These returns, also known as the Modern Domesday, were the result of a survey to ascertain the number of owners of land of one acre or more in the United Kingdom (except London). The returns were compiled from rates records. The returns for England and Wales were published by HMSO in 1874 as Return of Owners of Land, 1873. Returns for Scotland and Ireland were also published by HMSO in 1874 and 1876.

The returns list owners’ surnames in alphabetical order. They also give the owner’s address (usually just the town, village or area in a city), the area of land (acres, rods and poles) that he owned and its estimated rental value (but not the land’s location). Typical entries in the Devon returns are:

Name of Owner Address of Owner Extent of Lands Estimated Rental
A R P £ s
Bulleid, Samuel. Hatherleigh 8 2 - 75 2
Bulleid, Thomas. Hatherleigh 23 - 38 52 6
Bullen, J.B.T.T. Marshwood 1 - 3 3 10

The survey established that almost 270,000 people (or organisations such as railway companies, charities and schools) owned an acre or more of land. For Devon alone, about 9,740 names are given (although this is out of an approximate population of 602,000). The returns are therefore of principal use to descendants of the landowners, but are also useful to other researchers, since they reveal the names of the landowners in the county, and enable searches to be made for that family’s records.

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