Burgage Plots

Ledbury is a planned town, as distinct from having evolved around a topographical feature, such as a river.

Unplanned towns are often steeped in history, but there is much to be said for a planned town: the original planner(s) can plan the development of a previously undeveloped area from inception, and land use conflicts are uncommon. Many 20C new towns in England, for example, Basildon, Bracknell, Corby, Crawley, Cwmbran, Hatfield, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Letchworth, Newton Aycliffe, Petrerlee, Reddith, Runcorn, Skelmersdale, Stevenage, Telford, Washington, Welwyn Garden City, Milton Keynes, are planned towns.

During the Middle Ages, especially between the 12th and 14th centuries AD, many ‘new towns’ were established on previously unsettled land. The towns were intended to become centres of commerce and locations for markets and fairs. Many towns achieved the status of ‘borough’ and were often created by lords of the manor and local bishops hoping to increase their revenue through expanding populations and the development of trade; no different to property developers.

In general, ancient town-planning used a combination of the straight line and the right angle. The shape of a town was typically laid out as a single central thoroughfare, widening in the middle or at one end to form a green or market place, with long narrow strips, known as ‘burgage plots’ extending at right-angles. Each plot had its frontage to the main street so that the potential inhabitant (merchants and traders) of each building, in those days, called a ‘house’ had access to the main street where business could be carried out, with the strip of land that could be used for a variety of purposes, including stores, workshops, kitchen gardens and land for grazing livestock.
(A house is a building or structure that has the ability to be occupied for habitation by humans or other creatures. To distinguish between a house for residential accommodation and a commercial occupancy, the technical term ‘dwelling house’ or the more popular ‘home’ is commonly used.)

The basic unit of measurement was the perch which was 5.5 yards (5m) and the plots can be identified nowadays because they are in multiples of perches. As populations grew, ‘burgage plots’ could be split into smaller plots or extended to incorporate neighbouring plots.

Rental payment ("tenure") was usually in the form of money, but each ‘burgage tenure’ arrangement was unique, and could include services. In town, the burgesses had to be freemen: persons that were entitled to practise a trade within the town and to participate in electing members of the town’s ruling council.

In the very earliest chartered foundations, predating the Norman Conquest in 1066, the burgage plots were simply the plough-land strips of pre-existing agrarian settlements. In medieval England and Scotland, and some parts of the Welsh Marches, burgage plots or burgage tenements were inclosed fields extending the confines of a medieval town, established by the lord of the manor, as divisions of the 'open' manorial fields. The burgesses (equivalents of "burghers") to whom these tracts were allotted, as tenants of the enclosed lands, paid a cash rent instead of, as previously, occupying land by virtue of having given feudal service.

The way from the street to the back of the burgage plot without going through the building was the alley. An alley is a narrow strip of undeveloped land between each plot. In Ledbury, many of the alleys are closed to the public and with no public right of way, but for some, such as Tilley’s Alley (off High Street close to junction with Worcester Road) one can walk alongside and see for yourself the depth and shape of the plot.

The importance in ownership of a burgage plot was not limited to use of the land in that particular town. Burgage was also used as the basis of the franchise in many boroughs sending members to the House of Commons before 1832. A ‘borough’ was a town that possessed a Royal charter giving it the right to elect two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons. In boroughs the right to vote was attached to the occupation of particular burgage tenements. Since tenements could be freely bought and sold, and since the owner of the tenement was entitled to convey it for the election period to a reliable nominee, who could then vote, it was possible to buy the majority of the burgages and with it the power to nominate the members of Parliament.

For centuries, constituencies electing members to the House of Commons did not change to reflect population shifts, and in some places the number of electors became so few that they could be bribed. The boundaries of a borough rarely changed as the town or city expanded, so that in time the borough and the town were no longer identical in area. Because the borough was probably owned by one landowner, and there was no secret ballot for voting, the landowner could evict residents that did not vote for the person whom the landowner wanted as a member of the Commons. Boroughs that were effectively controlled by a single person became known as ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs. At the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters, and 88 by fewer than 50 voters each.

Typically, rotten boroughs had gained representation in parliament when they were flourishing centres with a substantial population, but had become depopulated or even deserted over the centuries. Some had once been important places or had played a major role in England's history, but had fallen into insignificance.

In the early 19th century there were moves towards reform, culminating in the Great Reform Act 1832 and Reform Act 1867 which disenfranchised the 57 rotten boroughs and applied a uniform franchise to all boroughs. The principle was established that each parliamentary constituency should hold approximately the same number of electors. In 1872, the Ballot Act introduced the secret ballot, paying or entertaining voters was outlawed, and election expenses fell dramatically.

Ledbury is by no means unique in having burgage plots. The list of places is extensive, including for example, Birmingham, Burford, Bolton, Chipping Camden, Bromyard, Cricklade, Leeds, Monmouth, Stratford-upon-Avon, South Zeal in Devon (where plots were known as ‘borough acres’), Thame, Wells.