Landed Estate Records

Landed estate papers are an invaluable source for family and local historians. Unlike valuation records which to a large extent complement estate records, both geographical and temporal coverage of estates can be patchy. However, if available for the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, estate maps and rentals can provide a unique opportunity to find out who was living in the townlands of the estate at that time. As well as maps and rentals a collection of estate papers can include rentals, leases, lease books, surveys, correspondence and accounts which provide us with information on how the estate was run and the tenants who occupied it at various times in the past. Below, you will find an introduction to these various items.


Perhaps the most useful source when searching for a particular name in a townland or larger district are the rentals, rent rolls or rent books which record rent payments made by a tenant to his landlord.  They are generally arranged by year (rents were usually paid half-yearly in May and November). Usually, several years are covered by the same volume. The information provided will usually be limited to the name of the tenant, the extent and location of his holding and the rent payable by him. Occasionally rentals are annotated when a change in occupancy takes place. An 1884-1903 rent roll for the Mercers estate, located in the Kilrea, Swatragh district of Co. Londonderry, had a comments column in which the following entry appeared against the farm of Ellen Houston [circa 16 acres] in the townland of Gorteade - "On 28th October 1896 the probate of the will of Ellen Houston, dated 6th August 1890, was produced and William McCormick, her nephew, was taken on as tenant".  Another entry in 1894 relating to the farm of John Toye in the same townland reads - "16th May 1894 farm transferred to John Toye Jun., love and affection".


A lease granted by a landlord to a tenant gave him the right to occupy the property for a specific period of time. Two copies of a lease were usually prepared; the original lease was signed by the landlord and kept by the tenant. The counterpart was signed by the tenant and kept by the landlord. A lease was usually for a term of years e.g. 21, 31 or 41. Until 1778 Roman Catholics could not hold leases of more than 31 years.

Leases were more common in the eighteenth century. Most eighteenth-century leases that came to an end in the nineteenth century were not renewed. Instead tenants were given an annual tenancy and effectively were tenant-at-will, their only protection being the Ulster Custom of Tenant Right. This custom usually meant that a tenant would not be evicted if he paid his rent and if he left the farm, for whatever reason, he would be entitled to a sum of money from the incoming tenant which reflected the value of the farm at that time.

Throughout the eighteenth century leases for three lives were in fairly widespread use. These leases were often for a term of years [usually 31 or 41 years] or for three lives, whichever was the longer. A three-lives lease expired when all the three persons named in the lease had died. This explains why some eighteenth-century leases lasted well into the nineteenth century. Tenants often named young relatives in the hope that at least one of them would survive for many years. In certain instances it was quite difficult to ascertain whether a particular life in a lease had expired, the most common difficulty being a person who had emigrated in the early part of the nineteenth century.

In the case of perpetuity leases [three-lives for ever] a new life could be inserted at the fall of each life on payment of a renewal fine which was usually half of the annual rent payment. The annual rent, however, never changed and those in possession of such a lease often sublet their land in the latter years of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century at a substantial profit. These types of leases were very common on the Phillips estate at Limavady and the Vintners estate at Bellaghy, both properties that had been bought by William Conolly, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1699 and 1729 respectively. Effectively perpetuity leases were freeholds and entitled the holder of the lease to a vote. This was one of the reasons why Speaker Conolly granted freeholds on his estates.

Three-lives leases are very useful for genealogists because, as mentioned above, a tenant often named members of his family (particularly sons and grandsons) as the lives. When new lives were inserted details of age and relationship were often included and it is possible to work out when the old life died. Unfortunately estate records rarely include the names of any sub-tenants.

Lease books can be among the most useful of estate papers as far as genealogy is concerned. They record in condensed form the same sort of information contained in the original leases, such as the name of the lessee, the location and extent of the holding and the rent payable on it. Generally covering an entire estate, they can be a much quicker way of finding information on a tenant farmer than searching through several bundles of leases.

Estate Maps

Maps form an important element in most estate collections. These show the property of the landlord, who employed a surveyor to illustrate the extent of his land and the more important features on his estate. Maps come in all shapes and sizes and can be coloured or roughly etched in black and white. The earliest surviving detailed estates maps for County Londonderry are those of the Hamilton estate surveyed by Thomas Raven about 1625.  Unfortunately some early eighteenth-century estate maps only provide the location and layout of townlands. Later maps tend to be more informative usually providing names of tenants and details of the location and layout of their holdings within each townland. With the advent of the Griffith's Valuation maps and the periodic revisions, landlords on the whole produced fewer maps, depending instead on the official six inch and larger scale maps being produced by the Ordnance Survey and the Valuation Office.


From time to time landlords would commission surveys of their estates. Sometimes a survey was undertaken when leases were being renewed and new rents were being set. Such surveys are particularly useful to family historians because names and locations of tenants in each of the townlands on an estate are usually recorded.

Because in Co. Londonderry many of the London Companies had sublet their estates in the eighteenth century many did not repossess their estates until the nineteenth century. On repossession, the companies usually carried out surveys of their properties e.g. the Drapers who repossessed in 1817, the Grocers and Fishmongers who repossessed in the 1820s, the Mercers who repossessed in the 1830s, the Clothworkers and Ironmongers who repossessed c.1840 and the Salters who repossessed in 1853.


Accounts cover a range of documents relating to the running of the estates. Account books can range from wages books, farm account books and cash ledgers. Some of these books often record the names of estate labourers, household servants and gardeners who may not appear as tenants.


The correspondence between a landlord and his agent can be of immense genealogical value. Not only does it include details of the day-to-day running of the estate, but mention is often made of those who work on the estate.


The Great Famine had a massive impact on the management and economic viability of landed estates. Many estates were mortgaged and landowners unable to collect rents were forced to sell their estates. By an act of parliament in 1849 an Encumbered Estates Court was established with authority to sell estates on the application of the owner or encumbrancer (one who had a claim on the estate). After the sale the court distributed the money among the creditors and granted clear title to the new owners. The functions of the court were assumed by the Landed Estates Court in 1858. By 1881 the Landed Estates Court was replaced by the Land Commission set up under the 1881 Land Act.

The Irish Encumbered Estates Rentals, deposited at PRONI, are in bound volumes and are available for the whole of Ireland. These printed rentals or particulars of sale were issued before the sale of a property and therefore contain very detailed information on tenants and holdings on each estate in order to attract potential buyers. They are divided into counties, townlands and tenements, the names of the parties involved and the date. Included are rentals, maps of the estate giving tenants’ names and, on occasion, surveys of the estate. Many landlords owned properties in local towns and villages, and these too can be found in the Encumbered Estates Rentals. 

The second half of the nineteenth century saw dramatic changes in the relationship between landlord and tenant which reflected the changing, economic, social and political climate of the times. In short, this was the time when tenants, through the 1881 Land Act, were given what is popularly known as the three F’s – Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale. In the end, landlords anxious to extract the money capital from their estates, agreed to sell their estates to the tenants – and the tenants anxious to have proper ownership of their farms were helped by the government to realise this goal. Below are the key acts that brought this process about.

  • 1870 Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act: This act sought to compensate tenants for improvements made by them to their holding or for any disturbance to their occupancy. Tenants wishing to purchase the title to their property could borrow up to two-thirds of the price, which they could repay at 5 per cent over 35 years. However, few tenants took up the opportunity to purchase; they were much more interested in security of tenure. Universally, tenants were dissatisfied with this legislation because, whilst it would compensate them for any improvements they had made if they were evicted, it did not provide them with any protection from eviction itself.
  • 1881 Land Law (Ireland) Act: This act [referred to above as the three F's Act] established the Land Commission and the Judicial Land Courts. The Land Commission also took over the functions of the Landed Estates Court and the Commissioners of Church Temporalities in Ireland. [1] Tenants were now able to go to a Judicial Court and have their rent fixed. Effectively tenants were granted "judicial tenancies" for a statutory term of 15 years renewable every 15 years with a revision of rent at each renewal.  Initially, the 1881 Act was a success. Tenants who used the Judicial Courts had their rents reduced, on average, by 20%. The act also legalised the Ulster custom of tenant right.
  • 1882 Amending Act: This act empowered the Land Commission to cancel arrears of tent due by tenants of less than £30.
  • 1885 Purchase of Land (Ireland) Act: Under the terms of this act, generally known as the Ashbourne Act, tenants were allowed to borrow the full amount of the purchase price to be repaid over 49 years at 4 per cent. Between 1885 and 1888 more than 25,000 tenants purchased their holdings.
  • 1887 Land Act: This was an amendment to the 1881 Act extending the terms to leaseholders. Formerly the act only applied to tenants at will.
  • 1891 Land Act: Under this Act in any future land purchase scheme the landlord was to be paid, not in cash, but in a specially Guaranteed Land Stock, equal in nominal value to the purchase price. The landlords objected to this change because the stock fluctuated in the market and the act was not popular with tenants because they found it difficult to work out at the outset their precise commitments each year. This Act also set up the the Congested Districts Board where certain counties were designated "congested" according to criteria based on their population and rateable value. Most of these counties were in the west of the county.
  • 1891 Local Registration of Title (Ireland) Act: This act required the compulsory registration of all freehold titles bought-out by tenant-farmers under land purchase schemes. As a result the Land Registry Office was set up.
  • 1896 Act: This Act was introduced to remove some of the difficulties introduced by the 1891 Land Act. It also increased the repayment period for tenants to 73 years and  empowered the Land Court to sell bankrupt estates to tenants. Before that time bankrupt estates had normally been bought by new landlords. This series of Acts between 1891 and 1896 are generally known as the Balfour Acts.
  • 1903 Land Act: Although sales had increased somewhat after the amending act of 1896 the sales of estates were not as great as the government had hoped. This was mainly due to the fact that government stock had fallen by 20% since 1896 and landlords were unwilling to exchange their landed income for such stock. The 1903 Act, generally known as the Wyndham Act, reintroduced payment in cash to landlords. A further incentive was the payment of a 12 per cent. bonus if they agreed to sell out their entire estate. Previous to 1903 sales had been of holdings to tenants. Now the sales were by estates. The annuity paid by the tenants was based on the judicial rents that tenants were currently paying and the repayment period was set at 68 and a half years.  This act, more than any other, brought about the transfer of estates from the landlord to the tenantry.
  • 1909 Land Act: This Act, known as Birrell's Act after the Chief Secretary for Ireland, extended the category of congested districts beyond its original west coast of Ireland location and authorised the compulsory purchase of land in such districts. Interestingly tenants in a group of mountainous townlands on the western edge of the Bellaghy estate in South Derry attempted to make use of this legislation but appear to have unsuccessful.
  • 1925 Northern Ireland Land Act: This act set up the Land Purchase Commission in the newly formed state of Northern Ireland. Under the act the land purchase scheme was now on a compulsory basis. Previously landlords were not required to sell their estates, hence the various incentives that were used to encourage them. The Land Purchase Commission identified any lands within the country that were still in the hands of landlords and over a period of years transferred that land, in freehold, to the tenants. The land was vested by the Land Purchase Commission and on an appointed day the tenant purchased their holding from the Commission. The Commission paid the purchase price to the landlord and an annuity was fixed by reference to the rent that the tenant had been paying. The period of payment of the annuity was fixed at 65 and a half years.


The records of the Irish Land Commission concerning the fixing of fair rents and the sale of land from landlords to tenants in Northern Ireland under the terms of the various Land Acts of c.1880–1910 were transferred from Dublin to Belfast after 1922. Some of these records went to the newly-formed Land Purchase Commission but most went to the Land Registry Office and were subsequently deposited in PRONI.

Before searching for details on a property or person in relation to judicial rent or the purchase of his or farm it is best to establish when the property was actually bought out and who the landlord or immediate lessor was at the time of the purchase. This can be done by looking at the Griffith's Revision Books. Here you should be able to see when the property was first held "in fee" denoting that it had been bought out. Usually, if it was bought out c.1903 there will be a "LAP" stamp on the page beside all of the properties in a townland indicating that the farms in that townland had been bought out under the Wyndham Act. Some properties were bought out earlier than 1903 e.g. the Grocers', Salters' and Skinners' Companies had begun to sell parts of their estates to individual tenants in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Tenants holding their land from the church were able to buy out their farms from 1870 onwards. However, few did until the 1880s.

Once armed with this knowledge you can then search either the official records of the Land Registry and Land Commission or the records of individual landed estates, many of which are also part of solicitors' records. In my experience, if there are good landed estate papers or a good solicitors' archive, it often easier to begin here.

The bulk of official papers relating to land sales are to be found in the Land Registry archive. Searching this massive archive can be a daunting task. There are three indexes that can be used to identify documents in the archive. The most useful is the alphabetical index. This lists the material by name of estate. A record number and box number are given. Note that The Guide to Landed Estate Records in PRONI contains an index to the Land Registry papers.

The other main source is the FIN/10 series in PRONI. As mentioned above, the functions of the Irish Land Commission were taken over by the Land Purchase Commission, Northern Ireland, after partition. On the completion of sales under the 1925 Act the Commission was wound up and whilst some of its papers were transferred to the Land Registry some remained as part of the Ministry of Finance and were subsequently deposited in PRONI under the prefix FIN/10. These papers included those related to the former Church Temporalities Commission which had been taken over by the Land Commission after the 1881 Land Act. FIN/10/10/CT [the CT denoting Church Temporalities' material] is a useful source relating to mortgages. These mortgages were taken out by tenants who had agreed to buy out their farm. The terms of sale offered to tenants of churchlands in the latter part of the nineteenth century were one quarter of the asking price and the balance paid off by means of a simple instalment mortgage. These mortgages are not only a useful source for the genealogist but also provide an insight into the process of how some tenants bought out their farms before the more general buy-out in 1903. There is an example on my CD, Researching Derry & Londonderry Ancestors, of one of these mortagages at the end of the case study of the family of Joseph McLean of Knockloughrim.

With regard to judicial rents, newspapers are a useful source. The sittings of the Land Courts were reported in considerable detail. These included the cases of individual tenants who placed their cases before the Commissioners.


Prior to the 1891 Land Act which set up the Land Registry Office where all freehold titles bought-out by tenant-farmers under land purchase schemes had to be registered, the registration of land in Ireland was not compulsory. Nevertheless, in 1708 the Irish Registry of Deeds was founded.

One of its main functions was to ensure the enforcement of legislation that prevented Catholics from buying or taking out long leases on land. Until the 1780s, Catholics could not invest in mortgages or take leases on land for a longer period than 31 years. Since registration was not compulsory, the number of deeds registered varied from place to place. During registration, which often took place years after the original transaction, a copy of the deed called a memorial was made. The details of the memorial were then copied into a large bound volume. It is these transcript volumes that are available for public inspection.

The types of deeds most commonly met with are leases, mortgages, rent charges, marriage settlements and wills. These deeds can provide the researcher with names, addresses and occupations of the parties involved as well as the names of those who acted as witness.

Since the vast majority of persons holding land in Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were leaseholders, leases are an important category within the Registry of Deeds. Note, however, that only leases for longer than three years could be registered at the Registry of Deeds. Furthermore, since it cost money to register a lease, not every lease will be registered.

In the era before banks were widespread, mortgages were commonly used as a ready means of raising capital, particularly by merchants and those seeking to buy land. They are not always easy to identify and their genealogical value can be fairly limited. Rent charges were annual payments issuing from nominated lands and were used to pay off debts or provide for those family members without an adequate income.

A marriage settlement was the agreement made between the families of the prospective bride and groom prior to their wedding. The main aim was to provide financial security to the woman should she outlive her husband. The information in this type of deed varies, but can include the names and addresses of a large number of people from the two families involved. Occasionally the more detailed settlements include lists of names of tenants living on the lands of the groom’s family.

A large number of wills were registered. A will was usually registered if there were concerns that it was going to be contested. Abstracts of over 2,000 wills registered between 1708 and 1832 were published in three volumes by the Irish Manuscripts Commission: P.B. Phair & E. Ellis (eds), Abstracts of Wills at the Registry of Deeds (1954–88). Each registered deed was given its own individual reference number. In the indexes to the deeds the volume and the page are also given. For example, the reference 18.236.8764 means that this particular deed is on page 236 of volume 18 and is deed number 8764. This referencing system was used until 1832. After that the reference number includes the year in which the deed was registered.

Two indexes are available to the researcher: the Index of Grantors and a Lands Index. The format of the Index of Grantors has changed over the years. Before 1832 the Index gives the surname and the forename of the grantor, the surname of the grantee and the reference number. There is no indication of the location of the property concerned. After 1832 the Index is more detailed and includes the county in which the property is located.

The Lands Index is arranged by county, with one or more counties per volume. The entries are arranged alphabetically, but only with regard to initial letter. Each entry gives the surnames of the parties, the name of the denomination of land, and the reference number. After 1828 the Lands Index is subdivided by barony.

The Registry of Deeds is located in a large Georgian building in Henrietta Street, Dublin. The main entrance for vehicles is off Constitution Hill. The Registry is open Monday to Friday, 10.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., and a small fee is charged for accessing the records. A member of staff will be on hand to offer help and advice. Although the layout of the building can be confusing, the arrangement of the records somewhat haphazard and the transcript volumes heavy and cumbersome, the Registry of Deeds is unlike any other archive in Ireland and is well worth a visit. The Index of Grantors and the Lands Index are available on microfilm at the National Library. PRONI has microfilms of both the indexes and the deeds (MIC7 and MIC311). A good guide to the Registry of Deeds is Jean Agnew, ‘How to use the Registry of Deeds’ in Familia, vol. 2, no. 6 (1990). See also PRONI Information Leaflet.

My CD Researching Derry and Londonderry Ancestors deals in more detail with estates in Co. Londonderry and provides examples drawn mainly from the Bellaghy Estate.

Note that on the Sources webpage there are links to databases that give details of the landlord or landlords of each individual townland in Co. Londonderry and North and Mid Antrim, c.1860.

[1]  The Commissioners of Church Temporalities in Ireland had been set up after the disestablishment of The Church of Ireland in 1869. On disestablishment the property of the church was transferred to the Commissioners of Church Temporalities in Ireland (previously known as the Ecclestical Commissioners). Amongst its many duties was the sale of churchlands. This function passed to the Irish Land Commission set up under the 1881 Land Act. A fuller account of the functions of the Commissioners of Church Temporalities in Ireland can be read in the introduction to the FIN/10/10 series in the PRONI eCatalogue.

Copyright 2011 W. Macafee.