Using the Property Records for Family History

The major sources for the UK or Manx genealogist are usually seen as being civil registration and the censuses, and before these parish records and wills. At one time each of these sources was quite difficult to use. Censuses for example were ordered by address and finding a named ancestor (even if an address had been obtained from a civil registration certificate) could be tedius. Now however name indexes have been produced for all of the above records and many extracts of the records themselves are now available online. This doesn't of course detract from the necessity of consulting original records wherever possible - but it does make the identification and piecing together of relevant entries vastly easier.


After the above, property records are probably the next most useful source for the genealogist and they become increasingly important as one goes back through the generations. (Prior to 1650 they are often the only option.) On the other hand using them today is much like trying to use the sources named above before the introduction of family history indexes or computers.


Many old Isle of Man property records have survived which between them cover almost all of the island from 1500 to the early 20th century (when the laws governing property holding changed) and even modest land holdings are included. Manx National Heritage are currently undergoing a major digitisation program which will eventually result in most of these documents being available via their iMuseum. (At present the only copies are an microfilm.) Part of the purpose of this website is to explore how using these for records for the purpose of family history can be made more straightforward.



Genealogical information: Libri Vastarum


There are two main sources of genealogical information in the records. The first is the Libri Vastarum which record changes in the tenancy of all of the Lord's land. From around 1600 onwards this is almost always accompanied by an explanation of the right of the new tenant to the land. Often it is by the heir of a deceased tenant taking over their land. In such cases the relationship of the two is generally given. Here is an example from the 1603 Liber Vastarum for Kirk Michael which relates to the tenancy of a corn mill of annual rent four shillings being transferred from Danold wright to Willm Quaill. In this case William Cortaige is identified as a relative and the heir of Danold Wright.


danold wright being dead is drawen and the right
descending unto Wm Cortairge nephew of wright
deceased, he acknowledging the same lawfully sould
to Wm Quaill and thereuppon his name is entred
by his consent and by the consent of John
woods in court


These records are particularly useful when a particular piece of land remained in one family for many generations. For example my ancestors purchased (most of) a quarterland in 1644 and this descended through many generations of the family before being eventually sold in 1809.


Unfortunately not all changes in tenant were recorded. My understanding is the records existed primarily to ensure that all of the Lords land was rented out to someone. Provided that someone was paying the rent and that no-one objected to this person's occupation of the associated land then the Lord's officials were not too concerned. We can be sure that gaps are not due to missing Libri Vastarum since the contemporary lists of tenants (Libri Assedationis) which were updated using the Libri Vastarum were sometimes out of date too. The situation seems to have improved after 1704 when the introduction of a payment to the Lord on land tranfers gave his officers an incentive to monitor every change and a new law stipulated that transfers must be reported.


The Libri Vastarum cover most of the property on the island and a virtually complete set of the records has survived from 1576 onwards. (Personally I have only examined the records from 1576 to 1775 but the indexes show that the microfilm copies exist right up to 1916.) Some records from between 1511 and 1576 also survive but these are less organised and many are undated. Prior to 1600 the information they provide is much sketchier, although some relationships are given. The remainder of the land was held by the Church and five Baronies. Records exist for these properties too, but I have not examined them in detail.



Genealogical information: Composition Books


The second major source of genealogical information in the property records comes more indirectly from the composition records between 1643 and 1703. In 1643 all tenants with significant holdings were compelled to enter into leases. Some of these leases were for 21 years, but the large majority were for three lives: meaning that they would expire only once all of three people (named by the tenant and then living) were all deceased. It was common for the tenant to choose young members of his immediate family. The records in 1643 and following record the names of the three lives, their relationship to the tenant (or their father if unrelated) and their approximate age in 1691 (if still alive then). The status (whether alive or dead) of the lives was also recorded at several intervals up to 1703. I estimate that a significant proportion of the population was included as a life. Kirk Michael had 81 such leases, each naming 3 lives (albeit with some overlap). According to various estimates the entire population of the parish would have been only a few hundred people at the time.


A typical example of an entry in the 1643 composition book is given below. This one gives some extra information about a brother Philip too.


6 Aug 1644                  Rbt Cannell for 2 pts of a qtr rente 11s      }
Rec paid 10s of             4d for the Lves of the said Rbt & of Charles  } 20s      }
Robt Cannell                his brother & Anne his daughter ------------- }          }
18 [?] 1644 Received        reservinge John Quayles right duringe         }          }
of Alice Creere & Jo        [his?] Lfe ---------------------------------- }          }
Creere for 8d rent 18d      reserving the right of John Creere                       }
13 Octbr 1645 pd 13s 6d     for 8d rente and of Alice Creere his sister              }
                            Item for the third pte of a qter rent 5s 8d ------ }     }
6 Aug                       for the same lives reserving his brother Phill 10d } 10s }
Rec also 5s                 right -------------------------------------------- }



Genealogical information: Other property record sources


In addition to the records mentioned above, property deeds and the Libri Assedationis can contain useful information. The deeds are basically written contracts for the sale, settlement or mortgage of property and many have survived. They aren't guaranteeed to provide any more genealogical information than the corresponding Liber Vastarum entry. Often others with an interest in the land (typically the wife of the seller) is mentioned however. They also provide the signatures of the parties (which can be compared with other records) and may give details of the land itself.


The Liber Assedationis records the names of the tenant for each unit of land. It is sometimes used as an index into the Libri Vastarum (scanning through several years of Libri Assedationis to determine when the tenancy changed) although this is not infalliable. (One of my ancestors John Cannell bought a parcel of land from his namesake John Cannell !) It can also be used as an indication of potential relationships to motivate further research. One example is that division of farms into equal pieces often appears to have arisen as the consequence of a contract of marriage or deed of settlement. It also appears to me that many marriages occurred between close neighbours (eg couples from the same treen) and this can aid identification of a bride's family.