act everyone knew who now owned the property.

Other ‘deeds or legal documents concerning the transfer of property in existence before 1677,

include Final Concords (or Fines), Common Recoveries, Quitclaims,  Leases and even marriage settlements.

However much or little they tell us about the actual buildings, deeds are prime sources for the history of owners and occupiers. The occupation or status of each party is usually given and family relationships are frequently set out in some detail. Since property was often inherited rather than purchased, other records such as wills that were not proved were often bundled together with the deeds.

Descriptions of buildings on deeds are rarely precise although descriptions of land in the same deeds can be more specific, down to giving the names of individual fields, which may sometimes be identified on maps and thus assist in locating the house.

The most common title deeds, usually found in local archives, are discussed further below. This is however not an exhaustive list and other forms of title deeds may be found.

Final Concords of Fines

Dating from the 12th century to 1833 when they were abolished by the Fines and Recoveries Act, a Final Concord involved a fictitious common law dispute being brought by the purchaser against the vendor with the parties entering into an agreement which settled the action by way of a final concord (agreement), the court giving permission for the property to pass to the purchaser. They were used for conveying both freehold and copyhold land.

Final Concords in the Feet of Fines enrolled with the Court of Common Pleas, Court of King’s Bench and the roving General Eyre and Assize courts are held at TNA.


Surrey History Centre Ref: G165/277/4/1&2 dated June 1739/40

Quitclaims were used both to help to secure transactions and on their own to convey land. They enabled the purchaser to ensure no other person who may have a potential interest in the property, such as relatives, beneficiary, creditors etc of the vendor, would be able to overturn the transfer by requesting they sign a quitclaim waiving all their potential rights and agreeing not to bring any legal action.

They can be found between the 12th and 19th centuries, sometimes being referred to as ‘Releases’, or ‘Releases of claims’ from the seventeenth century .

Quitclaims were often used to transfer of intangible property, such as payment of legacies or annuities. When the legacy or annuity (or similar) was paid, a quitclaim would be signed by the recipient relinquishing any  rights to the land from which the money was raised.

Common Recoveries

Common Recoveries date from the 15th century until their abolition under the Fines and Recoveries Act  1833. A Common Recovery was simpler than that a Final Concord, in that the purchaser simply brought proceedings claiming the property from the vendor which the vendor did not defend although would appoint a ‘vouchee’ to confirm the vendors title to the property. The ‘vouchee’ would leave the court and not return leaving the court to grant the property to the ‘purchaser’ in default.

Common Recoveries recorded in Plea Rolls and Recovery Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas are held at TNA.

Bargain and Sale

These developed after the Statute of Uses 1535/6 and meant that the property had been bargained and sold from one person to another. The purchaser paid the vendor a sum that corresponded with the value of the land and was considered the legal owner. Technically, it transferred the use without seisin (possession) taking place but to all intents and purposes, it was a sale of the property and the deed recorded the agreement. This was typically used in families who wanted to provide for the next generation.

Technically this required no legal document until the Statute of Enrolments was passed in 1535/6 requiring such transfers to be made by deed which had to be enrolled within 6 months at the courts of Westminster (Close Rolls held at TNA) or with the Clerk of the Peace (found at local record offices). A separate deed of feoffment was also often prepared in lieu of livery of seisin to confirm the same, as the courts judged the ‘bargain and sale’ deed did not enfeoff the land.

Usually, the deed recorded the parties’ names, the date, the price paid and details of the property.

Surrey History Centre Ref: Ref: 212/114/1 Date: 1/8/1601

Lease and Release

Lease and Releases can be found from the 16th century to the 19th century, gradually replacing ‘bargain and sale’. The wording of a Lease and Release is similar to and can be confused with a Bargain and Sale, however, if the term is limited to 6 months or 1 year, and the consideration is of 5 shillings with a rent of one peppercorn per year, then it is most likely the ‘lease’ part of a Lease and Release.

The Lease and Release were two separate but linked documents. The ‘vendor’ would lease the property to the ‘purchaser’ usually for a period of one year for a nominal rent and the following day the ‘vendor’, would release his right to have the property returned to him at the end of the lease in return for the ‘purchaser’ making a payment to the property value.

Because the ‘purchaser’ was already in possession all that was required was the transfer of the incorporeal hereditaments which only required a deed for their transfer, such a deed did not require enrolment.

This method became the most popular method of conveying land and ‘A Statute for rendering a Release as effectual for the conveyance of a freehold estate as a Lease and Release’ was passed on 18th May 1841 no longer requiring the lease part provided the transfer was stated to be made in pursuance of the Act.

Trusts and Settlements

From the 17th Century the practice of Settlements developed in the Court of Chancery. The Settlement was (and remains) a deed by which the owner (settlor) set outs how the property is to pass down through future generations. Such settlements would usually operate behind a trust, with the settlor being one of the trustees (there would usually be at least two trustees), although a trust was not necessary until the Settled Land Act 1925. The effect was that a beneficiary had no right to sell the property or leave by Will.

The Settled Land Acts 1882 to 1890 changed this allowing a tenant for life the power to sell the fee simple interest in the land attaching the interests of the beneficiaries to the proceeds of sale instead.

The most common type of settlement was the marriage settlement. These were usually “strict settlements” whereby strict terms of how the property was to be owned and who could inherit were set out. In terms of a marriage settlement the terms were usually for the lives of the husband and wife (tenants for life) and then to their children and the property could not be sold without the consent of the various heirs and trustees. Marriage settlements usually have the wording “…in consideration of the marriage agreed upon by Gods permission and shortly intended to be had and solemnised between…” or may be post marriage.

These can be used for both freehold and copyhold property.

Surrey History Centre Ref: G96/10/9 dated 15th December 1746

Whilst these are usually found in local archives, amongst family papers, they may also be found amongst Chancery records (which protects rights of beneficiaries) at The National Archives.


Other documents relating to the title of property which may be found in local archives include Mortgages; Bonds; Letters patent which granted land directly to an individual directly from the Crown; Grants or Conveyances (1845-1925); Leases; Abstracts of Title.

Abstracts of Title are particularly useful for tracing house history and the inheritance of property through a family. An Abstract of Title is a chronological account of transfers, mortgages, settlements, wills, and other transactions relating to the property over a period of time, usually prepared by solicitors when the property was being sold as proof of the sellers’ title to the property.

They include the main information provided by each deed and can be exceptionally long documents which are most likely to be found from the start of the 18th century. Where found can avoid the need to trawl through bundles/boxes of deeds.

A vast number of Titles deeds survive and are often amongst the oldest records to survive, in their various guises, can provide several generations of a family and document how families were connected as well as providing a history of the property itself. Land registration did not begin until 1862 when a voluntary system was introduced and it was not until 1899 when compulsory registration began for certain types of land when it changed hands with an increasing number of property transactions gradually being made compulsory over the next 90 years until compulsory registration for all land transactions was introduced in 1990.

Being amongst the oldest surviving records, title deeds can be particularly useful before the start of parish registers (or where early registers have not survived) because not only were landowners named but trustees, tenants, occupiers, mortgagees and owners of adjoining land (when describing its location). For later years, when used alongside other contemporary records, such as manorial records, parish records, wills and probate records, court records, and the vast array of other records available they can provide a good insight into lives of our ancestors.

Ne usefuel resource for find out more about title deeds is the University of Nottingham’s Manuscript and Special Collections research guide:

where you can also find a useful glossary, document identification flowchart, table explaining the different deeds and documents

My next blog will look at how deeds can turn into disputes which dealt with in the Chancery Courts, another rich source of information for tracing both family and house history.

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