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HE Wimbledon Common Committee was consti
tuted in the month of March, 1866, at a meeting of the inhabitants and owners of property in the parishes of Wimbledon, Putney, and Roehampton, with a view to take action for the better preservation of Wimbledon Common.
One of the first measures of the Committee was to seek legal advice on the nature of the property and rights existing in the Common, as to which many different opinions had been expressed; Mr. Forster, the Steward of the Manor, having, in his evidence given before the House of Commons in 1865, actually claimed the whole property in the Common for Earl Spencer, the Lord of the Manor.
The nominal ownership, or what lawyers call the legal estate, of almost every common in England is undoubtedly vested in the Lord of the Manor. This legal accident has never enabled him to deal with it as his private property; on the contrary, it is notorious that, at all events, those of the inhabitants who were termed tenants of the Manor, have in all times claimed to exercise, and have in fact exercised (more or less
assiduously), various and valuable rights over the common or waste land within the district or territory called a Manor, of which the Lord was anciently but the feudal chief.
The existence of these rights, and their nature and extent, may be proved in two ways: 1st, by tradition from the memory of old inhabitants; and, 2ndly, by the records or rolls of the Manor Courts.
Each of these modes of proof is open to objection ; the first, both from its character of uncertainty and liability to difference in opinion or recollection with different individuals, and from its embracing, even in the person of an old inhabitant, but a small span of time compared with the entire history of a Manor; -the second is imperfect, inasmuch as only the supposed infractions of the custom of the Manor are usually recorded, and not its unbroken stream of daily practice; the latter is only to be inferred from the former, with all the infirmity of judgment, opinion, and fallible interpretation to which such a mode of proof is exposed. Obviously, however, the liability to error is greatly increased by imperfect knowledge of those records; and their inaccessibility has hitherto, in most cases, absolutely prevented any one, excepting the Lord himself or his Steward, from forming even an approximately correct judgment upon them. .
A portion of the Rolls of Wimbledon Manor are kept at Spencer House, in London, and can only be seen after going through certain formalities and making an appointment for the purpose a certain time beforehand. The later Court Rolls are kept by Mr. Forster, the Steward, in Lincoln's-Inn Fields; and in order to see
them, an appointment must be made and certain formalities gone through ; and in both cases heavy fees have to be paid to the Steward for the privilege of inspection. The earlier rolls are in the Latin language, and written on parchment in a style illegible to any but a practised eye. They are without index, and the greater portion of them relate to matters of private interest only, such as the conveyance of land from a seller to a purchaser, or the inheritance by an heir, &c. In order, therefore, to extract what relates to a particular subject, a vast mass of irrelevant matter must be waded through.
A consideration of these circumstances induced the Wimbledon Common Committee, at considerable expense, to make and print, for the general information of those interested, an extract from the Court Rolls of all matters bearing on the questions now mooted respecting the Common and the various rights existing or claimed over it.
Several months have been consumed in this labour, and the present volume is the result. The editor believes that every important entry bearing on the matter has been extracted. It is possible that, in spite of much care, something may have been omitted.
From what has been said, the reader will not be surprised to find certain inconsistencies in the Records of the Manor as to the exact nature and extent of the Customs. One thing is, however, clear,— that the rights claimed and exercised by the tenants were numerous and profitable :—Whether at one time pasturage for a greater or smaller number of cattle was