There are probably not many people, with the possible exception of lawyers, who relish the idea of examining a set of title deeds. But for house historians, they are the equivalent of just-out-of-the-oven fragrant scones with extra jam and cream, whetting the appetite with anticipation. These documents often contain hidden gems that reveal a lot more than a simple conveyance of property.
Deeds can be daunting. A typical 19th century indenture measures approximately 22” top to bottom and 30” wide and often runs to several folios or sheets of vellum. These are stitched together at the lower edge in reverse order, with the beginning of the deed on the bottom sheet and the signatures and seals on the top. Copperplate handwriting begins, as you would expect, in the top left-hand corner of the bottom sheet and proceeds line by line to the very end of the document – all in one sentence. Punctuation is rare, therefore the first thing to learn when reading a deed is to remember to breathe.
Deeds, like other legal documents, follow a format which, once understood, suddenly renders them much more approachable as you begin to recognise clauses that are common to particular types. The typical format of a pre-20th century conveyance (known as a ‘lease and release’) would be the date, the names of the parties with their address and occupation or status, a recital of foregoing events pertinent to this transaction, the details of the present transaction including a description of the property, the price being paid and who is selling to whom, terms, exceptions or covenants affecting the sale, and the signatures of all parties sealing their agreement. Each of these clauses is prefixed by terms like ‘Whereas …’, ‘Now witnesseth …’ and ‘All that …’ that shine like beacons indicating a new piece of information. They are also useful breathing markers.
Whereas you might think, not unreasonably, that surely a conveyance is just a way of A selling a property to B, you may be surprised to learn that many deeds recite details of events leading up to the sale including, but not limited to, marriage settlements, wills, mortgages, landed estates, bankruptcy, litigation, illness and crime. These reveal family relationships and events, all relevant to the property’s history, which can really bring it to life.
There is nothing dull about title deeds. Indeed.