From a talk by Dr Ian Roberts.
Is Northumberland the last feudal kingdom? That is: is the county still estate-dominated as it was in the past.
Land is a complex and challenging branch of social history, requiring lots of facts and figures, but Dr Roberts carried his audience with him, making his case with panache.
He briefly outlined the political situation in the nineteenth century which led to far-reaching changes in the way land was managed. In the early part of the century, agricultural conditions deteriorated, leading to unrest and the Swing Riots. In 1836, the Tithe Commutation Act necessitated the gathering of extensive data about ownership, which led to a nation-wide debate about land owner-ship. It seemed that large tracts of land were owned by the aristocracy. However, the Earl of Derby felt that this was an oversimplification, and there was a wider survey in 1873. This showed that, whilst much land was owned in this way, nearly a million people owned some land. Moreover, much aristocratic land, particularly in the north of England and Scotland, was very poor.
In the 1850s and 60s, many improvements to agriculture took place. Drainage projects and breeding schemes released previously uncultivated land and provided better quality animals. Much of the aristocracy had their lands scattered throughout Britain. The Duke of Devonshire, for example, owned nearly 200,000 acres in 11 English and 3 Irish counties. Most of this land yielded around £l per acre, which was not a large return: his market gardens of Middlesex yielded £5 16s.
In Northumberland, over 51% of the land was in estates of 10,000 acres or more, much the largest concentration in the country. Nine peers between them owned 322,722 acres. and there were 53 other large landowners. This land was difficult to manage centrally, particularly when it was so wide-spread, and a system of Land Agents was introduced. The Duke of Northumberland’s agent would meet with the Duke every few weeks. Outlying lands were managed by Bailiffs. The system was a paternal one: owners wanted to retain good tenants, and helped them by reducing rents at bad times. They also assisted them to improve their land with drainage schemes etc. Smaller landowners introduced a similar system.
How has the system changed? In 2001, the 12th Duke of Northumberland was still the largest landowner in Northumberland, owning around 2/3rds of his 1872 acreage. The second largest owner in the county is the Forestry Commission, with 117,696 acres. The Ministry of Defence owns 56,905 acres, while the second largest inherited estate is that of the 3rd Viscount Allendale, with only 20.000 acres, less than the National Trust. All these owners still use the Land Agent system for the management of their land. and there has not been the large shift to owner-occupation which has taken place in the rest of the country. In other words. Northumberland is the last Feudal Kingdom!