Records for farming history, 1480-1790

‘This County is famous for its Wool, Pease and particularly Beans even to a Proverb, for the producing of which the Soil seems to be Naturally adapted, and which the Shepherds, Husbandmen and poorer Inhabitants make a considerable part of their food’. (From Emanuel Bowen’s map of Leicestershire, 1756)

The three most useful classes of record to help you to find out more about how the land in a parish was farmed between 1480 and 1790 are terriers/surveys, probate records (especially inventories) and manor court records (although unfortunately few of these survive):

Terriers and surveys

Probate records

Manor court records

Terriers and surveys

Terriers and surveys are written records of landholdings, recording ownership and/or occupation, and describing the location and sometimes the area of the land. The most common are glebe terriers, describing the land held by the church, which were compiled every three years (in theory, although surviving records suggest that was not always the case).

Widow Skinner's land, Queniborough, 1640

A survey of the land held by widow Skinner in Middle Field, Queniborough in 1640. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, 35’29/415

Terriers list all the land held, strip by strip, close by close. In respect of land held in open fields, they will describe the location in terms of both the field and furlong, together with the names of the occupiers of the land on each side. They therefore reveal the number of open fields, but will not cast light on the total number of owners or occupiers, as there may be some whose land did not border the land being described. Glebe terriers are particularly useful for tracing the progress of enclosure, as they provide a description of the same land at regular (or irregular) intervals, and become progressively shorter as strips in open fields are replaced by closes, reducing the number of parcels of land. The actual size or area of each strip is not usually recorded, and will vary with the lie of the land. Names of furlongs can be informative, indicating land particularly suited to certain crops, such as flax or rye. The way that the strips were laid out can sometimes still be seen in the ridge and furrow that underlies much of the permanent pasture in the heavy soils in the south and east of the county, or in old aerial photographs of the land. Surveys, which provide an accurate measurement of the land being described, were usually compiled for individuals, for example when land was sold or provided as a marriage portion, and occasionally on inheritance. Major landowners might also have a survey book, perhaps accompanying an estate map, listing the size of each parcel of their land, its use if enclosed and, if rented, the name of the occupier. The total quantity of the land may be given in yardlands, which varied in size from parish to parish, as well as in statute acres, allowing the size of the parish yardland to be calculated.

A survey of 1640 of widow Skinner’s land in Queniborough in 1640, for example, shows that there were five open fields: Middle Field, Hayhill Field, Ashe Field, Great Sand Field and Little Sand Field, and also some meadow. Her 2½ yardlands comprised many scattered individual strips and was made up as follows:

38.5     acres arable land (including fallow) plus

13        acres leys in the open fields, plus

  1        acre close adjacent to house, plus

  5.75   acres meadow

58.25   acres                                                                     i.e. 23 acres per yardland.


Probate records

The probate inventory was a detailed list of the possessions (excluding freehold land) that a person owned when they died, together with their value. It was compiled by two or three local people within a few days of the death, and had to be filed with the church courts if the total value was £5 or more. Although inventories do not exist for the poorest people in society, they do stretch down the social scale to include many labourers, who would often have had a strip or two of land in the open fields of the village in the period before enclosure. Over 15,000 survive for Leicestershire, most from between 1529 and the early eighteenth century, but earlier and much later inventories do exist, although not in significant numbers.

A single inventory can tell you about how one person farmed his or her land, but a series is far better, as any one individual may have been unusual, and because seasonality can affect interpretation. The value of 15 acres of corn will vary substantially over the growing season, from effectively nothing immediately after planting, when germination is still uncertain, to a peak when safely harvested, and both yield and quality are known. The date of death can also affect the value of livestock, for example, the value of sheep will reduce immediately  after shearing. Sacks of wool can easily be identified as farming assets and added to the value of newly shorn sheep, but the value of the wool cannot be distinguished if it has been sold. Seasonality poses challenges when trying to compare inventories, or when trying to calculate the proportion of assets people had invested in the arable and livestock sides of their farm. It is therefore important to base any conclusions you make on a large sample of inventories and to be consistent in the assumptions you make when analysing them. For a small village, every inventory should be examined, and if these are used with other records such as wills, deeds and parish registers, it may be possible to trace a farm through three or more generations. This can confirm some of the assumptions you make, although it is important to bear in mind that farms sizes could change, as additional land was bought, leased or sold. If you are not used to reading early handwriting and struggle to read some of the documents, the online tutorial produced by The National Archives may help.

Joell Shuttlewood, inventory

Part of the inventory of Joell Shuttlewood of Thurcaston. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, PR/I/70/267

A useful way to start is by comparing farms of the same approximate size, picking a 20 years period and using the total value of farming assets as an approximate guide to similar acreages, as some inventories will mention acres of crops, while others mention yield, volume or simply provide a value. Create a table listing for each the nature and value of each main type of farming asset shown, but start with no more than 12-15 inventories, or you may feel overwhelmed by the quantity of information. Also note the size of the house, its rooms and the value and type of household goods held. You can then look for changes in farming practices over time, signs of specialisation and increases in living standards before comparing that cohort with others. Can you identify the differences between the farms and farmhouses of gentlemen, yeomen and husbandmen? How much land and how many animals do those identified as labourers typically have? What about craftsmen and shepherds? What can be said about the farms held by widows? Those whose farm assets seem too small for their status are probably elderly people who had effectively given up farming, perhaps passing most of their  land on to their children, retaining just a couple of strips.

Identifying the acreage farmed is not always straightforward even with inventories that mention acres of crops, because fallow land will always be ‘silent’. In the era of open field farming, a person with 4 acres of corn (the generic term for any cereal crop) and 4 acres of peas will probably hold 12 acres of land, as another 4 acres will be fallow. This would be a typical three-field rotation, with the corn field planted in the autumn, the peas (or beans) planted in the spring and grown largely as a fodder crop, and the third field being left fallow for a season, manured by grazing animals. It would be usual to hold an equal quantity of land in each of the open fields, to avoid any disadvantage through crop rotation. However, most inventories are far more difficult to interpret. Hoskins showed how the later 16th and 17th centuries saw more arable land farmed as ‘leys’, where a farmer laid down a strip in an otherwise arable field as grass, to provide hay or more grazing. Clues to leys include uneven acreages within the individual fields and the mention of ‘fleakes’ in an inventory, which were used to fence off individual arable strips. Crop rotations also became more complex, with 4, 5 and 6-field rotations introduced through the division of one or more of the open fields. Consider the inventory of Joell Shuttlewood of Thurcaston, for example, who is described as a gentleman, and whose assets on his death in December 1670 were valued at £126 18s. The following lines within the inventory relate to his arable land:




Wheate   and Barley in the Barne




Pease   on the hovell & in the Barne




Haye   in the Barne




9   acres of winter Corne upon the Ground




16   acres of Beane Earth




The differing quantities of land in the corn and bean fields, together with a substantial quantity of hay from the previous season suggest that Shuttlewood may have laid down some of his arable land as leys. So how much land did he have in total? It would not be unreasonable to estimate that he held a 48-acre farm, with 16 acres of ground in the field that had just been planted with beans, 9 acres of corn plus another 7 acres of grass in the village corn field, plus 16 acres in the fallow field. Other assumptions could also be valid. A glebe terrier from this date would confirm the number of open fields at this time.

Wills can help to establish whether the people whose inventories you are studying died in the prime of life or in old age, and whether they had children to inherit the farm, facts that can help with your analysis. Both wills and inventories can mention pieces of land, and especially closes, by name. This can help to identify a frm’s location and trace ownership through several generations.

Manor court records

Thurcaston stint, 1695

An agreement made in January 1694/5 in respect of the open fields of Thurcaston. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, DE 1416/58.

The overgrazing of land was a major problem within the open field system, and was managed by regulations restricting the number of animals a person could graze on the fallow field and the meadowland. Records of stints may be included within surveys or terriers, but can also survive in the form of signed agreements, as a copy would often have been kept in the parish chest or by the manorial officials in case of disputes. The number of animals varied widely from parish to parish, but those grazing more animals than their entitlement would be subject to a fine, which would also be set out in the agreement. Stints were revised from time to time, according to the amount of grazing available, the fertility of the soil, and changes to farming practices, for example affecting the ratio of cows to sheep within a manor. An agreement made in Thurcaston in 1695, for example, laid down that no one could graze more than sixteen sheep and eight cattle for each yardland they held, with a horse equating to two cows. Details of stints may help to determine the amount of land held by someone whose inventory only records values rather than acres, although you do need to bear in mind the possibility of extra grazing land being rented.

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