British land is owned ultimately by the Crown, but most of it has been given, ‘sold’, or granted to private individuals or public bodies with an effective right of freehold. Neither land registration nor national surveys have been popular in Britain, which means that there are few figures from which general trends can be assessed. Between the great Domesday survey of 1086 and the late 19th century no national record was kept of transactions or ownership, although some major discontinuities in ownership are well known, particularly the turnover of land following the Norman Conquest, and the transfer of land from the Church, initially to the Crown, and later into private hands, following the dissolution of the monasteries. The so‐called New Domesday of 1876, in reality a parliamentary paper based on information primarily culled from rate books, gives an indication of ownership for the early 1870s by named individuals, but is known to be flawed. Information on the estates of the greater landowners was reassessed, and a more accurate statement of their property on a county basis was published as John Bateman, The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (1883). The work of the Inland Revenue in connection with Lloyd George's taxes on land levied as a result of the 1909 Budget produced another ‘New Domesday’, a property‐by‐property assessment of the whole country in 95 000 volumes (see also Valuation Office). To date, the sheer bulk of the material has been too great for any easy analysis. Even today there is no complete record of landownership across the United Kingdom.
In the absence of good statistical material, any examination of landownership is bound to depend partly on informed speculation. From the evidence of a tax on land in 1436, it is estimated that the Crown and the Church together probably owned about one‐quarter of the total English landed income in the early 15th century, lay peers and others with incomes of £100 a year or more owned a further fifth, 30 per cent or so was in the hands of those with incomes of £5 to £99, and 26 per cent in the hands of those with incomes of £5 a year or less; see J. P. Cooper, ‘The Social Distribution of Land and Men in England, 1436–1700’, Economic History Review, 20 (1967). Over the following century this pattern is unlikely to have changed greatly, but the position was fundamentally altered by the transfer of monastic land into private ownership after 1536. By the late 17th century the best guess that we have suggests that the great majority of land was in private hands, with between a quarter and a third owned by small proprietors, many of whom probably worked their own land.
From the late 17th century to at least the 1880s the general trend in the pattern of ownership was in favour of the large estate. This movement occurred for a number of reasons, including the gradual squeezing of the small owner–occupier at the expense of the greater owners. The latter were aided by land laws which enabled them to hold their properties together over long periods of time, via a mechanism known as entail, and to underwrite themselves financially, if need be, by mortgaging their land. Some owners were able to run up substantial debts, among them the dukes of Devonshire, but only seldom did this prove disastrous, as in 1848 when the second Duke of Buckingham was effectively bankrupted by his extravagances. Benjamin Disraeli found it all very mystifying, musing in the reminiscences which he wrote in the early 1860s on ‘the difficulty of destroying a family rooted in the land’. The ability of the larger landowners to entail their property enabled them to resist the dispersion of their estates despite the demands of the nouveaux riches for land.