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Understanding Common Record Types: Land deeds

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

“There is nothing more likely to start disagreement among people or countries than an agreement”

E.B. White 

Introduction to land deeds

Legal documents relating to changes in ownership of or entitlement to land or property.

Why they were created

To record and authorise legal agreements made in relation to transactions concerning specific pieces of land or property, such as purchases, transfer of ownership, and entitlement.

Who might have created them

Created by solicitors or land agents acting on behalf of the parties involved in such transactions.

Where you might find them

Usually found amongst papers relating to the management of estates, land and property. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Solicitors
  • Land agents
  • Landed families
  • Estates

Period from which they most commonly survive

Appear in the archival record from the early medieval period, becoming significantly more abundant during 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Key features

Physical features

  • Parchment
  • Manuscript writing in ink
  • Single sheets, which, if extending to more than one sheet, are sewn together at the foot of the page
  • Applied or pendent wax seal
  • Indented with a waved or zigzagged cut along the top of the page, which indicates that the document was created in duplicate as one item before being cut in half (the idea being that the two parts could be reunited to prove authenticity if a dispute ever arose)

Informational content

  • Names of the parties involved
  • Occupation and status of the parties involved, i.e. grocer, gentleman, etc.
  • Place of residence of parties involved, i.e. of Hull, of Beverley, etc.
  • Name and description of the extent of the land or property in question
  • Current ownership of the land or property in question and the person to whom the entitlement transfers as a result of the transaction
  • Consideration sum, i.e. the amount of money or goods involved to secure the transaction
  • Any existing claims on the land or property, i.e. mortgages, rights of existing tenants and for what periods, etc.
  • Names of all witnesses to the transaction

U DDCA/37/46b

Confirmation by William II and his brother Robert Duke of Normandy, of an exchange of land between the Abbot of Caen and William de Tornebu, in Latin, c.1086-1096

U DDMC/9/124

Sale, with affixed seals, recording the sale of ownership of 5 houses at Beckside, Beverley, by Christopher Duncum, bricklayer, to John Walker, book keeper, both of Beverley, for £135, 12 Aug 1813

U DDDU/11/45

Deed of partition of premises at Thixendale in the parish of Wharram Percy, Messrs John and William Marshal to Mr Richard Smithson, 30 Dec 1815

U DDPR/7/458

Mortgage in the amount of £60, Richard Newsham, farmer, his wife Hannah, and son John Newsham, tailor, all of Riccall, to Mary Johnson of York, spinster, 9 Jan 1836


Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Land transactions are completed by legal process, land deeds record this process and are legal documents
  • To be considered legal documents, deeds must contain certain features, including the signatures or marks and seals of the parties involved and of witnesses to the transaction, if such features are not present we cannot assume the transaction took place and the document might be a draft
  • When dealing with land deeds involving women, we must remember that, prior to the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, the rights to any property owned by a woman passed to her husband upon a legal marriage
  • As such, we must be careful to take into account the marital status of individuals when evaluating trends relating to property ownership by women prior to the late 19th century

Potential research uses

Land deeds can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Land and property ownership in a given geographical area
  • Management and ownership of a particular piece of land or property
  • Holdings of a particular individual or family
  • How the extent and composition of an estate has altered over time
  • Tracing of no longer extant buildings
  • Changes to the names of buildings, fields and pieces of land

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Key terminology in land law
  • Secretary script, as most pre-19th century land deeds will be written in a Secretary or mixed Secretary/Italic hand
  • Imperial system of measurement and currency, as extents of land boundaries will be noted in Imperial measures of length and area, and consideration sums will be noted in Imperial currency
  • Basic Latin, as medieval and some early modern deeds are written in Latin rather than English
  • Constituent parts of different types of land deeds, which will help you use common set phrases to pick out salient details

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of land deeds using our online catalogue. Try using search terms based on different types of land deeds, such as marriage settlement, bargain & sale, lease, release, conveyance, mortgage, etc.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of land deeds held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.

Further help

Help available online:

The following secondary literature provides detailed analysis of deeds and the issues surrounding them, and demonstrates how they can be used in historical research: