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Copyhold in Whitechapel

Posted by Mark Ballard on Dec. 21, 2016

Since Dorothy George’s London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925) historians have sought to explain East London’s poorer standards of building in the context of  custom of the manors of Stepney and Hackney, originating before the Reformation when they belonged to the bishops of London. By one particular custom, copyholders (tenants of manorial land) could grant leases for a maximum of only thirty-one years, risking forfeiture of their copyholds by the lord of Stepney manor if they transgressed. Such short building leases would dissuade tenants from building to proper standards. This explanation was broadly accepted by Alan Palmer, for instance, though he pointed to areas such as Wellclose Square and Swedenborg Gardens as exceptions to the usual lack of pattern. ‘The persistence of the ancient copyhold system of tenure ruled out rich rewards for speculative investment on a large scale … So curious a restraint helped to make land cheaper, but it also favoured the spread of small houses, haphazardly packed into narrow streets.’[1] But Derek Morris has recently pointed out that the 31-year leases could be renewed on the payment of a fine to the lord of the manor. What is more, ‘Local historians have known for many years that while [short leases] may have been the original intention of the lord of the manor, the actual practice was very different. Leases were granted of 66, 99 or 500 years in order to obtain the fines.’ [2] If this is so, the lords of Stepney manor, first the Wentworths and then the Colebrookes, were open to corruption, as they could be induced to break their own rules to authorize development.

From April to October 2016 I was part of the Survey of London’s Whitechapel team, cataloguing records at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives describing property in Whitechapel. This was to enable the Survey to have recourse to as much primary source material as possible, and the descriptions are also available to all users of THLHLA’s online catalogue During the cataloguing process I certainly found that long lease terms were not uncommon in the manor of Stepney, in which most of the present-day Borough of Tower Hamlets lay, including the parish of Whitechapel. But they would not have been possible on copyhold land. Tenants’ admissions to and surrenders of copyhold land in the manor are recorded in its court rolls and books, which survive with some gaps from 1318, including an uninterrupted sequence of 88 court books at London Metropolitan Archives dating from 1654 to 1925. It would be almost impossible to indicate on a map of Stepney which land was copyhold at any particular date, because it was so fragmented even by early modern times, and the property descriptions in the court roll are rarely precise enough for accurate location. But those of the corresponding deeds held at Tower Hamlets Archives are easily recognizable as they take the form of copies from the court roll. The cornerstone of Tower Hamlets Archives’ holdings of title deeds is those parts of the private collections of J. Coleman and F. Marcham that related to Stepney, which the Metropolitan Borough purchased in 1909. Among these, there are fifty-four titles to Whitechapel land, with deeds  dating from 1589 to 1838, and of them only seven are copyholds. During the course of this project about 650 title deeds have been catalogued, and my impression is that the proportion of copyholds among them would be similar. The remainder are for freehold land, which  could have been bought and sold, or leased for unlimited periods.

For instance, land at the east end of Whitechapel High Street and on the Thames foreshore at Limehouse was being leased in the 1580s for 500-year terms by Henry lord Wentworth.[3] As he was lord of Stepney, this land might have been part of the manorial desmesne, and there seemed to be no subsequent restriction on the leaseholders assigning these leases for the remainder of the term, nor about private individuals leasing freehold property for even longer terms. Such long leases of copyhold land would have been impossible, though copyholders could express intentions in their wills to keep it in their family, and even entail it. As for the manorial fine, it was a customary payment to the lord whenever a new manorial tenant was admitted to copyhold land. It should not be regarded as punitive, although elsewhere in the country entry fines are known to have increased during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while rents to the lord were set by custom and remained unchanged.

If the lords of Stepney wished or needed to raise cash from copyholders willing to purchase, they could enfranchise copyhold land, that is, convert it to freehold, long before the Copyhold Act of 1852 allowed tenants to demand this. One major copyholder of the mid eighteenth century was Edward Baynes, who held about sixty plots on the south side of Whitechapel Road and Mile End Road, including the ‘Prince of Orange’s Head’ and the ‘George Inn’ (14 Whitechapel Road). On his death in the 1760s his son was admitted to them but soon surrendered a part, to which a ‘gentleman of the Tower of London’, Anthony Foreman, was then admitted. Sir George Colebrooke, lord of Stepney, then enfranchised it, allowing Foreman to purchase the freehold and then to develop the area of Fieldgate Street and Greenfield Street in a succession of leases to builders.[4] The restrictions of copyhold, then, were generally limited to small pockets of Stepney and could be overcome by legal means. More research on this topic is probably needed: I do not claim to have an informed viewpoint, but would suggest that we may have to look to other causes to explain the pattern of development in the East End. If we suspect the lords of Stepney were open to corruption, we need more evidence, and probably comparisons with the degree to which lords of the manor in other London suburbs adhered to manorial custom.

Map of the Baynes Estate in 1729 (Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives)

1 - Alan Palmer, The East End: Four Centuries of London Life (London, 1989, rev. edn, 2000), pp. 16–17.

2 - Derek Morris, Whitechapel 1600–1800: a social history of an early modern London inner suburb (East London History Society, 2011), p. 5.

3 - Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/SLC/1/17/3–4.

4 - THLHLA, P/SLC/2/16/16-17.