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The West Riding Registry of Deeds was established by Act of Parliament, and began registration in September 1704. The Registry was one of only five in England. Later Registries were started in both the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire and for the County of Middlesex, whilst the Bedford Level Corporation in Cambridgeshire had operated a Registry for the Fen area of East Anglia since 1663.

The purpose of the West Riding Registry was to allow freeholders publicly to register deeds relating to their property. This was of great importance to the many small businessmen in the Yorkshire cloth trade who used their property as a security on which to borrow money. Registration was soon seen to have clear advantages and so became customary in the West Riding. Between 1704 and 1914, some one and a half million deeds were registered. The growth of owner occupation led to an even greater rate of registration, adding several million more deeds in the sixty years before the closure of the Registry in 1970.

Title deeds are naturally of great interest to genealogists and local historians. Deeds provide information about occupations, possessions, abodes and relatives, and so allow one to go beyond the bare facts of baptism, marriage and burial gleaned from the parish registers. In virtually all counties the survival of property deeds has been haphazard and meagre, but fortunately in Yorkshire this is not the case. The West Riding Registry alone contains 11,844 volumes of summaries of deeds of title to houses, farms, factories, shops, inns and many other types of property. These provide almost unequalled scope for those who wish to trace the history of their family or the history of their house.

A registered deed was not a simple copy of the original, but a summary of its most important details, known as a 'memorial'. A memorial contained:

* The date of the deed
* The names, professions or occupations and place of residence of the parties
* A short description of the property concerned 

Certain types of deed were not eligible for registration, in particular, leases of less than twenty one years and transactions in copyhold land. Tenants, as distinct from owners, could therefore live in a property for long periods, but leave no record of their tenancy in the Registry records. Only deeds relating to freehold land could be registered, but large areas of land in the West Riding were copyhold, that is to say, subject to the jurisdiction of lords of the manor.

The Registry memorials are kept in bound volumes. The volumes covering the years 1704 to 1884 are copies made at the time of registration. From 1885, memorials had to be submitted on specially-printed forms which were then bound together.

Three methods of referencing the volumes were used successively:

1. The first volumes use the letters of the alphabet A-Z (excluding J and V to prevent confusion with I and U) in various single (A, B, C etc.) and double (AA, AB etc.) letter combinations.
2. The next set of volumes are referred to by a unique number, beginning with 601.
3. From the year 1885 onwards, a new sequence of sub-numbered volumes was begun each year (1885 volume 1, 1885 volume 2, 1885 volume 3, and so on, then 1886 volume 1, 1886 volume 2, and so forth). 

There are three contemporary indexes to the volumes of memorials:

1 Index of Names
This covers the entire period of the Registry from 1704 to 1970. From 1763 it indexes the name of every party to a memorial. For the years between 1704 and 1763, only the vendor or grantor was listed alphabetically, a problem which can be overcome by use of the places index. Up to 1794, surnames are arranged under their initial letter, but not in strict alphabetical order. Entries seem to have been made in the order in which the memorials were copied into the volumes, so that it is necessary to check every entry under the relevant initial in the index to make certain that all references to a particular person have been found. From 1794, the index is fully alphabetical. Each entry gives the name of the party, the location of the property, and the memorial reference.

2 Index of Places
This was begun in 1704, but lapsed between 1787 and 1884, and was discontinued from 1923. It is thus of limited value, although it can be used for the period up to 1763 to search for purchasers or grantee if the location of the property in question is known. Reference is by parish or township, and the first series of volumes, like the index of names, is not strictly alphabetical.

3 Index of Wills
This is available for the period 1704-1879, and was compiled from the index of names, solely for ease of reference. The usefulness of registered wills varies considerably. Some are very full summaries, whilst others have only the briefest extracts solely concerning the devisee who registered the will on his own account to support his title.

In the indexes, each memorial has a reference which is in three parts:

1. volume reference
2. page number
3. and the serial number of the deed 

A reference in the index to AP/472/327 directs you to volume AP, where on page 472 will be found memorial number 327. From 1885, the practice of beginning a new numerical sequence every year makes it necessary to note the year of registration – as there is a volume numbered 'l' for each year from 1885 to 1970.

Further information may be found in:
F. Sheppard and J. Belcher ‘The deeds registries of Yorkshire and Middlesex’ Journal of the Society of Archivists vol. 6, no. 5 (1980)




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