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SA11. Enclosures by Roy Douglas

Dr Roy Douglas – “Enclosure” is the process by which land which had formerly been held in common by many people was “privatised”. Enclosure could take place in various ways. Sometimes the joint owners of a piece of land decided that it was a good idea to divide it between them. Sometimes a particular individual was so powerful that he could force others to do his will, and very likely arrogate common land to himself. Sometimes an Act of Parliament enforced enclosure. There has been, and still is, argument over the merits or demerits of enclosure. Was it a necessary step in making land more productive, or was it a shameful device for making rich people richer still at the expense of their poorer neighbours? Both, is a likely answer.

Enclosure has taken place over a very long period. There was enclosure in the Middle Ages, and probably long before that. There was a good deal of enclosure in Tudor times. Particular attention, however, is focussed on the enclosures of the 18th and early 19th Centuries. It is useful to start by considering the state of affairs in the early 18th Century.

The pattern of land ownership and land rights varied wildly from place to place, but in an English village there was usually some land over which a lot of people had rights recognised in law. Maybe they had rights to use local woods to gather fuel and perhaps collect timber. Maybe they had rights to graze sheep and cattle on a common. In many places, but by no means all, there were huge fields divided into strips, and a villager would be allowed to cultivate particular strips to grow crops. The various strips which a particular person was entitled to use were often a long way from each other. Arrangements as to how long he was entitled to use particular strips would vary from place to place. In the late autumn and winter, the village livestock would often be allowed to forage on the arable land. In many places the strips had long disappeared, and the great fields (if they had ever existed) had been divided into individual holdings. Sometimes the holders were freeholders, sometimes they were tenants.

Sometimes, but not always, there was a recognised Lord of the Manor to whom all of the villagers owed duties recognised in law: perhaps the duty to work for him at certain times, perhaps the payment of rent. There were often other complications as well, including the duty to yield a proportion of produce in tithes. The tithes usually went mainly to maintain the local church and parson, but in quite a lot of cases the right to tithes was vested in a layman. “Squatters” provided another complication. Often people with no rights recognised by law settled on a common, built rough cottages for themselves, grazed some animals and grew a few crops. Where the common was of adequate size, nobody bothered much – not least because at times of harvest or other special need the extra labour the squatters could provide was useful.

In the relative stability of the 18th Century, the minds of many landowners turned to the idea of “improvement”. They improved their homes and parks-:- think how many “stately homes” that we visit today are mainly of 18th or very early 19th Century date. They became interested in improved techniques of agriculture and improved breeding of crops and animals. They often decided that the various bits of common land in their area of interest could be made much more productive (and would therefore yield more rent) if they were parcelled out into individual holdings.

Often a lot of the villagers agreed with these ideas. It was a nuisance to have scattered strips a long way from each other. If one strip was ill-tended and grew weeds, neighbours would suffer. Any kind of selection of good varieties of food crops was difficult. If all the village livestock grazed together, selective breeding was impossible and there were lots of scraggy animals of indifferent quality – often more than the land could adequately support. The idea of dividing the common land ­enclosing it, in fact – began to grow. A good deal of 18th Century enclosure took place by agreement between all concerned.

But what if some people who had legal rights refused to accede? The only remedy was an Act of Parliament which would override all objections. “Parliamentary enclosure” related to a particular area, usually a parish. It was a difficult and expensive process for the landowner, but in a growing number of cases he considered it worthwhile.

In the 1730s and 1740s Parliamentary enclosures averaged fewer than four a year; by the 1770$ they averaged more than sixty a year. There followed a period of economic recession, with fewer enclosures. Then came the French wars, which commenced in 1793 and lasted, with brief interruptions, until 1815. Foreign trade in food was largely blocked, and maximum agricultural production was seen to be vital. So the economic argument for enclosures was augmented by the patriotic argument, and enclosures again took off. Nearly three million acres were enclosed by Act of Parliament, and some historians consider that at least as much was enclosed by private arrangement. After 1815 there was a long period of recession, and enclosures never got going again at the old pace. In any event the law governing enclosure procedure was changed.

What kind of land was enclosed by Act of Parliament? Some of the Acts were concerned mainly with dividing the old arable fields. Others divided grazing commons and turned them into farms for growing crops; others did the reverse, and turned arable land into pasture. Where did enclosure happen? Largely in .the midlands. More than half of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire was enclosed; there was hardly any enclosure in Kent. There was little enclosure in Wales in the bulk of the 18th Century, but quite a lot in the period of the French wars. In Scotland the law governing enclosure was very different from that in England and Wales, and this demands a study of its own.

So we may consider the profit~and~loss account of enclosures. What were the benefits? Agricultural production was certainly increased. Landowners, in consequence, got more rent. Buildings and parks of great beauty were created, though only minorities could enjoy that beauty. Many farmers gained in the short run, though in the long term their increased production and revenue was soaked up in higher rents. In some places, though by no means all, there was a greater demand for labour, which probably meant that the pittance accruing to agricultural workers was marginally increased. More food was available for consumers.

But who were the losers? To understand that, it is necessary to go into the workings of enclosure more closely.

As a general rule, Parliament would only authorise an enclosure if the holders of most of the land affected assented; but cases occurred where a large majority of the individual holders objected, but they were overridden because, collectively, they only owned a small proportion of the land. As a general – perhaps a universal – rule, the rights of people with a legal title to land, whether great or small, were respected. They all got some share of the enclosed land, or money compensation in lieu. But what did that come to in practice? Consider the case of a more or less independent peasant – poor, no doubt, but seldom or never dependent on charity or “the parish”. Before enclosure he had a few strips of arable field, the right to graze a few sheep and the right to collect firewood. Could all that readily be translated into an economically workable holding after enclosure? Very likely not; more likely he would receive a sum of money. In a society where most people lived from hand to mouth, the temptation to drink the money away was considerable, whereupon our peasant lapsed into the ranks of labourers dependent on wages from others. If anybody would give him a job, that is. If not, he would become a pauper, dependent on parish relief. This would not only demoralise him and his family, but impose a burden on local ratepayers as well.

And what of those who had no legal claim at all? A squatter on the common could not show the Enclosure Commissioners any title to be there. He would not, therefore, have any legal claim to compensation, and he would certainly either become a labourer for others, or a pauper. What of the labourer who owned or rented a cottage, where he could grow a few vegetables and work for one of the larger farmers? Much would depend on what followed the enclosure. If the upshot was that more land in the village was brought under arable cultivation, he might even find his services in more demand. If, on the other hand, arable land was being converted to pasture, he would very likely be thrown on the parish. There were cases of villages more or less disappearing altogether when that sort of enclosure took place. In some parts of the country, new industries were growing up which could offer jobs to the victims of enclosure. In other parts where there was little industrialisation agricultural workers were a drug on the labour market. So we encounter the anomaly that, on the whole, farm wages were lowest in the south, where climate and soil were most favourable, and highest in the north where alternative jobs were available in industry.

Perhaps the last word on that matter should go to a contemporary. Arthur Young, publisher of Annals of Agriculture and from 1793 Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, was probably the most authoritative English writer on agricultural matters at the turn of the 18th and 19th Centuries. He was a great enthusiast for enclosure on economic grounds. He wrote eagerly about places where production had increased greatly in consequence. But he was well aware of the dark side of enclosure. He pointed out that poor rates in enclosed parishes were no less than those in unenclosed parishes – that is, that the demand for money to keep the poor alive had not diminished with enclosure. He went further than that. “By nineteen Enclosure Acts out of twenty, the poor are injured, in some grossly injured.” Young sought, but without success, to persuade the authorities to ensure that future enclosures would make provisions to protect the interests of the poor. He wanted labouring families to be provided with cottages and land.

As with agriculture and enclosures, so also with industry, a broad pattern emerges. Developments which should, and could, have redounded to the benefit of all classes, but most particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, in practice often benefited only a minority. Later in the 19th Century the economist Henry George would draw attention to the paradox that a century of unprecedented progress, technological and otherwise, had failed to strike at the root of poverty, and suggested means by which that state of affairs could be rectified in the future. The various Topic Papers produced by LANDISFREE throw light on this problem, and its implications in the present and future.

A brief biblioQraphv.

J. D. Chambers, The agricultural revolution 1750-1880. London 1966.

Henry George: Progress and poverty, Many editions, some abbreviated, many countries, from 1879 onwards.

E.C. K. Gonner, Common land and inclosure London 1966

J. L. and Barbara Hammond, The village labourer 1760-1832. London 1912.

G. E. Mingay, Arthur Young and his times. London 1975

G. E. Mingay, ed., The agrarian history of England and Wales. Cambridge 1989, especially vol. vi.

J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common right, enclosure and social change in England. Cambridge 1993.

W. E. Tate, The English village community and the enclosure movement. London


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