Book Review: Tracing History Through Title Deeds: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Nat Alcock

History Through Title Deeds: A Guide for Family and Local Historians by Nat Alcock

Tracing History Through Title Deeds: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. By Nat Alcock. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. $26.95. 2017. 217 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

Dr. Nat Alcock is an emeritus reader at the University of Warwick and is one of the most knowledgeable people on title deeds in England. I have his 1986 first edition book on the subject, so I was immediately interested in how this edition compared. The opening paragraph of the preface explains, “this book has a new title and a new publisher, but it otherwise a direct successor to my previous book, Old Title Deeds. It has the same intention: to explain the significance of title deeds for the study of local and family history, and more generally for wider aspects of history. The period since the second edition of Old Title Deeds [2001] has seen an explosion in the use of personal computers, laptops and tablets, and of digital photography. With this has come important developments in the availability of online catalogues at many record offices. All these changes are mentioned where appropriate. However, the essentials of the study of title deeds – like the deeds themselves – are unchanged, so this book tells the same story as its predecessor, though with changes of emphasis and detail.” (p.xi)

The book, following an introduction to deeds as history, is divided into three sections – Why, Where and How. The Why chapter is divided into three sections according to subject: first using deeds as evidence for people, especially for the family historian with some excellent examples of multigenerational family trees generated from deeds; second as evidence for places, houses and buildings, likely of more interest to the local and house historian; third looking briefly at how large groups of deeds can be analyzed by computer to discover their historical evidence.

The section on where the deeds may be found is designed to get one thinking about where they might be but also how to find them. Collections of deeds for a given piece of property, family or estate could be nicely found in one obvious record office, or The National Archives, but in reality, they could be anywhere the owners may have chosen to deposit them. The worse situation is when the deed collection has been broken and sold individually thus loosing the linkage desired across time and space. The tables in this chapter, identifying the classes containing deeds at The National Archives, are especially good at identifying which have been indexed in Discovery, the online catalog.

The How chapter explains how to recognize the important types of deed and how to extract their historical significance from the legal jargon. The links between the various types of deeds are examined but the purely legal aspects of how conveyancing was undertaken and how it changed over the centuries is not overly emphasized. The key sections of a deed type are extracted and explained, making it easier for the reader to compare their deeds to the examples provided. Deeds become much easier to understand towards the end of the medieval period (around 1550), when the deeds generally change to being written in English rather than Latin. The chapter is thus divided into Post-Medieval and Medieval deeds.

The book contains four appendices. The first is a very practical flowchart to help identify the type of deed you may be looking at based on date, shape, size, phraseology, etc. A second appendix provides a template form for extracting the valuable information contained in the deed. A third appendix provides a sample page of various post-medieval letter forms that may be encountered. The final appendix provides the full text of typical deeds that have been explained. The chapter footnotes, resources, bibliography and glossary have all been expanded and updated.

For those new to the topic and for genealogy libraries this is a must for dealing with English or Welsh deeds. For those individuals who own one of the author’s earlier volumes, a comparison should be made depending upon one’s personal experience and recent knowledge on the subject.

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