Registry of Deeds for family history
The purpose of this page is to provide information on why the Registry of Deeds is such a boon for family history research in Ireland.
When it was set up at the beginning of the 1700s, its aim was to help with the enforcement of the laws then in place to limit land owning or leasing opportunities of Roman Catholics. The information collected under the legislation, however, has proved to be of immense value to people researching people and places.
The concept behind the Registry of Deeds was to document all transfers of land (by deeds and by wills) so that unlawful ones could be prevented. In practice, only a proportion of land transfers were registered. One of the main drivers for registration was to provide certainty of title.
The importance of the Registry of Deeds is built on the fact that it is a repository holding memorials of deeds and wills that mention the names, ages, life events, places and family relationships of people involved in land and financial transactions from the mid-1600s to the present day. The roles people have in deeds include being:
- a party to the deed or their agent;
- a life in the deed;
- a witness to the deed or memorial;
- a beneficiary of the deed;
- a previous or current occupant of premises mentioned in the deed or an earlier deed
- the owner or occupant of land adjacent to premises mentioned in the deed
- a relation or associate of a party to or a person mentioned in the deed; and
- any of the above for a previous deed or will mentioned in the current deed.
The number of names mentioned is huge. Prior to 1832 there were about 600,000 deeds registered and each deed had at least two parties and two witnesses. This means there were a minimum of 2.4 million names in memorials registered before 1832. Some deeds can have many parties and many other names mentioned. Marriage settlements typically have four or five parties who might be two or more people. Memorial 489466 mentions 196 names, 166440 mentions 139 and 209 mentions 132. Many more names were mentioned in deeds registered after 1832.
The age of a life in or a witness to a deed may be recorded the memorial. This may be the only ever mention of a birth date for a person in the 1700s and early 1800s.
The dates of death of people are commonly mentioned in deeds. Many deeds are the result of finalising estates after the death of a person. These will often mention widows and other people related to the deceased.
Settlements and in particular marriage settlements are very important sources for family history research. Many marriage settlements provide both parents for both the bride and groom. Often there may be references to earlier marriage settlements with dates. Thus, one marriage settlement could give hard facts on two or even three generations of a family.
Many memorials of deeds give a history of tenure, sometimes going back over 100 years. This record provided proof of ownership and lists previous tenants and landlords.
The records at the Registry of Deeds start with memorial No 1. Grantor – Nafan COOTE, Earl of Bellomont; Grantee – Connell VERECKER, Esq of Ballinscalla, Co Limerick (he signed the memorial) it was a lease and release dated 26 March 1708 (the second day of the year); and involved the lands of Stephenstown, Ballinscaula, and Fanningstown, barony of Coshlea, county Limerick (near Kilmallock) for lives of Connell's brother Henry and eldest son Henry
For some people you can get a fairly comprehensive story through the registered deeds they were involved in. Edward CROKER son of Andrew CROKER and Elizabeth TAYLOR is one such story.
- His parent's marriage settlement dated 15 February 1728 – Memorial 102702
- A transfer of trusts under this marriage settlement dated 13 April 1752 – Memorial 102701
- Lease of houses from above marriage settlement dated 25 January 1787 – Memorial 256826
- Second marriage – Memorial 185107
- Settlement of dispute – Memorial 199212
- Settlement of debts – Memorial 211904
- Lands to son-in-law 1792 – Memorial 292878
- Houses in Kilmallock made freehold circa 1850
- many of his autographs
Thomas Swan CROKER who worked as a clerk in the Customs House in Dublin from 1794 until about 1830.
- Annuity from lands in father's marriage settlement – Memorial 443742. This memorial confirms the name of his father and of his father's wife.
- Inventory of house – Memorial 542735. While Thomas Swan CROKER was a well paid civil servant he was jailed at least twice for unpaid debts. Clonliffe Parade was part of Clonliffe Road near Dromcondra Road. The house mentioned in this deed no longer exists. It was demolished in the 1970s to make a car park for the College. Have you ever wondered what possessions your ancestors had in 1825? This memorial gives a great list.
- Marriage settlement for second wife – Memorial 553026. This marriage is mentioned in Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland under the WOLFE family but with the wrong father for him. While not providing any real family details for Thomas Swan CROKER it gives a lot of information about Anne WOLFE.
- Death date in deed involving widow and son – 1838 Volume 20 No 139. The original of this deed is in the Greene Papers at the National Archives of Ireland. See: The National Library of ireland Sources database. The original deed has autographs of his widow and son together with those of the other parties and witnesses.
Like a lot of family history research serendipity plays a big part in whether you find gold or other gems in the Registry of Deeds. The above examples show what is possible with luck. The purpose of the Index Project is to making finding these gems easier and make up for the limitations of the Registry of Deeds own indexes – grantor's index and townland index.
Before you rush to arrange a trip to Dublin note that the Mormons microfilmed all the memorial books and indexes at the Registry of Deeds in the 1950s. Thus you can order copies of the microfilms through Family Search for viewing at a Family History Centre near you. A list of films for the townland indexes is here and a list of films for the grantor's index is here.
What is a deed
A deed is an agreement in writing and can take several forms. The parties to a deed (or their legal representative) usually held their part of the deed.
The main forms of deeds you see are indentures and deeds poll. Indentures are deeds written a number of times on one piece of parchment which is then cut into parts using a wavy cut so that each party gets a corresponding piece. A party can prove they are a party to the deed as their piece can be reassembled into the one piece. Generally, each party represented a separate interest in the deed. A party could be one or more people and a person could be one or more parties.
A deed poll is written out once and kept by the recipient. It has no horns like a poll Hereford bull.
Original deeds were retained by the parties to the deed or their legal representatives.
How was a deed registered
When a party wished to register a deed they would firstly make a memorial of the deed. The memorial would then be sworn as a true representation of the deed before either a Deputy Registrar at the Registry of Deeds or before a commissioner for taking affidavits and two magistrates. The memorial would then be handed over to the Registry of Deeds.
What is a memorial
The legislation setting up the Registry required that a memorial was written on parchment and was signed by at least one party to the deed and at least one witness to the original deed. The memorial was a copy of the deed. The memorial can be anything from a verbatim copy of the deed to a broad synopsis setting out the main features but somewhat light on details such as considerations and lives.
Who signed what – witnesses
All the parties of the deed sign the deed before witnesses who also sign. The memorial is signed by at least one party to the deed and at least one witness to the deed. It is also signed by the witnesses to the swearing and to the registration.
What happened after registration
After a memorial was received and registered at the front desk it was allocated a memorial number. These numbers were sequential from 1709 to 1832. After 1832 it was allocated to a volume and given a folio number. There were exactly 300 folios in each volume after 1832. It was then given to a clerk who copied the memorial to a memorial book. These are the tombstone volumes. The name reflects their size. At that stage information was extracted for the required indexes (see below) and in some periods an abstract was made and added to the abstract books. The original memorial was stored separately to the memorial book copy. To obtain a copy of the actual signatures you need to obtain a copy of the original memorial. Details of how to purchase a copy are here.
What deeds were registered
The incentive provided for registration is that a registered deed would have precedence over an unregistered one. So people who needed security of tenure such as merchants and middle level tenants often had their deeds registered. In addition, there was a strong incentive to register if the grantee thought that there could be a dispute some time in the future.
When were deeds registered
If the deed was executed in Dublin it could be registered on the day it was executed. More often deeds were registered within a few months of execution. Some deeds, however, were not registered until many years later. Memorial 102702 was executed on 15 February 1728 but not registered until 18 April 1752.
Most leases these days are of fixed duration. In the 1700s and 1800s the duration of many deeds was contingent of the lives of some nominated people. Registered deeds tended to have three lives as one of the prohibitions for ownership of Roman Catholics was holding land for three or more lives. The form of the duration in the deed would be – during the lives of the said John Smith, his son James Smith aged about 7 years and William Smith the son of Thomas Smith of the city of Dublin. The lives were often relatives of the grantee or grantor. When a premisses was sublet the resultant deed would inherit the lives from the head lease. The deed might also allow the renewal of lives. This means that a new life would be added to the lease's duration. The substitution of a new life might involve a fine or facilitation payment. The fines could range from a peppercorn to large sums of money. Failure to pay the fine could lead to the lease being terminated. Sometimes, the lease would be renewable for ever meaning the lease was in perpetuity. Sometimes, royal lives were used as the first nominated lives in a deed.
In most instances the rent was fixed for the duration of the lives. This tended to mean that the nominated lives were of younger people. Often a child aged between 5 and 10 was included to try and maximise the length of the lease. The limerick Chronicle of 22 July 1826 reported 'On the 4th instant, at Shewsbury, Colonel William PEACOCKE, aged about 90 years. By his death several extensive tracts of land are out of lease'. In this case there may have been no rent increase for over eighty years. On the day the death was announced Sir Joseph PEACOCKE advertised several lands in County Limerick for lease.
For the family historian, settlements are one of the most important class of deeds that appear in the Registry of Deeds. They usually containing a wealth of information about family relationships and often include information relating to several generations.
Marriage settlements have come back into vogue under the guise of pre-nuptial agreement much favoured these days by the rich and famous (and others). The marriage settlements uncovered in the Registry of Deeds dating back to the early 1700s perform a remarkably similar function to today's pre-nups. Both are to protect the rights and resources of the bride and groom and their respective families when the marriage ends. A difference between the current practice and that of earlier times is that many marriages now end with dissolution rather than the death of one of the parties.
Current day pre-nuptial agreements contract to codify and to limit the calls of either party on the resources of the other. A marriage settlement of the 1700s tries to do the same thing. It codifies and limits the resources available to the bride if her husband predeceased her.
The most common form of marriage settlement is that the bride's family provides a marriage portion (in cash) and the groom's family makes over rights to equivalent lands to trustees to guarantee the provisions for the bride should she be widowed and for the younger children of the marriage. Many deeds and marriage settlements give detailed provenance of the lands involved. Such explanations can span many pages for richer individuals. The eldest son of the marriage would generally inherit the lands from his father.
In 19th century and earlier retirement income arrangements were fewer than we have now. When someone wanted to retire they might make a deed with their heirs and settle their property on them and get them to pay an annuity in return. These sorts of settlements also contain a great deal of family relationship data.
Settlements of property might also occur when a son turned 21 and was given a degree of independence.
With millions of deeds it is not possible for one person to search the Registry for deeds that might be of interest for their family history research. The founding legislation included the requirement for two indexes, the grantor's and townland indexes. Both are useful but have limitations. The purpose of the Registry of Deeds Index Project is to address the limitations of these indexes particularly for family historians.
The grantor of a deed is the person who grants a right to someone else through the deed. In the case of a simple lease the lessor is the grantor and the lessee is the grantee. In a more complicated release there could be a number of grantors who are giving up a claim to some land.
As the grantor was the person who broke the law if they conveyed land to a Roman Catholic it was important that there was an index of these people. The grantor's index is alphabetical on grantor family name (or in the case of peers and other title holders name of their title). It includes the given name of the grantors for all non-titled and for some titled grantors. It only contains the family or title name of the grantee. Thus while it might be possible to scan the grantor's index for occurrences of relative rare family names of grantees this approach would be difficult for more common names. My efforts for the CROKER family.
The other index that was created from the creation of the Registry of Deed is the townland index. This indexes the land denominations appearing in memorials of deeds. It is a very useful index if you know a connection to a land denomination. You can follow deeds involving a land denomination. The index only gives the family name of a grantor and a grantee and, of course, reference to the memorial and, the volume and page.
The index being created by the Registry of Deeds Index Project is an attempt to provide a complete name index for the memorial volumes. The index includes all parties, witnesses and anyone else mentioned in the memorials. Thus it will help people find reference to their people of interest when they appear in any role.
Contributing to indexing
The Registry of Deeds is a fantastic resource for family history. Anyone can assist making this fabulous resource more accessible to everyone simply by adding index entries to the project.