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A short report 

(which will be expanded)

by John Angus


The history of England could be written as a history of the ownership of land. Significant historical events in the past 1000 years which led to major changes in landownership include the Norman Conquest, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Civil War, the Restoration, the Jacobite rebellion, the industrial revolution, the decline of the aristocracy, and the continual enclosure of common land over several centuries.  The whole social and economic structure was centred on the ownership of land, and landowners were the primary patrons of art and artists.

Ownership of land provides social and economic power.  It has been estimated that at present about 70% of the land in the UK is owned by 0.7% of the population.  The effects of this example of economic inequality are rarely discussed, and it is not easy to obtain information about ownership of land.  Most other countries in Europe, and the USA, have an easily accessible cadastral map, that is a map of landownership, but the UK does not.  

Following our "Landed (Freeman's Wood)" project, I thought it would be an interesting next step to explore landownership mapping, and so planned a project to commission artists’ cadastral maps. The maps would show both current and historical ownership, so would be layered, showing change over time. 

I had learnt enough to know that it not be easy to gather the necessary information to produce such maps, so I proposed to conduct a pilot project, to test out what information is available and how to find it.  Funding applications to Arts Council England and the Landscape Research Group were successful, and the idea became “Landed (Cadastral Maps) - a pilot”.

For our sample plot, I selected a rural east-west slice of North Lancashire, from the sea coast at the remains of Cockersand Abbey, across to the moorlands at the Trough of Bowland. It lies between the Ordnance Survey northing lines 52 to 55, and easting 40 to 63.  This is about 14,000 acres, roughly 12 miles from west to east, 1¾ miles north-south.  

I commissioned two artists to work with me – Layla Curtis and Rebecca Chesney. There was no intention to produce any artworks at this stage, simply to research the sources of information which might be available.


The research process

We investigated and explored the sources and methods required to produce artists’ cadastral maps of the area.  This involved seeking information about land ownership, both current and historic.  We set up a private online blog to share information, photos, and comments with each other as we proceeded, and to provide a record of the project activity.

For historical information we searched various archives. We looked at documents and maps in the archives at Lancashire Record Office, Lancaster University, the University of Central Lancashire, and the National Archives in Kew. We searched on line documentation, particularly history websites eg British History Online.  



We focussed on those documents which included maps of landownership. There is information about landowners in the area, starting before the Norman Conquest, but it is not accompanied by accurate maps until relatively recently. The earliest we found was an estate map of 1670, which closely matched a contemporary OS map. We discovered that estate auction sale documents were very useful, as they come with maps and full details of the plots for sale. We also looked at the records of the 1910 survey of landownership. This has maps of landownership plots, together with record books which list the owners and various details about each plot.

For contemporary landownership we obviously went to the Land Registry.  Geographic Information Systems software enabled us to use online information from the Land Registry to create a map showing all the landownership plots (over 700), referred to as 'polygons', in our rectangular area. Some of these irregularly shaped polygons extend far beyond the confines of our patch.

Plots map.jpg


The Registry charges a small fee for information on the ownership of each plot, and we did not have sufficient funds to pay for them all, so we narrowed down our selection to an affordable number, about 200 plots, and produced a map of those.

Theoretically, it is possible to submit such a map to the Land Registry, and for them to supply a file in return which shows the ownership of each plot. Unfortunately, we had great difficulty in obtaining this information from the Land Registry, and despite much effort, and support from other people, we did not obtain as much data as planned, or in the format sought.  After spending a lot of time on this approach, we finally decided to take the basic option of purchasing information on individual plots, one by one, on the LR website. We bought data on 50 plots in this way, distributed across our selected area, which gave a partial picture of current ownership.

Further information was obtained simply by walking and cycling across the land.  I walked most, if not all, of the public footpaths in the area. It’s a great way to understand the lie of the land.  I also talked to several local amateur historians, who provided lots of interesting details. 

We maintained contact with an activist, Guy Shrubsole, who writes a blog called ‘Who Owns England?’ and has now written a book on the topic.  He supplied some information he had found about landownership in Lancashire. 

Geographic Information Systems

As part of the project, we acquired basic knowledge of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software software and Python programming.  We knew that this could be used for creating multi-layered maps with text and images, so would be invaluable.  Also, it has been essential for obtaining, understanding and manipulating information from the Land Registry about landownership in the area.   All the LR data is in this format, and requires use of this software to access it, if information on more than a few individual land parcels, or polygons as they are designated, is required.  

An exhibition

An extra and unplanned output of the project was an exhibition. I was invited to create a display about the whole “Landed” project to date for a group exhibition at the Peter Scott Gallery at Lancaster University, which I did with contributions from both other artists.


A summary of our research findings

From these various sources we pieced together an outline description of the history of landownership in our patch.  It reflects many of the historical events which led to changes in landownership in England mentioned above : the Norman Conquest, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Civil War, the Restoration, the rise of wealthy industrialists, and the decline of the landed gentry. 

A convenient way to summarise the information is by reference to the significant buildings in the area. As might be expected, the major landowners have also been the occupiers of the major buildings in the area.

The oldest building, situated on the coast, is the remains of Cockersand Abbey. This abbey was a major landowner until the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century.

The purchaser of their landholdings in our area was Hugh Dalton, who lived at Thurnham Hall, a building dating back to before the fourteenth century.  The Daltons purchased further land in the area and became major landowners.  The family lived in the Hall until the 1970s when it was sold, and is now in time-share holiday apartments.  Presumably the land was sold then or earlier, but we have not found records of that yet.

The next significant building, proceeding from west to east, is Ellel Grange.  This land was bought by William Preston, a merchant and Mayor of Liverpool who wanted a country house. The Preston family lived in the Grange until the 1970s when it was sold, and is now a religious retreat. The 1910 survey shows that the family had acquired a lot more land in the area by that time, but presumably it was also sold in the 1970s or earlier.

Next is Wyreside Hall, the eighteenth century home of John Fenton Cawthorne, who was MP for Lancaster several times. He had inherited a lot of land in our area from his mother’s family, the Cawthornes.  He was often in debt, and sold land to raise funds, but still had 6000 acres when he died in 1835.


The purchaser of Wyreside Hall itself, and most of Fenton-Cawthorne’s land, was Robert Garnett, from Manchester, who had made his fortune in cotton and the railways. The Garnett family lived in the house until 1936, since when it has had a variety of owners and uses.  It is now being converted into a hotel by a company registered offshore. When the Garnetts sold, they had 12,000 acres. So obviously they had acquired a lot more land.  

But they had already sold some land in the 1880s to the Fourth Earl of Sefton, who built Abbeystead House in 1887. This was originally intended as a shooting lodge, based in the middle of grouse moors, but it gradually became the family home, and they acquired more surrounding land. The Seftons lived there until the death of the seventh Earl in the 1980s, when they had over 20,000 acres.  The house and entire estate was then bought by the Duke of Westminster, who still owns it. A map of his estate placed on to top of the map our area shows its relative size.

Duke of Westminster Grosvenor Estate


Another significant landowner in our area, but not based in a building, is the Duchy of Lancaster, that is the Queen. It seems that the Duchy bought some of the Garnett’s land in the twentieth century. On my walks I noticed several farms bearing the Duchy shield on their name-plates, and some woodlands with signs asserting its ownership.  The Land Registry data confirmed these observations.  The Duchy also owns the land around the coast up to the mid-high tide line, shown by the strange shapes at the left of our map.


Next Steps

So, in this pilot we have collected sufficient information to produce a fragmentary summary of landownership in our area, over the past few centuries.  We have learnt that there is a lot more information available, and we now hope to obtain funds to continue our search, and to produce artists’ cadastral maps showing historical change of landownership in our selected geographical slice.  This would be a demonstration example of landownership mapping and its history in England.