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A short history of the Land Surveyor

“Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark.”1

It is probable that every group of humans has felt the need, for one reason or another, to define, in one form or another, the land on which they live. It is tempting to believe that the work of defining boundaries and estates has always been done by ‘surveyors’. Etymologists tell us that the word derives from the Anglo-French word, “surveiour” – a guard or overseer dating from the 15th century, yet one of the first references to surveyors occurs in Walter of Henley’s ‘Husbandry’. Though written in the 13th century the tasks and attributes Walter ascribes to the surveyor were almost certainly centuries old even then, but it was not until the 16th century [1540] that the word’s use in the modern sense [“One whose business [my emphasis] it is to survey land: one who makes surveys, or practises surveying] appeared [2].

Walter’s instructions are a model for job descriptions everywhere; “Survey your lands and tenements by true and sworn men. First survey your courts, gardens, dove-houses, curtilages, what they are worth yearly beyond the valuation; and then how many acres are in the demesne [3], and how much is in each culture, and what they should be worth yearly; and how many acres of pasture, and what they are worth yearly; and all other several pastures, and what they are worth yearly; and wood, what you can sell without loss and destruction, and what it is worth yearly beyond the return; and free tenants, how much each holds and by what service; and customary tenants, how much each holds and by what services…. And by the surveyors inquire with how much of each sort of corn you can sow an acre of land, and how much cattle you can have on each manor”.

An anonymous manuscript from the same period, called “The Book of the Office of Seneschal” tells us that the Seneschal, or as we would call him the Steward, “ought, at his first coming to the manors, to cause all the demesne lands of each to be measured by true men, and he ought to know by the perch of the country how many acres there are in each field”. Note the term ‘perch of the country’ its relevance will be seen shortly. Note some of the other roles of the Steward; he had to “observe and keepe the olde and ancient names of such marks and bounds as have been anciently used and accustomed” as well as being expected to “value each parcel of arable, meadow, pasture, and woodland by classifying it as superior, mediocre, or inferior and by assigning a monetary value.”

The feudal system in operation during Walter’s time was complex; a much simplified account of the system goes like this. At the top was the King, owing service only to God, and owning all of the land of the country.[4] Below him were the great nobles who initially did not own land but instead were granted land by the king and were said to ‘hold’ land from the King. They became known as ‘tenants-in-chief’ as they held the land directly from the king. In exchange for the land they had to provide some form of ‘feudal service’. The highest echelons of the nobility gave counsel to the King as well as providing knights and fighting for him when called upon. These nobles, in turn, granted the lesser nobility land to hold in exchange for service to them and so it went on until at the bottom were the peasantry or villeins who were granted land by the lord of the manor in return for them working upon his lands.

The labour that that villeins did for the lord was essentially a form of rent but paid in a practical way. A complex system of rights and responsibilities developed. The villein or surf may have had to provide work for the Lord but the Lord in turn had to provide land and access to the waste or common land to the tenants. “The ideal was an interlocking system in which all should accept their allotted place because all derived benefits from the functions performed by others on their behalf.”[5]

Over the centuries the manorial system fell into decline hastened by events such as the black death, in 1348. During this time large swathes of arable land were turned over to pasture on which sheep were grazed and the wool trade boomed. Unfortunately this had the effect of disrupting manors and breaking the link between the lord and his tenants, all to many of whom were dispossessed of their land and left destitute. By the 16th century a movement against inclosure of the land, supported by none other than Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and even Henry V111 himself, failed to stem this process and such was the social disruption caused that rebellion [albeit unsuccessful] soon followed.

It was during this period, the 16th and 17thcenturies, that the role of the surveyor changed. The first change occurred as a result of a new way of viewing the relationship between the owner of the land and his tenants. From being a steward, employed by his Lord to maintain an immutable and patriarchal socio-economic structure, ordered around the imperatives of a strict Christian morality” [the old manor] the surveyor became the employee of an owner who saw the land as an object to be exploited and where relations between landlord and tenant were to be underpinned by a radically new socio-economic logic.”[6] The basis of this new economic model was not to be paternalism but capitalism. The land and the people on it were to be exploited to the advantage of the landowner.

The second change for the surveyor was the result of the well known litigiousness of the Tudors. As manors came up for sale or were subdivided property disputes became commoner and were often fought in the courts in London. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 a host of new lands came onto the market and the new owners of these lands wanted a new type of steward, one capable of providing them with a new and more accurate type of survey of their lands; one historian, F M L Thompson, dates “the birth of the modern surveyor” from about 1520 [7].

To effect the change new techniques had to be developed. In medieval times land had been measured ‘functionally. There was a whole plethora of different terms used. An acre for example was the area of land a man could till using one ox during a day whilst an oxgang was the amount the ox could plough in a season. Naturally since the land varied from village to village there was no standardisation of any of these terms. but this varied according to the nature of the land. The oxgang was said typically to be about 15 acres but like most things that are typical it probably wasn’t. A yardland or virgate was the amount two oxen could plough in a season, about 30 acres whilst a carucate or ploughland kept a team of eight oxen busy for a year and was about 120 acres.

As if this weren’t enough other measures of land, for example the Hide, were related to taxation.[8] The most well known unit of land, the acre, whatever it’s actual area became the unit that defined all the others and importantly became conceived of as a more or less rectangular strip. [9]

Land of course varies in quality, some strips were smaller than others simply because they were harder to plough. When land was plentiful, the population small and farming was at little more than subsistence level it mattered little that the exact area a tenant held was not known. All that mattered was that each person had enough land under cultivation to survive.

When exact measure was required, and we cannot be sure when this was but probably in the middle of the 12th century, the people turned to an instrument that fell readily to hand. They chose the wooden stick that was used to goad the oxen whilst ploughing. The oldest name for the stick was ‘perch’ [from the French word perche = a measuring stick], but later it became known, simply as a ‘rod’. By the time of Walter of Henley the accepted length of the rod was 5.5 yards, or 16.5 feet, long. In practice however the situation was much more complex as different counties, even different manors, had perches of differing lengths.

For our purposes we will assume the statute rod of 5.5 yards was used and when measured the statute acre, the area ploughed by an ox team in a day was found to be 40 perches or rods long and 4 perches or rods wide. In other words 220 yards by 22 yards – a rectangle of 4840 square yards. There were disadvantages to this approach however, as the land rarely divided up into convenient rectangles. How was it possible to measure irregular shapes?

Approximation of the area was one approach, a skill used by many farmers today to estimate the area of a piece of land, but in the 16th century the conception of an acre changed. In a bit of what would today be called lateral thinking they realised that the acre did not have to be one long rectangle; irregular shapes could be split up into smaller units. If an acre was 40 perches long and 4 perches wide then it comprised 160 square perches and it did not matter what shape they were arranged in. Although this notion sounds obvious to us it wasn’t to them and it was only in the 16th century that it was put explicitly into writing. In 1582 Edward Worsop, one of the new breed of land surveyors explained; “that in what fashion soever grounds do ly, that just viii. score square perches must alwaies make the acre”.[10]

In other words an acre did not have to be a rectangle, any shape of land comprising one hundred and sixty square perches made up an acre. This simple realisation meant that all sorts of irregular shapes could be measured more accurately by breaking them up into the number of square perches. How this led to a system of recording land area in Acres, Roods and Perches is discussed in the section on Money and Measures.Little squares though are not particularly useful when measuring land and the most important development for the land surveyor came from the reintroduction of an ancient Greek discovery. Euclid’s Elements had been known in manuscript form from 1120 when an English monk translated it from versions surviving in Arabic. Unfortunately he translated it into Latin. This limited the knowledge it contained to monastic institutions and then to the universities.

It was not until 1482 that a printed version was made available in Latin and not until a century later that it appeared in English. As a result of this “Noted mathematicians, including Leonard Digges, John Dee, and Robert Recorde, published popularizations of basic geometry and arithmetic”[11]. These mathematical texts frequently used land surveys to demonstrate the practical use of the Elements. As Arthur Hopton wrote in 1611, “as lines bound figures, so hedges bound inclosures: and angles in the field are created by the meting of hedges, as they be in figures by the section of lines.”[12] These texts were popular in the groves of academe but in the groves of thousands of manors across the country they were less well understood, as most stewards and surveyors had only a basic education. Even if they were educated it comes as a surprise to learn that geometry and arithmetic were not taught in sixteenth-century schools”. Learning for most could only be obtained by buying the books and getting to grips with them in isolation but even then it is likely that their mastery through solitary reading was beyond the capability of many.”[13]

Luckily for would be surveyors between 1520 and 1650 some twenty or so books on surveying were published providing practical manuals for the trainee. Almost all fused the traditional role of the steward or bailiff with the new role of the surveyor and were as much an attempt to sell themselves to the new landlords as they were about surveying. One of the most famous was published by John Norden in 1607. His “Surveyors dialogue” proceeds by a series of questions by a bailiff , farmer or lord of the manor and the answers by a land surveyor. Amongst the things he describes are the conversion of linear measurements to areas, the use of scales on maps, how to calculate the area of square and circular pieces of lands and then goes on to discuss perhaps the most important innovation of all, the measurement of irregular shapes.

The following give a flavour of his style.

“Bayly: I see in your plot a crooked peece of land to be measured as I take it, and I thinke it be the Lords wood, called Frith-wood.

Sur: This is that you see, and it is troublesome to measure indeed: and without a Geometricall instrument, it can very hardly be measured, because there are woods about it, and the wood it selfe thick of trees and bushes.

Bayly: You have indeed laid it out in his true forme: but it hath so many angles and curvings, that I dare not adventure to measure it upon your plot. I pray what course take you in the casting up of such a peece of land?

Sur. The truest course, for that it is so irregular, is, to put it into as many triangles as you conveniently may, making no more then necessitie requireth: and if you can do this, you may do any other forme” [my emphasis].

Here is a conceptual change that could not have been contemplated in any earlier period [14], in future triangulation would be the core technique in surveying. It is easy to forget what we once did not know, here Norden is describing how to calculate the area of a triangle, something that hopefully every school child knows from an early age. He starts with the basics,

“Bayly. But which do you call the base, and which the perpendicular lines?

Sur. The longest line in any triangle is the base, and the perpendicular is a line imagined to rise from the base to the obtuse or blunt angle

Bayly. But how doe you cast up the quantity, by a triangle thus? you cannot as I take it, by multiplying the base by the perpendicular, find the content: for it is by that computation, more itē indeede the triangle containeth.

Sur. You say true, if you multiply the whole base, by the whole perpendicular: but you must multiply the one, by the halfe of the other.

Bayly. Doe you imagine that the truest measure, is by triangles?

Sur. Yea, where you find many angles in one field: there are other kinds, and manners of measuring, but this is speedy and certaine.”

Theory alone was insufficient for the practice of surveying demanded new instruments to put that theory into action and their development over the next 50 years was rapid. By 1653 when William Leybourn published “The compleat surveyor containing the whole art of surveying of land by the plain table, theodolite, circumferentor, and peractor together with the taking of all manner of heights and distances” he had listed almost all the instruments the surveyor needed. Some of these will be considered in a later section.

By the late 17th century the modern land surveyor had been born; surprisingly however little was known about them. As late as 1805 William Stephenson, himself a surveyor, was to write the following; “NOTWITHSTANDING the numerous improvements daily made and published in almost every art and science, nothing yet has appeared on the subject of Land Surveying, as it is at this time conducted by surveyors and commissioners in old and new inclosures, &c. There are few practical branches of the mathematics of greater importance to this country, yet it is scarcely known to any than its professors.” [15]

Training to be a land surveyor began in the schools. A typical school at the time, The Revd. Mr Langfield’s School at Beaminster, offered the following curriculum, which included land surveying:

English Grammar, Writing in all the different hands, Arithmetic, Vulgar and Decimal Fractions, the Square and Cube, Roots, Mensuration, Algebra, Trigonometry, Navigation, Book- keeping, Land-Surveying, Latin and Greek on the following terms:-

Board, Washing and Education £16 16s

Entrance to ditto £1 1s

Annual Perquisite 10s 6d

French £3 3s

Entrance to ditto £1 1s

£22 11s 6d

Having left school there was no clear course for the man [and it was only men] who wanted to be a land surveyor. When Martin began his career there were no professional qualifications, no undergraduate courses and so on. It is probable that most who wanted to a land surveyors found themselves places in established businesses. As late as the 18th and 19th centuries surveying tended to be dynastic, with one generation succeeding another and it is highly probable that Martin received his training in the business of his uncle William Jennings Snr.

If there were no family connections, “gentlemen have been under the necessity of putting their sons generally three years, and give a handsome premium, to learn the present mode of land surveying”. Generally speaking these young gentleman were not apprentices; the Country Apprentices Register 1710-1811, lists only one hundred and eighty four apprentices, nationally, to land surveyors. None of these were in Dorset. I have found one advert for a young man to be articled as a clerk to a land surveyor [more usually associated with the legal profession] but how common this was is not known. Most were probably taken into the offices of existing surveyors where they served effectively as apprentices in everything but name. John Martin himself was to take on one such man, James Fitzgerald, who appears in the1841 census and is called an apprentice but there may have been others as hinted at in the following entries,

16th January 1832

Received of Mr Baldwin further on account of Premium for his son £50 0 0d

15th February 1832

Working on Piddle Hinton Map completing State of Property and collecting Sheets for Geo Baldwin to begin collecting

31st December 1835

Reced of Mr Baldwin further on a/ of his Son £50


If making the survey was science, map making and valuation were art. Valuation was one of the earliest and most important parts of the surveyors work. Walter of Henley urges the steward to determine “how much [land] is in each culture”, and “what they should be worth yearly”. Land valuation was a complex task, in feudal times, when unfree tenure or villeinage required the tenant to provide the lord with some form of work or feudal service, the steward had the responsibility of valuing the amount of service to be given to the lord. Today we are used to rent being purely a monetary payment but in the past this was paid by working on the lords land. This obligation had to be calculated and was not always monetary,“A very ordinary arrangement in the time of Edward 1. appears to have been that the villeins’ obligations were stated in terms of money, but were paid either in services or in cash at the will of the lord.”

On a daily basis valuation was a far commoner activity than surveying. A particular field or close was unlikely to alter its area over time – but it’s value could change year to year. It was also a sensitive issue, trying to please both landlord whilst not bankrupting his tenants cannot have been easy. As a minimum the surveyor had to be thoroughly acquainted with the course of agriculture. Not only in his immediate area but across the county. He needed of course to know the type and qualities of the various soils he encountered, what crops were best grown in which areas and what livestock did best on the prevailing terrain. He had to have a ‘feel’ for the land, how it was drained or exposed to the elements, which areas would be in shade or sunlight and all of that ‘soft’ knowledge that was acquired by experience. When valuing a quick eyeball calculation of its area combined with the likely yield of the crops was of greater use than precise measurements – particularly if he had many hundreds of fields to value for something like the tithe. Finally he had to know the latest developments in agriculture without which he could not advise on how far land could be improved, particularly important in inclosure work. Given his target audience – farmers- he had above all else to convince them that he was a practical man who knew what he was talking about.

Next         The Perfect Survey

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1 Deuteronomy Ch 27 v17


3 Demesne land was that held by the lord of the manor for himself.

4 The King was said to be the allodial owner of the country’s land by which is meant that legally there was no superior landlord.

5 The Holy Roman Empire Peter H Wilson 2107 Penguin

6 To Know One’s Own: Estate Surveying and the Representation of the Land in Early Modern England McRae Huntington Library Quarterly 1993,

7 F M L Thompson “Chartered Surveyors: The Growth of a Profession” 1968

8 See the section on money and measures for a fuller explanation.

9 In fact it had a slight S shaped curve to it due to the need to swing outwards sufficient to allow the oxen to turn.

10 Worsop Edward “A discoverie of sundrie errors and Faults 1582” Viii score perches is 8 × 20 or 160 square perches.

11 Sarah Hughes “Surveyors and Statesmen”.

12 Speculum Topographica

13 Sarah Hughes ibid

14 At least in Western Europe except by the Greeks in a much earlier era.

15 Stephenson W E The System of Land Surveying at present adopted by surveyors and commissioners in Old and New Inclosures 1805