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Historic book reveals who owns the Westcountry

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 10, 2013

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After the Bible the Domesday Book is probably the best known tome in the land – but who has heard of the Second Domesday? But, if we haven't, perhaps we should – the man who has reprinted the book claims it sheds a fascinating light on who owns what in Britain.

The Second Domesday – more correctly known as Return of Owners of Land, 1873 – was merely a dry list of names and numbers, but according to Devon-based academic Kevin Cahill, it throws a vital light on the all-important subject of land ownership in this country.

So vital, that Mr Cahill – who works at the House of Lords as a scholar and researcher – has just had a facsimile of the Second Domesday published, including a fully-bound stand-alone copy focussing on Devon.

And the publishing of this facsimile has thrown up some very strange and interesting facts – like the fact that you don't actually own the property you thought you had bought or inherited – and that Cornwall really is a separate kingdom, as has long been claimed by activists west of the Tamar.

Last month the president of the Royal Historical Society, along with Lord Laird of Artigarvan, hosted a reception at the House of Lords to mark the publication of the facsimile edition and database of the Second Domesday – and later the man behind the project gave an exclusive interview to the Western Morning News.

It was during this conversation that a number of gobsmacking facts came to light – such as that notion that we do not own our properties…

"What you own is 'an interest in an estate in land in fee-simple'," explained Mr Cahill who works in the House of Lords but returns to his Devon home whenever he can. "The Crown actually owns the land.

"What made the Returns (of 1873) so important was that they were, apart from a record of every landowner in the four countries, an attempt by the House of Lords to extinguish once and for all the Crown's feudal claim. The Peers failed and the Crown's claim was reintroduced in the Law of Property Act 1925."

But he added: "The Crown is not the only absolute owner of land in the United Kingdom. In 1855 the High Court ruled that: 'the whole territorial interest and dominion of the Crown in and over the entire county of Cornwall, is vested in the Duke of Cornwall'. So Cornwall is a separate Kingdom.

"I know the Cornish have been shouting about this for a long time, but they turn out to be right," Mr Cahill went on. "The Duchy is contesting its description as a public authority before the High Court now, over the mussel beds case. The original assertion of the claim to the High Court in 1855 has surfaced again. And the High Court agreed to it in 1855. And yes, Cornwall is a separate feudal authority, ie kingdom."

Analysis of these dry old laws might seem academic at best, unimportant at worst – so why does Mr Cahill believe his facsimile of the 1873 Return to be so important?

Indeed, one learned professor goes as far as to claim it will "...help to revolutionise our understanding of our own history."

"One of our historic narratives is of a gradually emerging democracy starting with the Great Reform Act of 1832 and proceeding through the various enfranchisement statutes," replied Mr Cahill. "But while that was happening, the key information about who ran the country and how they did it based on their landed wealth, disappeared – which the conventional narrative overlooks.

"It is fair to say that the Second Domesday is the only Land Registry the UK has ever had. There is no predecessor document," claims Mr Cahill, adding: "The Domesday of 1086 was a robber-King's 'swag' list – not a list of landowners – as the same King elected himself the only landowner, having everyone else as tenants, as we are again."

So how will the republishing of the Second Domesday "...enable economic historians to examine and trace the rise of home ownership in the UK", as was claimed at the House of Lords recently?

"Home ownership is reckoned a fairly recent phenomenon, but it was already beginning in 1872, with as many as 1.2 million people owning their own homes out of a population of 26.9 million," explained Mr Cahill. "It was the rise of home ownership which transformed the wage earning proletariat into the property-owning democracy we have now.

"Currently about 60% of the population of 62 million have a stake in a private home, against just 4.4% in 1872. This means that a part of the population that historically never had assets of any kind, now have an asset of considerable value. It gives the population in general a stake in the capitalist system that their predecessors never had.

"But that does not alter the fact that about 74% of the actual acreage of the United Kingdom, mostly rural Britain, is in the hands of about 155,000 families.

"Allowing each family four persons – this means that 74% of the country is owned by a maximum of 1% of the population.

"And why does this matter? Because the holders of land get an annual subsidy of around £4bn, and pay no tax on their land holdings," he went on. "Ordinary homeowners pay rates and most are income taxpayers. The change is that in 1872 almost the only taxpayers were landowners and their position has been reversed – from taxpayers to subsidy recipients."

All of which gives much food for thought… But why did Mr Cahill become interested in such an obscure subject in the first place?

"When I was working on the first Sunday Times Rich List with Phil Beresford in 1988, he assigned me 'old money'. Old money in the UK is usually land – a lot of land. The ST Rich List is based on Company's House records, so I thought all I had to do was pop around to the Land Registry and ask. It didn't quite work like that. In 1988 you couldn't look at anything in the Land Registry without the owner's permission.

"I started to hunt around for some other way to do the assignment. A former private secretary of Winston Churchill's, the late Donald Hay, said that the Devon and Exeter Institution (DE&I) had just the kind of thing I was looking for – a book of landowners. It did. That is where it started, with a sight of this extraordinary book, the Returns at the DE&I.

"Thus began an adventure which led to me writing Who Owns Britain, and then Who Owns the World. Both were firsts, and I certainly owed Who Owns Britain to the original copy of the Returns in the DE&I.

"I'm competitive by nature," said Mr Cahill, "And realised that whoever republished the Returns themselves – usually known as the Second Domesday – would have a first of firsts.

"But really, this would be a chance to restore to our historic record what Professor Peter Mandler, president of the Royal Historical Society, called: 'The most important Parliamentary paper ever published'."

For a full bound copy of the Devon County section of the Second Domesday including 10,162 names, addresses, acreages and valuations, send a cheque for £30 (includes p&p) to Global & Western Publishing at PO Box 151, Exeter EX4 4WG.

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