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Farrer, William (1861–1924), historian and genealogist, born at Little Marsden, near Burnley, Lancashire, on 28 February 1861, was the second son of , tory politician and worsted manufacturer, and his first wife Mary, née Backhouse. The son changed his surname to Farrer in 1896 in compliance with the will of a great-uncle, William Farrer, a Liverpool merchant. After leaving Rugby School Farrer entered the family business, but found it uncongenial, and, retiring in 1896, settled down to a country life, first in Yorkshire at Merton, near Skipton, then at Thornburgh House, Leyburn, later at Hall Garth, Over Kellet, Lancashire, and finally at Whitbarrow Lodge, St Pauls, Witherslack, Westmorland. In 1895 he married Ellen Jane, daughter of Henry Ward, of Rodbaston, Staffordshire; they had one daughter. In 1900 he married his second wife, Eliza, daughter of John Boyce, of Redgrave, Suffolk, and they had one son and two daughters.

Farrer's interest in his yeoman ancestry widened into a taste for local history; and the acquisition in 1895 of the collections for a new history of Lancashire made by John Parsons Earwaker induced him to take up this unfinished task. He spent large sums on the transcription and local publication of unprinted materials, unravelled the obscure problems of the Domesday survey of north-western England in papers contributed to the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, and in 1903 published the first instalment of the work History of the Parish of North Meols. It was on so large a scale that it may be counted as fortunate that Farrer was presently persuaded to take part in the more manageable scheme of the Victoria History of the Counties of England. With the appointment of a co-editor, John Brownbill, the work was pushed forward rapidly, and the Victoria History of the County of Lancaster appeared in eight volumes between 1906 and 1914.

Turning his investigations to Yorkshire, the original home of the Ecroyds, Farrer contributed a searching analysis of the Domesday survey of Yorkshire to the Victoria history of the county, and between 1914 and 1916 published privately three volumes of Early Yorkshire Charters, which was planned to be an almost complete collection of charters before the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, the war and other adverse circumstances put an end to this valuable undertaking when some 1900 charters had been printed, most of them for the first time. The arrangement by fiefs which Farrer had chosen for this work perhaps suggested the history of fiefs which he began as soon as the war was over. Started on a county basis in Feudal Cambridgeshire (1920), it was continued on a more logical and time-saving plan in his general history, Honors and Knights' Fees, in which the fees of each honour are dealt with together, irrespective of the counties in which they lay. When Farrer died in 1924 only two volumes of this ambitious work had been published (1923–4). A third appeared in 1925, and the history of the honour of Warden was printed by the Bedfordshire Historical Society (1927); but several others still remain in manuscript.

Farrer had the appearance of a man of the open air rather than of the study; he loved rural quiet and sports, and disliked towns and publicity. He received the honorary degree of LittD from the University of Manchester and he was an honorary lecturer in local history in the University of Liverpool. He died, while on his annual fishing holiday, on 17 August 1924 at Forsjord, Mosjoën, Norway.

Among Farrer's more important publications, besides those mentioned above, are: Court Rolls of the Honor of Clitheroe (3 vols., 1897–1913); The Chartulary of Cockersand Abbey (3 vols., Chetham Society, 1898–1909); Final Concords of the County of Lancaster (4 parts, Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 1899–1910); Court Rolls of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in the County of Lancaster (ibid., 1901); Lancashire Pipe Rolls and Early Charters (1902); Lancashire Inquests, Extents, and Feudal Aids (3 parts, Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 1903–15); An Outline Itinerary of King Henry I (English Historical Review, 34, July 1919, and reprint, Oxford); Records Relating to the Barony of Kendale (with J. F. Curwen, 2 vols., Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society, 1923–4).

James Tait, rev. H. C. G. Matthew


J. Tait, ‘William Farrer’, EngHR, 40 (1925), 67–70 · Burke, Gen. GB (1921) · private information (1937) · personal knowledge (1937) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1924)


JRL, letters and notes on honours and knights' fees · Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, collections, corresp., and papers · W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, letters and papers · W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, York notes and collection |  LUL, letters to J. H. Round

Wealth at death  

£65,005 0s. 3d.: probate, 28 Oct 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales