Torrington Commons: Quiet Possession


First Report of the Committee on Peculiar Tenures of Land. Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1880, Vol XII, pp. 153-154.


George M. Doe.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The author presented the paper at the Association’s July 1880 Totnes meeting, Towards the end of the 12th century a ‘large waste called The Common’ was given to the people of Torrington. In 1889 the rights to this land were transferred, by an act of parliament, to an elected Committee of Conservators. They now administer 365 acres of land surrounding the town on all but the eastern side. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.


The town of Great Torrington has long been noted for the extensive commons around it, and for the tenacity with which the inhabitants maintain their commonable rights, and the jealousy with which they view any attempt to encroach on them. The earliest document referring to the grant of these commons with which I am acquainted, is a Decree in Chancery made in the 42nd year of the reign of Elizabeth (1600), from which it appears that " One William, sometime Lord of the town and burrough of Torrington Magna, by his deed did assure unto the free burgesses of the said town, and some others of his free tenants of his manor dwelling in the parish of Torrington Magna aforesaid, common of pasture for their beasts and cattle in and throughout his waste grounds within his manor of Great Torrington, lying within the aforesaid parish." Risdon in his Survey of Devon, completed in 1630, says, "For their" (the poor's) "better relief, William Fitz-robert, Baron of Torrington, in King Richard the first's reign, gave them a large waste called the common."

The unenclosed commons now consist of about 370 acres, over which all "occupiers of ancient messuages" (vulgo "pot-boilers"), claim the right to common of pasture without stint

Besides these open commons there are certain "common fields" in the parish, containing about 163 acres, over which the same commoners claim similar rights, subject, however, to a right of tillage, belonging to the lord of the manor or other owners of the freehold. The gates of these fields were removed annually, after harvest, and the land was stocked with cattle from the adjacent open commons until the customary time for the next year's tillage. This practice continued until the year 1835, when the occupiers of the common fields agreed to pay "quiet possession" rents, in consideration of their being allowed to cultivate the fields in what manner they might think proper, and at a public meeting of the inhabitants, a committee was appointed "to receive such rents and apply them as they might consider best to promote the interests of the inhabitants." The agreement is renewed every seven years, and the committee reappointed every three years, and the rental, amounting to £30. 3s. 6d., is generally applied in the purchase of coal and provisions for distribution amongst the poor inhabitants of the parish.

The minute-book of the Quiet Possession Committee shows that on the 30th May, 1843, some of the rents being in arrear, it was resolved that the fields of one of the defaulters should be stocked on the 1st June following, at ten o'clock precisely, and a sub-committee was appointed to carry the resolution into effect. "The pig-drivers to drive the commons in the morning to get the cattle together to stock the fields with." The minute further records that on the 1st June the above resolution was carried into effect, as the commons were then driven and the cattle thereon turned into the fields of the defaulter. He having refused to comply with the above resolution, the said cattle remained in the fields until the evening of the same day, when a note of hand was given for the amount due.

In the year 1874, the occupier of one of the common fields having neglected to keep up his fences against the open commons, some of the commoners broke the fence of the field and depastured cattle thereon. The tenant thereupon brought an action of trespass in the county court, at the hearing of which it was proved that he paid (in addition to his landlord's rent), the stipulated quiet possession rent to the Secretary of the committee. The judge, Serjt. Petersdorff, gave judgment for the plaintiff, and intimated that "if the payment of the rent to the committee had any legal result, it would be to increase the defendants' liability and aggravate their conduct, instead of justifying their aggressive entry."   Geo. Doe.