Deeds are legal documents that record and give effect to transactions relating to land, buildings and other real property. Being legal documents, they are not always straightforward to use, but they can reveal information about the owners and occupiers of a house, and occasionally its physical development.
Before the Law of Property Act of 1925, it was necessary for the vendor of a property to prove title as far back as possible. Solicitors would assemble surviving deeds relating to a property in a bundle, which in theory was added to and transferred each time the property changed hands. After 1925 it was only necessary to prove title back thirty years, provided that the previous transaction had taken place within that time. This meant that early deeds were no longer required and were, in many cases, disposed of. With the modern registration of all conveyances at the land Registry, many more deeds are no longer needed for their original purpose. This means that the availability of deeds for historical research can be rather patchy.
Where deeds do survive, it is not always easy to link the property they mention to an existing structure. It is easier to do this where the original solicitors’ bundles have been preserved, especially if they contain deeds of a more recent date. Sometimes only single deeds or a few comparatively early examples are available, making it more difficult to link these to later documentary evidence about particular properties.
It can be easier to identify a property if it has been known by a specific name for a considerable period, or if it was a specialized building such as an inn or workshop. Generally buildings in urban areas, particularly those dating from the 18th to 20th centuries, are easier to pinpoint than nameless rural properties. Street names are usually given, and there is sometimes information about the owners and occupiers of the adjoining properties. There may also be an indication of when the property was built (‘new-built’ or ‘lately erected’) or that it has undergone alterations, such as a single dwelling house being divided into tenements. These references can help to interpret existing architectural evidence. The changing value of a property in the deeds might also suggest changes to its fabric. Deeds may include large-scale site plans of the house or the estate on which it was to be built, although these date mainly from the 19th century onwards.
Deeds are extremely wordy documents and some particularly complex family settlements may run to a dozen large parchment membranes. The trick is to extract the relevant information from the standard legal wording. Most deeds will have an endorsement (a note on the back) giving its date, the parties, the type of deed and a brief description of the property. This is always worth checking first. Most post-mediaeval deeds will have a similar basic structure, in which the beginning of clauses can be identified by initial words written in larger letters than the rest of the document. Mediaeval deeds rarely refer to identifiable buildings and are comparatively rare.
Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service holds many thousands of deeds, but the survival of deeds relating to a specific property cannot be guaranteed. There is more chance of relevant material surviving if a house was part of a large estate owned by a family or corporate body. Family collections in the care of the Archive Service and the William Salt Library include large numbers of deeds and leases.