land ownership, who owns Britain, how and why

Like a  time-poor student trying to get an essay written despite spending all waking moments drinking, sleeping and watching TV,  I’ve trawled the pages of Wikipedia to find out who owns Britain and how they came to own it. It’s not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination and it is my understanding of everything I’ve read (there is a lot of Latin to go through and even the most diligent writer would get bored having to translate archaic / technical phrases every couple of minutes).

Although this is a little dull it is important and a bit of background on some other information I need to give you.


Back in the old, old days before the Normans invaded it is most likely (I don’t know for totally definite, they weren’t very good at record keeping) that the English land law was characterised by ‘enjoyment in common and the absence of private ownership‘ – meaning that everyone had rights on the land and no one owned it, it was there for the common good. After William came over and shot Harold in the eye in 1066 he decided that all of the land belonged to him and he divided it up and gave some to his mates (Lords, or the Aristocracy you might call them) in return for their loyalty / services (this concept is known as Feudalism and the basic unit of land was the ‘Manor’ – as in ‘you come raaand my manor again I’ll cut your jacobs off’) – Le Wills also kept a load for himself . His mates then cut up the land he gave them and gave it out to tenants who had the peasants work on it.

Lords and Tenants had obligations to the crown to pay in return for the land (Feudalism) and the peasants were bound by law to work the land meaning they could not leave the land without the landlords permission. This stuff is all recorded in the Domesday Book 1: Ha ha, we’ve got loads and you haven’t. (My subtitle). There then followed a series of acts in law that further tied up the ownership of land and wrote the thievery into law; taking away any land that used to be common, making sure only sons of Lords could inherit the land (the land that until some bastard took it, belonged to everyone), landlords destroying houses to put sheep farms on and whatever else they fancied doing.

“… your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their
farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.” – Thomas Moore, Utopia 1516

There were a few attempts by the people to change this, most notably the Levellers and my favourites, the Diggers (mostly because the thought of little yellow diggers driven by peasants all over 17th century Britain amuses me). The Diggers believed that the “common people of England” had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling-class, wanted economic equality and a return to the ‘golden age’ before Norman invasion.

“Ooooh, all this were fields before those Normans came”

“They still are Marjorie, it’s the 17th Century”

“Yes Wilfred, but they was our fields, not that stinkin’ Lord up at the Manor”

“Grave times Marjorie, turnip?”

“That’s not your turnip anymore Wilf it belongs to the Lord”

“Oh, bugger”

They tried to build communal farms, putting up notices telling everyone they’d be taking over land and that anyone who wanted to join them would be fed and clothed and have beer to drink but the lords weren’t keen and destroyed them.

After feudalism, which ended in 1660 and was replaced by taxes on the land,  land law goes through a few iterations most of which seem to be sorting out squabbles between the landed and then later on enshrining the ownership of land into law.

Fast forward 300 odd years to 1873 and Domesday 2: Stop moaning, peasants is published (It’s actual title is The Return of the Owners of Land – dull) this all came about because the landowners were fed up with the poor moaning about how much land they had.

After two years of research the returns found that 1 million people owned freeholds, about 5% of the population. The ten leading Dukes in the Kingdom owned over 100,000 acres each with the Duke of Sutherland owning 1,350,000 acres. The Duke of Northumberland owned 186,000 acres then (and still owns 132,000 acres). The publication of the report wasn’t exactly what the landed had hoped for as it rather proved the point that they owned all of the land.

That is as far as we can go on the complete picture of land ownership in the UK, there has not been an audit of land in the UK since then, there have been attempts but they have been thwarted by people who do not want the poor (that’s us) to know how much the rich (that’s them) have got.

What we do know, according to Kevin Cahill’s 2002 book: Who Owns Britain and Ireland

Britain is made up of approximately 60 million acres

160,000 families (0.3% of the population) own 37 million acres

Top individual landowners

  • Forestry Commission – 2.8m acres
  • MOD – 750k acres
  • Royal Family – 670 acres
  • National Trust – 550k
  • Insurance companies – 500k acres
  • Utility Companies – 500k acres
  • Duke of Buccleuch 270k acres
  • Dukedom of Atholl 148k acres
  • Duke of Westminster 140k acres
  • Church of England 135k acres

70% of the rest of us, that’s 44.8m people own rougly 3 million acres between us.

Doesn’t seem right, does it?

If you’re still awake after all of that, well done, next time I’ll try and explain exactly why this inequality is bad and why we need to do something about it.




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