The Manorial Document Register for Wiltshire and Swindon goes Live!

on Monday, 18 July 2016. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

On Tuesday 12 July the new Wiltshire and Swindon Manorial Documents Register went live on The National Archives Discovery website

Wiltshire joins other counties on Discovery in providing up-to-date information on where the county’s manorial records are kept. These are key historical sources on the lives of our ancestors for family and local historians, for planning and rights of way enquiries and for students and scholars of all ages. Most, but not all, of Wiltshire’s manorial records are kept at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, but the online Manorial Documents Register within Discovery makes it possible to search one database for the County’s records held in all British and overseas archives.

The revision and online publication of the Wiltshire and Swindon MDR has been made possible by generous grants from The National Archives and the Federation of Family History Societies. Claire Skinner, principal archivist, has managed the project and the work has been done by project officer Dr Virginia Bainbridge and a team of 20 volunteers, assisted by Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre staff. The launch took place at a buffet lunch to thank all the volunteers!

Volunteers for the Manorial Documents Register join Claire Skinner of WSHC and Sarah Charlton of the TNA in celebrating the launch of the MDR, with project officer Virginia Bainbridge (fourth from the right in the back row)

In 1086, Domesday Book recorded information on all the landed estates of England. Many of these estates developed into the manors which controlled their tenants’ lives for over eight more centuries. Manorial officials began writing records in the decades around 1200 when record-keeping became more common.

The manor was the basic unit of local government long before the parish took over this role around 1600. Manor courts registered tenancies and tried minor offences. Like councils today, they controlled licensed premises, weights and measures and markets. The lord’s officials – reeves, bailiffs and agents – kept accounts of crop and stock yields, made extents, surveys and valuations, and drew maps. After the enclosure of common fields and pastures, a process which reached its peak around 1780, manor courts no longer controlled common agriculture, but they still registered tenancies of farms and cottages, recorded last wills and testaments for their tenants, and dealt with public nuisances like blocked ditches.

Manorial records survive today in surprisingly large quantities, mostly dating from 1700 to 1922. Their location is recorded by the Manorial Document Register, set up by the Law of Property Act which abolished the legal powers of manor courts in 1922. They are one of the most underused sources of family and local history, providing enough information to create short biographies of leading tenants from the 1200s on, and augmenting information from parish records and the Census. The revised MDR will provide greater public access to this important body of records, and this will be enhanced yet further by a legacy project of name-indexing the records which is being carried out by a group of volunteers on behalf of the Wiltshire Family History Society. This will enable researchers to drill down to individuals such as Lodwick Waite of Lacock, instructed to remove the pile of manure between his house and his neighbour’s by the manor court of Lacock, in October 1715, or Robert Shewring, bread weigher and ale taster for the same manor, appointed in 1706. Learning such intimate details of our ancestors’ lives will enable us to build up a detailed and fascinating picture of our communities.

Dr Virginia Bainbridge MDR project officer for Wiltshire and Swindon

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