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Great estates and Private Acts

In the past, ownership of the countryside was dominated by the aristocracy and the wealthy gentry. In the 18th and 19th centuries country estates tended to grow in size as landowners bought up land wherever they could. The leasing of land to tenant-farmers provided landowners with their main source of income.

There were often occasions when landowners found it necessary to sell off parts of their estates, to raise funds for buying up other land, pay debts, build new country mansions, or to make their estates easier to manage.

But selling land was seldom straightforward. Landowners were often bound by what were called settlements - legal arrangements made by owners in previous generations to prevent parts of the estate from being sold off in the future. The purpose was to preserve the estate intact when handed on to subsequent generations of a family. Although there might be good reasons to sell, a landowner might often find himself barred from doing so.

Private Acts

In order to free themselves from these legal restrictions, individual landowners frequently turned to Parliament to obtain Private Acts that allowed them to sell parts of their estates. This became a common practice, and in the course of the 18th century Parliament passed a significant number of estate Acts each session.

This practice continued until well into 19th century, and between 1800 and 1850 over 700 separate estate Acts were passed. In 1882, however, Parliament passed the Settled Land Act, which gave all landowners the legal freedom to dispose of the greater part of their lands if they wished.

Related information

Read about Private Bills and Acts

Historic Hansard

The House of Commons debates the Second Reading of the Settled Lands Bill