Title deeds are documents dealing with the ownership or occupation of estates and rights in land. They are usually found in bundles (covering anything from decades to centuries) constituting the `title' of a particular piece of land (defined by law as including all buildings and structures upon land and mines and minerals below it) as `searched' or investigated by solicitors upon the transfer or creation of estates and rights in that piece of land. Security of title has necessitated the preservation of vast numbers of bundles of deeds. At each conveyance of a particular piece of land, to give a simple example, the vendor handed over the deeds of title to the purchaser and thus the bundle grew.
With the introduction of Land Registration and the simplification of conveyancing (as a result of extensive reform in the nineteenth century and, especially, by the Law of Property Act of 1925/6) investigation of title has become much easier and the retention of large bundles of deeds is nowadays less important. Large numbers of deeds, therefore, have entered Record Offices via firms of solicitors, landed families, businesses, and individuals. Many remain in the hands of present and former owners of land, often large landowners (such as the Church) and companies and Banks and Building Societies (usually as Mortgagees). Equally, large numbers have doubtless been destroyed. Fragmentation and consolidation of landed estates has been so complex that tracing the deeds relating to a particular piece of land can often be very difficult and the survival rates for deeds for parishes may vary considerably depending on the history and structure of land ownership there.
A bundle typically consists mainly of the legal instruments or deeds themselves (i.e. conveyances, mortgages, leases, and settlements etc.), but may also include many other papers ancillary to the title and kept for that reason, such as wills and other probate records, maps and plans, sale particulars, fire insurance policies, and solicitors' bills and correspondence. Deeds are usually of parchment, varying greatly in size and shape from medieval deeds of a few inches to nineteenth century marriage settlements consisting of several parchment skins or membranes (each measuring about 2 feet by 3 feet), and from about 1550 onwards they are mostly written in English. Often, particularly where part of an estate has been sold off, an abstract of title is found summarising the documents of title for the benefit of the purchaser, the vendor wishing to retain the original deeds with his remaining estate.
Title deeds are a neglected source. Much of the explanation for this lies in the nature of the documents themselves. Visually unattractive, with an often large and cumbersome physical format, they employ a technical language which is full of long and repetitive legal verbiage, and they are frequently difficult to read. Armed with a knowledge of their basic structure and format, however, one need have no difficulty in extracting certain specific information without spending undue time on common form. They key is knowing where to look for factual information by being able to recognise the clauses and forms constituting the document. Two pamphlets are invaluable to the beginner in this respect: How to Read Old Title Deeds: XVI-XIX centuries by Julian Cornwall, and Title Deeds: 13th-19th Centuries by A.A. Dibben. If you are using a deed in our searchroom, ask the Archivist on duty for these two booklets which will help you to identify the forms and composition of the document and enable you to understand its purpose and effect.
The research potential of title deeds is wide and varied. They are of great use to social and economic historians as a source for the growth, management and consolidation of estates, and give insights into husbandry and land management, ownership patterns, land values and agricultural developments. To the historical geographer, topographer, and village historian, they can yield detailed information about fields (pre-inclosure strips in the open fields, for instance), place-names, and buildings. For someone tracing the history of a house, the deeds to the property are a vital starting point providing lists of past owners and occupiers (which make the building traceable using other sources), and detailed and exact descriptions of the building or site at different dates (perhaps with a plan or inventory of fixtures) in relation to its neighbouring properties. Finally, since they contain lots of personal names, deeds are an important quarry for the family historian. Names yielded vary in number from as few as two in a final concord to as many as fifty or more (of quite varied social status) in a large conveyance or settlement (perhaps containing a terrier and reciting the title back a century or more). Not only owners are named but also occupiers (or tenants) and, occasionally, sub-tenants of the land in question and often of adjoining lands or properties and for more than one generation. The uniquely varied histories of individual estates means that deeds can be an endless source of serendipity to family and village historians alike.
At Bedfordshire Archives, most deeds are calendared - that is catalogued or listed in detail. All the personal names and other unique information mentioned in each document are recorded in the catalogues. The main information is conveniently accessible from the catalogues and, of course, the original document can be consulted on request.