• Andy Robson

What's in a title (deed)?

The centralised Land Registry was established in 1862 to record who-owned-what in England and Wales. However, from the outset all the Registry was trying to do was to establish who had the right to sell a property. It was not created, sadly, to record the history of a property. And, just to make things even more tricky, registration was not compulsory!

Instead, the ownership of a property was conferred by ownership of the paper Title Deeds. These are a collection of documents recording every major event in the history of the property – change of ownership (Conveyance), significant re-work, etc. Deeds are private documents, however. They were not copied to any centralised store, and no-one had the right of access to them but the owner. The owner being either the outright property owner, or a Solicitor or Mortgage Company in the case of a Mortgage having been taken out. I paid off the mortgage to my first flat many years ago and so have the Title Deeds to it in my possession. And a little goldmine of information they are too. Sadly, the legal requirement for such Deeds was reduced to the last 30 years in 1925 and to 15 years in 1970. As a result, many older records were destroyed as a space-saving measure.

Registration of the ownership of a property with the Land Registry finally became compulsory across the whole of England and Wales by 1990. Later the records of the Registry were completely digitised and became open to the public for the first time:


The idea was that the Registry would become the definitive authority as to who owned a property and so who could sell it. However, to make the task manageable, a non-Registered property would only become Registered when it changed hands. So, any property not sold since 1990 may not be recorded with the Land Registry; estimated to be about 14% of the whole in 2021.

However …

As I said before, the Land Registry is only interested in who owns a property now. So, its (basic) records only go back to when a property was first Registered so that it can track the chain of ownership and any points of legal contention. As properties become Registered, their original paper Title Deeds become redundant. So they have been left in private hands and have no legal worth or protection. As a result many have been lost, damaged in accidents, or simply destroyed. Tragic for the family historian, but sadly all too common. Those that do survive can be notoriously difficult to track down, though fortunately some have been deposited with County Record Offices.