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Following the AGM of the Friends of Berwick and District Museum and Archives, held on March 16, Dr Catherine Kent gave a lecture on The 1562 '˜General Survey' In Berwick's First Book Of Enrolments, with a subtitle quoted from the book itself, One Perfytt Booke.
Berwick is fortunate in having preserved among its records a detailed property survey, ordered by the Government in 1562 to bring some order to the documentation of property rights in the town and to establish what amounts of rent the Crown should be receiving from the holders of burgage plots.
Today, it provides an important source of information about the social history of Berwick in the Elizabethan period, as well as a detailed record of buildings in the town and the history of their ownership.
In Berwick the system of land registration was the responsibility of the Chamberlain, whose seal would be attached to transaction documents. By the 1560s, however, things were in disarray: the seal had been lost and a forgery was suspected of being in use, and court judgments in land disputes often displayed local favouritism.
At the same time that the construction of the new fortifications was being undertaken and requiring the demolition of numerous houses, the population of Berwick was actually growing and more houses were being built, often without permission or proper records.
Therefore, the Privy Council commissioned Thomas Romney, a young man from Gloucestershire who had been educated at the Middle Temple, to act as an independent investigator and to produce a survey of the town’s property.
In order to find the money to pay him, it was proposed that if the Mayor and the burgesses each paid four shillings, the town could have a second copy of the survey made for its own use.
Romney started work on October 2, 1562, with a team of 24 men, and the relatively short time of five weeks was allowed for completion of the task. Romney achieved this, but only delivered a copy of the survey to Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, many months later in July 1563. It was even longer before the burgesses of Berwick obtained their copy.
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This copy survived in the town archives, albeit with some damage along the way, and in the 1990s it was properly conserved and rebound. It is now in Berwick Record Office.
The survey is written on paper and fills about 50 folio sheets, with an average of four or five property entries per page. One of the losses over time has been several pages which appear to have been cut out, all of them relating to properties in the Greenses.
About 450 properties are described in total. They relate only to those which had a door on the street and hence were liable for burghmail rent. Houses built behind the front plot were not included, those more likely to be occupied by poorer and more mobile sections of the population.
It was clear from Dr Kent’s lecture that the survey is a rich source of personal stories from the period, giving insight into many aspects of Berwick’s social life in Elizabethan times.
Names that feature in the survey can often be linked to records in other sources, such as the Enrolment books or the Holy Island land titles, allowing stories to be tracked through time.
Sometimes the details of a property transaction can even be linked to architectural features, such as a wall or a blocked up doorway, which are still visible in the town today.