William Farrer (1861-1924), historian and genealogist, was born at Little Marsden near Burnley, Lancashire, on 28 February 1861. He was the second son of William Farrer Ecroyd (1827-1915), Tory politician and worsted manufacturer; he changed his surname to Farrer in 1896 in compliance with the will of a great-uncle. After leaving Rugby School he briefly entered the family business before settling down to a country life. He lived in Yorkshire at Merton near Skipton, then at Thornburgh House, Leyburn, later at Hall Garth, Over Kellet, Lancashire, and finally at Whitbarrow Lodge, Witherslack, Westmorland.
Farrer's interest in his yeoman ancestry widened into a taste for local history; and the purchase in 1895 of the extensive collections made by John Parsons Earwaker for a new history of Lancashire persuaded Farrer to take up this unfinished task. He worked on the transcription and 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. In 1903 Farrer published the first instalment of his History of the parish of North Meols. His most famous contribution to Lancashire history was his editorship, along with John Brownbill, of the Lancashire volumes of the Victoria County History, a volume of which appeared yearly from 1906 to 1914. He published The court rolls of the honor of Clitheroe in the county of Lancaster in three volumes between 1897 and 1913, The chartulary of Cockersand Abbey, again in three volumes (1898-1909), and several further editions of records relating to Lancashire.
Of particular relevance to the present collection is Farrer's ambitious work, Honors and knights' fees: an attempt to identify the component parts of certain honors and to trace the descent of the tenants of the same who held by knight's service or serjeanty from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, vols 1-2 (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co., 1923-4), vol. 3 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1925). Under the feudal system, an honor was a seignority of several manors held under one baron or lord paramount; the manors were not necessarily contiguous. A knight's fee was the amount of land for which the services of an armed knight were due to the sovereign; the physically extent of a knight's fee could vary considerably. The threefold purpose of Farrer's work was to trace the history from Domesday onwards of manors held by tenants in chief, whose fiefs had descended more or less without disintegration; to ascertain the descent of all those who held single tenements or groups of manors under the lord of an honor; and in the case of new honors, to trace the history of their component tenements back to Domesday, as well as their later descent. Instead of undertaking a conventional county by county survey, Farrer adopted the novel approach of dealing with the fees of each honour together, irrespective of the counties in which they lay.
Farrer received the honorary degree of Litt.D. from the University of Manchester and he was an honorary lecturer in local history at the University of Liverpool. He died while on holiday in Norway, on 17 August 1924.
Source: James Tait, 'Farrer, William (1861-1924)', rev. H.C.G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press - http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33093.