Monday, September 11, 2017

Rights and responsibilities of land ownership

by Maria Grace

By the time of the 1801 census, England had a population of just over eight million living in a country of some thirty two million acres - and eighty to ninety percent of this land was owned by the aristocracy or landed gentry, (Adkins, 2013) nearly half in the hands of about 5,000 families in total. (Lane, 2005) The remainder belonged to institutions like the church or colleges or to attorneys, shopkeepers and bankers of the market towns. (Davidoff, 2002) These families enjoyed considerable status and power associated with land ownership, but with the rights, came a number of social responsibilities.

Land owner rights & power

Voting rights

Landowners had the right to vote, which non-land owners did not. Thus, Parliament was controlled by those whose wealth came from the land rather than trade until the early 1830's. Moreover, the landed classes also controlled government at the local, shire level through service as local magistrates and participation in other local political roles
John Harriott (1745–1817),
English mariner and magistrate.

Justice of the peace/magistrate

In rural areas, a magistrate or justice of the peace served as the principal legal authority of the area. The primary qualification for the post of magistrate was to own an estate worth more than a hundred pounds a year. Few with estates that small held the position, though. Since the post was unpaid and involved substantial duties, it typically fell to the larger landowners of the region.

In this capacity, the magistrate would judge all ordinary (non-felony) legal cases. He would often appoint constables, surveyors of the highways, overseers of the poor and churchwardens. Frequently, he would work together with the clergyman of the region to manage its affairs. The extent of the magistrate’s influence could be quite broad, particularly when considering the roles of the men he might appoint to official offices that would work with him.

Constables were the precursor to an official police force. Chosen from among local householders (usually the wealthiest), the constable was responsible for keeping the local peace. Duties included collecting certain taxes, catching and confining suspected criminals, managing vagrants and beggars, and maintaining records of all of the above.

Surveyors of the highways acted to maintain the highways in a parish, particularly those which ran to market towns. They removed nuisances from highways and identified needed repairs. In order to see those repairs completed, they could levy a rate on landowners and require landowners to provide labor and equipment to accomplish the repairs.

Overseers of the poor administered poor relief, including food, money and clothing, in accordance with the Poor Law system. They were to estimate how much poor relief money was needed and set the poor rate accordingly. It was also their purview to collect the funds from their fellows in the parish. Subsequently they would distribute the relief as they saw fit both as ‘indoor’ relief within the walls of the poor house and ‘outdoor’ relief offered in the homes of the poor. They kept careful accounting records of their activities which were then audited and signed off at the end of each accounting year (Easter) by two justices.

Finally church wardens were responsible for the property and moveable goods of a parish church, maintaining and inventorying them. They also kept accounts of church funds and ensure that the rector receives the tithes to which he is entitled. (Sullivan 2007) They also maintained order and peace in the church and churchyard at all times, and especially during services.

Through the exercise of these roles, the estate owner could exercise considerable power and authority among those in his parish and shire.

Land owner responsibilities

Though landowners often enjoyed rights and powers that others did not, land ownership also demanded added social responsibilities from estate owners. 


Patriarchal ideology still prevalent during the era contributed to the notion than a landowner owed a stewardship duty to those tied to his estate. Though they worked for him, he had a responsibility to see they were adequately fed, clothed, and housed. These duties went above and beyond paying the required poor rate and required personal attention and interaction with tenants and villagers who lived nearby.

Typically, the mistress of the estate and the local clergy would also be involved in providing relief to those who had come upon hard times. A landowner regularly supplied gifts of food, clothing, even money to the needy at regular intervals; usually at Christmas, during instances of bad harvest or weather, sickness, bereavement and unemployment. 


Traditional festivals and celebrations also provided a chance to demonstrate charity as well as hospitality—another basic social duty of the era. Entertainments that included tenants, laborers, school children, local townspeople and small farmers often took place on an enormous scale. Parties would celebrate the completion of key seasonal activities like sheep-shearing in the spring. At midsummer, haymaking parties would follow mowing the fields. Autumn brought harvest suppers and the possibility of harvest ball to go with it. November heralded celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night. Christmas and Twelfth Night parties rounded out the year’s celebrations.

At its best, entertaining the lower orders expressed a genuine concern for the poor and a desire to improve the relations between the classes; at its worst it showed a rather odious condescension. (LeFaye, 2002) Sometimes these fesitvals even offered the potential for violence and disorder. Poorer members of the community sometimes demanded money, beer and meals as a right from landowners, not a gift that many gave grudgingly out of fear of reprisals. (Wilson 2007)

Such festivals were but one example of the hospitality a wealthy landowner was expected to demonstrate. Often this meant large groups of houseguests who might say for months at a time. Parties and annual celebrations which brought in the entire neighborhood, rich and poor, to the grounds and for food and entertainment were also regularly expected. While taxing, hospitality did offer the opportunity to display one's wealth and importance.

These varied rights, roles and responsibilities illustrate how an estate holder was more than a simple farmer, he was required by custom (and in some ways by law) to be a community leader, tax assessor and collector, law enforcer, and social support network. Probably not the roles you might have seen any of Austen’s leading men playing.


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Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

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