Seventeen years ago, someone living in Brazil paid the extraordinary sum of £171,000 to the current 9th Earl Spencer for the right to call himself Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon. It broke a record for sales of this kind and remains unexplained since the lordship carries no power. The man’s reasons for doing so have never been revealed as he requested anonymity.

This came to light ten years ago when it was revealed by the Barnes and Mortlake Historical Society. Wimbledon was once part of a medieval manor that stretched over 7000 acres, extending to Mortlake, Roehampton, Putney, and East Sheen. However it was separate by the late 13th century.  

In medieval times the manor was the centre of everyday life. The Lord of the Manor had personal control over all of the demesne lands within the area while the entire resident population were his tenants. A manorial court met several times a year and laid down regulations administering land holdings, taxation and basic law and order. Over the centuries the powers of the Lord of the Manor declined as legal responsibilities and land ownership passed to others.

By the 19th century the lordship only controlled the use of common land and in the 1860s the 4th Earl Spencer lost his battle to reorganise public access to Wimbledon and Putney Commons (see Heritage page 16 November 2012). He had already sold off his own private estate – the then 1200-acre Wimbledon Park - for property development in 1846. The sale ended a century old personal link between the Spencer family and Wimbledon although they retained financial compensation for the loss of control over the commons until 1958. They also kept the title.  

On 8 July 1994, just two years before selling the title to the mysterious Brazilian, Earl Spencer, brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, was the last Lord of the Manor to perform a special local ceremony when he formally opened what is now the Museum of Wimbledon at 22 Ridgway after refurbishment.

Many other rich and powerful figures had been Lords of the Manor before the Spencers. Among them were Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and royal adviser Thomas Cromwell under King Henry VIII, and the Cecil family under Queen Elizabeth I. It was the Cecils who built the first and most spectacular of Wimbledon’s four manor houses. How different things were in those days!

One last point. Being Lord of the Manor will become even more irrelevant in October this year when manorial incidents - the rights a holder may exercise over other people's land – will lapse formally under the Land Registration Act of 2002. Nevertheless, the current title holder will still be able to call himself Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon if he chooses.

The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.

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