Surveyor General of Crown Lands, 1625 to 1810
After the abolition of the Court of Augmentations in 1554, the financial administration of the Crown lands became the responsibility of the auditors of land revenue. The management of the lands: the valuation of property and the assessment of rents, entry fines and conditions of leases was the responsibility of the Lord Treasurer or of specially appointed commissioners. In 1625, a Surveyor General of Land Revenues was appointed.
The holders of this post, also known as Surveyor General of Crown Lands, became responsible for surveying and valuing Crown property and for determining the terms and conditions of leases. Applications for leases here made in the form of petitions to the Treasury which were referred to the Surveyor General. The financial administration of the lands remained with the auditors of land revenue, while the drafting and issuing of leases continued to be the responsibility of the Exchequer, Pipe Office.
Following enquiries made between 1787 and 1793 by three commissioners under the Crown Land Revenues etc Act of 1786 into the state and condition of the woods, forests and land revenues of the Crown, an act was passed for the better management of the land revenue of the Crown, and for the sale of fee farm and other unimprovable rents (34 Geo III c75).
The work of improving the Crown lands was charged to the Surveyor General. The death of the Surveyor General in 1809 allowed one of the recommendations of the commissioners to be implemented, and the Department of Woods and Forests and the Land Revenue were united by the Crown Lands Act 1810 to form the commissioners of woods, forests and land revenues.
Surveyors General of Woods, 1554 to 1810
From 1554 the administration of the Crown's woods was the responsibility of the Surveyors General, one for the woods north of the river Trent and the other for the rest of the country. In 1715 the two posts were granted to one official, a practice continued thereafter. The Surveyor General was responsible for the administration of royal parks, forests and chases and for the sale of wood from the Crown lands. Unlike the Surveyor General of Crown Lands, the Surveyor General of Woods was an accounting official, responsible for the collection of revenue from sales of wood and for any expenditure. He was also responsible for the provision of timber for the Navy on the direction of the Treasury.
Commissioners of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, 1810 to 1924
By the Crown Land Revenues, etc Act 1786 a commission of inquiry was appointed into the woods, forests and land revenues of the Crown. Following its reports, the Crown Lands Act 1810 authorised the appointment of up to three persons as commissioners of woods, forests and land revenues, who were to transact the business of the two surveyors general. Leases of Crown lands continued to be made by the Exchequer until the Land Revenues of the Crown Act 1821 which empowered the commissioners to make leases.
The powers of the commissioners were further extended by the Crown Lands (Ireland) Act 1827 which transferred management of the Crown lands in Ireland to them; they acquired responsibility for lands in the Isle of Man in 1829 and in Scotland between 1832 and 1835.
Responsibility for auditing the accounts of the Crown lands and for enrolling deeds and leases remained with the Office of the Auditors of Land Revenue. Legislation relating to the Crown lands was consolidated by the Crown Lands Act 1829 which declared that on the abolition of the auditors of land revenue, the accounts of the commissioners were to be audited by the commissioners of audit. In 1832, the Office of the Auditors of Land Revenue was finally abolished and responsibility for the enrolment of deeds relating to the land revenue was transferred to the newly created Office of Land Revenue Records and Enrolments.
The Fines Act 1833 which abolished the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer's Office and the Pipe Office transferred to the commissioners of woods, forests, and land revenues the collection of quit and viscontiel rents arising from Crown lands.
Earlier, under the Crown Lands Act 1832, the commissioners had absorbed the Office of Works, and parliamentary responsibility for works as well as for lands was placed on the first commissioner. This amalgamation ended in 1851 when public buildings, royal palaces, and most royal parks were placed under the management of a separate first commissioner. The Office of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, as it became once again, was left in the charge of two commissioners, both of them officials. Under the Crown Lands Act 1866, the Office's functions were further reduced when responsibility for the rights and interest of the Crown in foreshores, with certain specified exceptions, was transferred to the Board of Trade.
In 1906 the president of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries was made an ex officio commissioner. After 1912, when one of the two official posts was left unfilled, one official and one minister were in charge.
Commissioners of Crown Lands, 1925-
After the management of most Crown woods and forests had been transferred from the Office of Woods and Forests to the Forestry Commission under the Forestry (Transfer of Woods) Act 1923, the Commissioners of Woods and Forests were renamed (by an Order in Council of 8 December 1924) the Commissioners of Crown Lands as from 1 January 1925. There was subsequently no change in their constitution until 1943, when the Secretary of State for Scotland was made a third commissioner.
In November 1956 a new Crown Estate Act was passed, replacing the old board by a new one of eight Crown Estate commissioners, comprising a part-time chairman as first commissioner, a senior civil servant as second commissioner, and six other members on part-time engagements. To two ministers, Parliament gave 'powers of direction' over the new board. These ministers were at first the Lord Privy Seal and the Secretary of State for Scotland, the former being replaced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1959. An annual report of the commissioners is presented to Parliament.
From 1956, the administrative structure of the commissioners' office was standardised into groups (later, business groups) dealing with types of or geographical sets of estates, for example, Scottish Estates, Foreshores or English Agricultural Estates. Outside of this group structure was the secretariat, which handled common services for the groups, and a number of 'professionals', for example legal adviser. The groups were organised into branches (of which there were originally five, including The Crown Estate Surveyor's Branch, each of which was directly responsible to one of the commissioners.
The Office of the Commissioners deals with the management of those portions of the hereditary estates of the Crown in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the revenues of which since 1760 have been surrendered to Parliament by successive sovereigns in accordance with the provisions of the several Civil List Acts passed during that period. These include urban and agricultural estates and marine and river estates.
Since 1961, when the enrolment of conveyances of Crown lands in the Land Revenue Record Office was abolished, the commissioners have deposited in the Public Record Office counterparts of all leases and the commission's record copies of deeds of grant, officially known as duplicates.