|Acton Burnell manor house, Shropshire
Few people consider using manorial records while researching their English and Welsh ancestry, but you’d be surprised how useful they can be. One of the difficulties can be that they are not always easy to track down – they can be held a long way from the place they relate to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find them, you just need to know how.
When I first began doing family history research, to track down manorial documents I had to go the National Register of Archives building, discreetly tucked away in Quality Court, Chancery Lane in London. This was the same street that housed part of the Public Record Office, but at that time there was no other connection between these two organisations. In 2003 they combined to form The National Archives, and both are now entirely based at Kew.
The first thing you had to do was identify the manor that you wanted, which might or might not have the same name as the parish where your ancestors lived. If it did have the same name, it didn’t have the same boundaries, and there might be a number of manors connected with the parish. You had to ask for the parish books, which were lovely chunky little volumes, arranged by county, that listed all the manors relating to each parish. Once you knew the manor or manors you were dealing with, you needed another set of books, the manor books, which told you what records survived for each manor, and where they were held. Some of them were roughly where you might expect them to be, and others were in places you might never think of looking. For example, most of the manorial records for Chesham, where I live, are in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, or in record offices in the neighbouring counties of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. But if you are interested in Andover, Hampshire, you’ll find plenty of records in the Hampshire Archives, or Winchester College Archives, but also a sizeable number at Magdalen College, Oxford, which is not the first place you’d look for Hampshire records! There are even some documents here at The National Archives, and one set which isn’t in a record office at all, but is in private hands.
Nowadays this part of the process is a little easier, because the chunky little books have been microfilmed, and are on open access here in The National Archives, Kew. For some counties, including the whole of Wales, you can even do the search online, although for the really interesting bit, looking at the actual records, you still have to go to a record office in person. The latest county to be added to the online Manorial Documents Register is Shropshire, so this might open up some new possibilities for research if you have a connection with that county. I don’t, but I wish I did, because it’s a lovely place to visit.
If you want to know what you might find in manorial records, and why they might be useful to you, there is a useful Research Signpost on the subject, with links to more in-depth information.