Researching the Books of Survey and Distribution

In the middle of the 1600s the English government decided (in the interests of political stability and government finances) to take more land throughout Ireland from existing (mainly Roman Catholic) owners and re-allocate that land to new (mainly Protestant) landowners; so it became necessary to create official records which would keep track of this upheaval in land ownership.

Few of the original records of the Down Survey have survived; but quite a number of copies of certain records were made, so that various officials could carry out their functions.  The surviving sets of records, now known as Books of Survey and Distribution, are laid out in a fairly straightforward way: they list the acreages of land surveyed in the 1640s along with their owners, and show to whom any land was later transferred under the Acts of Settlement and Explanation.

Areas of land in the Down Survey were measured in Plantation Acres, which were considerably larger than Statute Acres.

Researching the Books                Using information from the Books

There appear to be 2 "complete" sets of Books, 1 set from the Quit Rent Office, Dublin, and 1 set from the Annesley collection, Co Down. The Quit Rent Books have been well microfilmed, and can be consulted in the National Archives of Ireland (MFS 2/1 - 2/9); the Annesley Books have been less well microfilmed, and can be consulted in the National Library of Ireland (Pos 267 - 275). There are differences in what is recorded (see Analecta Hibernica 16 pp 349-54), so it can be informative to consult both sets.

There was once a 3rd set of Books, in the Headfort collection, Co Meath.  The Headfort Books were described in the Eighth Annual Report (25 Mar 1818) of the Irish Record Commission ("The Commissioners appointed by His Majesty to execute the Measures recommended in an Address to the House of Commons respecting the Public Records of Ireland")*. Some of the Headfort Books found their way to the Quit Rent Office, and were recorded there in the 56th Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland (1931) pp 306-8. The Headfort Books do not appear to have been microfilmed.


*Some of these Annual Reports, especially their Appendixes and Supplements, are essential reading to get a better understanding of Irish historical records. The first 15 reports are bound in 3 volumes (1810-1815, 1816-1820 & 1821-1825), available in the National Library of Ireland (JLB 941) - the NLI catalogue is rather confused about these volumes, so you may have to explain to the librarian that they are large and green, and marked on the spine "Public Records Ireland - Commission Reports - [year-range] - J941".

The effectiveness of the Commission is considered by Margaret Griffith in "The Irish Record Commission 1810-30", Irish Historical Studies vol 7 (1950-51) pp 17-38.

This page was last updated 4 Sep 2016