A planned approach
The size, shape and layout of burgage plots depended very much on the geography of the town. While burgage plots were often planned in 'new' ground in similar large rectilinear form, they sometimes adopted the shape and boundaries of an existing curved field system. Others were planned and built within the framework of roman city settlements such as Winchester and Colchester.
The work of laying out the burgage plots was that of a surveyor using either the part acre or the 'pole' (also known as a rod or perch), as the unit of measurement to plan the development. Forty 'poles' equal one furlong, eight furlongs equalled one mile while one 'rood' equalled a quarter of an acre. . This was allied to acreage, one acre equalling 160 square perches. This made measurement of subdivisions of this area relatively easy with multiples of '4' the basis of plots.
The only calculations where the second side of an acre plot does not include a fraction of a pole are these: 10 x 16, 20 x 8, 32 x 5, 40 x 4, and 80 x 2 poles.
A pole equates to 5.5 yards or 5.03 metres, approx. 16.5 feet as an accepted rule, though this was not a standard applied nationwide, the length varying by as much as four feet within the towns and regions of Britain - the 'natural' foot, used in the West was 9.9 inches whereas the 'northern' foot was 13.2 inches in length, this also being the unit used in the South and East, in turn this impacted on the locally developed pole length - a pole in Cheshire was 24 feet while in Pembrokeshire it was 10 feet - but as the measure was used locally, the necessity for a standardised national unit of measurement at the time the towns were planned didn't exist until standards were determined by the king (see Philip Crummy). As late as the 1820s the variation in measures, up to 5 feet in the case of the perch, was discussed in the House of Commons.
Once an area of land was identified for development, it was surveyed and its boundaries marked. It was then divided into a number of oblongs these being the primary plots. The overall plot area varied in size widely, it could be very large - many acres and the primary plots perhaps an acre or more where space allowed or as little as a quarter of an acre. Where the plots were arranged on open, flat ground with little impediment they were often very regular in shape, each plot being roughly the same width and length in a row of long rectangles. There were no hard and fast rules regarding size other than that neighbouring plots of similar value would usually be of similar size.
Almost immediately the plot was leased to the burgesses these primary plots were subdivided into smaller, marketable sub-plots, often narrow but still rectangular in shape by the nature of the usual division in the width of the plot. Plots either side of a street may have same narrow frontage but be very different in length, perhaps determined by a river or stream, fortifications, walls, parkland or an existing field structure. The plots were rented without any buildings so the tenant would have to build their home. In early medieval times these would have been low thatched structures with few comforts and would have been shared with livestock. There is a description of the development of the town house here. Where access was limited, alleys and back lanes would be designated to serve the plots. This became more important as the gaps facing the street were filled with further, smaller properties forming long terraced rows of buildings taking advantage of the footfall in the town.
The possible sequence below demonstrates how the growth of an early settlement could be augmented by the implementation of the burgage system over time. The first illustration (top left) shows an existing small settlement with church and small market place surrounded by manorial parkland and farmland. The second (top right) illustrates primary burgage plots being created from this farmland and parkland adjacent the advantages of a major road near the market, church and centre of settlement. These primary plots are subdivided into smaller plots, nearer the commercial heart of the settlement; illustration three (bottom) shows subsequent development of plots, properties, access lanes and road infrastructure to serve the plots as they are further sub-divided, ultimately forming a grid of streets and plots of differing sizes with the major road (high Street) and marketplace the focus as the town grows.
The Atherstone House History Plan (below) was prepared in 1786. At this time the plots still conform to the overall town burgage boundary as they were initially awarded in the 12th century on, despite being subdivided or combined widthways in most instances and some cases, in length. Each dwelling is labelled individually, a gift to researchers. The plan is an excellent record of the of a burgage layout still intact 600 years after inception. Where the plots front the long main road, they are narrow and very long, some with a back lane. Where the plots meet at a corner they become smaller by necessity. These smaller plots in prime positions for trade had significant value as shops, as they often fronted a market square (as was the case in Atherstone) or busy crossroads.
Reproduced from the “Our Warwickshire” website © Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR2511/21
Reproduced from the “Our Warwickshire” website © Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR2511/21
There is a key to the Atherstone plan which indicates the size of each burgage with a symbols 'Marks' to indicate what part of a whole each plot represents, whether a whole burgage, three quarters, half, and so on with the smallest being 'half a quarter of a burgage'. Most of the long plots at the bottom half of the plan are indicated as being half a burgage yet are many times greater in area than those adjacent the 'Markett Place' and 'Butcher Row' which are also marked as being a half burgage.
Some of the plots are marked red 'Copy hold', some green 'freehold'. Persons with a long-term lease on a property had a copy-hold tenancy but were were not strictly the owner, they may have been listed as the proprietor while the actual owner could live in another parish. Despite the Abbot (in 1100 the village was owned by the Abbey of Bec in Normandy) obtaining a market charter from the king and the development out the first burgage plots around the market-place to attract free tenants, Atherstone never prospered or achieved borough status. This is probably why the burgages remained intact until recent times.
Most plots were larger than the sub-divided plots we see today. The primary plots of Salisbury were 3 poles wide by 7 deep while at Charmouth in Dorset, the charter of 1320 proscribed plots of 4 perches wide and 20 deep (half an acre). The depth of the plots was determined by arbitrary factors though measured in poles and furlongs, with forty perches equalling one furlong and eight furlongs, one mile.
Almost as soon as the primary plots were allotted, townspeople began to divide, split and acquire/combine plots. Division was primarily in width but also in depth, in order to provide a number of marketable plots to accommodate the specific needs of potential sub-tenants. These smaller plots created a mix of different plot width/sizes within the original plot. Accordingly, plots can be just a few square yards in size or quarter of an acre (the acre was equivalent to 160 square poles so that 10 or 20 times any multiple of four poles gives an area in acres or roods (quarter acres) ref. Philip Crummy.)
In the town centre, plot size would often be determined by the relationship between a town's High Street, market places and streets. Where two roads with met at a corner, plots created by sub-division were smaller as they intersected, while the plots in the middle of a row were often longer. But small plots were often at the nerve centre of the towns market so had increased value per square foot to craftspeople, shopkeepers and merchants. If on less propitious corners, the rent was, presumably, less. This pattern of ever smaller intersecting plots was part of the ongoing need in a growing town for smaller plots as divisions of the original larger plot (see figure below).
Plot development adjacent the High Street of a successful town during medieval period and later c.1250 - 1850
LEFT: 1.5 acre 'primary plot' divided into 3 plots of 0.5 acres with plot head fronting the High Street, secondary road to the rear and a road running between these.
CENTRE: Each primary plot sub-divided in width and some in depth, often into thirds, quarters, halves or combination of these. Those facing the High Street further divided to meet demand for additional shop fronts, these often very narrow but of considerably greater value, being at the centre of the towns busy shopping area, than those plots further from the busy town centre which didn't enjoy such significant footfall. This remains true today.
RIGHT: Plots facing the High Street further divided to provide additional smaller street facing units, often a small shop with living quarters above, while the plots furthest from the market place remain larger, some plot sub-divisions amalgamated to create larger plots for high status dwellings, particularly in the 18th/19th centuries. Small plots developed on the street perpendicular to and closest to the High Street for shops and small dwellings. Primary plot boundaries remain discernible.
The original large primary plot boundaries often remain identifiable, as is the case in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the original 3.5 pole plots laid out c 1196 surviving in discernible form into the 19th century. these delineating the primary plot boundaries. To quote T.R. Slater:
"Plot boundaries are one of the more conservative elements of the town plan. Economic prosperity and recession may lead to the sub-division or combination of plots but in those towns not subjected to intensive redevelopment in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such sub-division and combination usually has not been sufficient to remove all primary plot boundaries".
The area behind the dwelling was called the backlands and where the plots backed onto farmland, the towns limits, a 'Law Ditch' would be dug to demarcate the town from the surrounding manorial or ecclesiastical land. In town, some planned units had street facing plots of all four sides. Generally the larger plots at the centre of the unit would meet in the centre with access often via alleys and passages from the street.
At their inception, wattle hurdles might have formed the boundaries between the plots but relatively soon after the establishment of the burgages, substantial, high walls were built, able to support structures and extensions to the dwelling. Given the value of land in the urban core, the surveyor was responsible for establishing plot sizes to the nearest half inch when disputes arose. In London, a building regulation of 1260 stated that a party wall had to be 3 foot thick, presumably to support hefty Oak joists used in construction of buildings on the plot without impinging on a neighbours boundary. A common annual rent in the 14th c was anything from 6d to 12d. dependent on location and plot size.