Enclosure - Parliamentary Enclosure and Open Fields

Parliamentary Enclosure and Open Fields

(See also British Agricultural Revolution) During the 18th and 19th centuries, enclosures were by means of local acts of Parliament, called the Inclosure Acts. These "parliamentary" enclosures consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units, and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent. Enclosure consisted of exchange in land, and an extinguishing of common rights. This allowed farmers consolidated and fenced off plots of land, in contrast to multiple small strips spread out and separated.

Parliamentary enclosure was also used for the division and privatisation of common wastes (in the original sense of "uninhabited places"), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland, moors. Voluntary enclosure was also frequent at that time.

At the time of the parliamentary enclosures, each manor had seen de facto consolidation of farms in to multiple large landholdings. Multiple larger landholders already held the bulk of the land. They 'held' but did not legally own in today's sense. They also had to respect the open field system rights, when demanded, even when in practice the rights were not widely in use. Similarly each large landholding would consist of scattered patches, not consolidated farms. In many cases enclosures were largely an exchange and consolidation of land, and exchange not otherwise possible under the legal system. It did also involve the extinguishing of common rights. Without extinguishment, one man in an entire village could unilaterally impose the common field system, even if everyone else did not desire to continue the practice. De jure rights were not in accord with de facto practice. With land one held, one could not formally exchange the land, consolidate fields, or entirely exclude others. Parliamentary enclosure was seen as the most cost effective method of creating a legally binding settlement. This is because of the costs (time, money, complexity) of using the common law and equity legal systems. Parliament required consent of the owners of 4/5ths of the land (copy and freeholders.)

The primary benefits to large land holders came from increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price post enclosure. There was not much evidence that the common rights were particularly valuable. There was relatively little complaint about Parliamentary Enclosure compared to the 'uproar against common law enclosure in the sixteenth.' Voluntary enclosure was frequent at that time. Enclosed land was twice as valuable, a price which could be sustained only by its higher productivity.

Marxist historians have focussed on enclosure as a part of the class conflict that eventually eliminated the English peasantry and saw the emergence of the bourgeoisie. From this viewpoint, the English Civil War provided the basis for a major acceleration of enclosures. The parliamentary leaders supported the rights of landlords vis-a-vis the King, whose Star Chamber court, abolished in 1641, had provided the primary legal brake on the enclosure process. By dealing an ultimately crippling blow to the monarchy (which, even after the Restoration, no longer posed a significant challenge to enclosures) the Civil War paved the way for the eventual rise to power in the 18th century of what has been called a "committee of Landlords", a prelude to the UK's parliamentary system. The economics of enclosures also changed. Whereas earlier land had been enclosed in order to make it available for sheep farming, by 1650 the steep rise in wool prices had come to an end. Thereafter, the focus shifted to implementation of new agricultural techniques, including fertilizer, new crops, and crop rotation, all of which greatly increased the profitability of large-scale farms. The enclosure movement probably peaked from 1760 to 1832; by the latter date it had essentially completed the destruction of the medieval peasant community.

Before enclosure, much of the arable land in the central region of England was organised into an open field system. Enclosure was not simply the fencing of existing holdings, but led to fundamental changes in agricultural practice. Scattered holdings of strips in the common field were consolidated to create individual farms that could be managed independently of other holdings. Prior to enclosure, rights to use the land were shared between land owners and villagers (commoners). For example, commoners would have the right (common right) to graze their livestock when crops or hay were not being grown, and on common pasture land. The land in a manor under this system would consist of

  • Two or three very large common arable fields
  • Several very large common haymeadows
  • Closes, small areas of enclosed private land such as paddocks, orchards or gardens, mostly near houses
  • In some cases, a park around the principal house, the manor house
  • Common waste – rough pasture land (effectively everything not in the previous categories)

Note that at this time "field" meant only the unenclosed and open arable land – most of what would now be called "fields" would then have been called "closes". The only boundaries would be those separating the various types of land, and around the closes.

In each of the two waves of enclosure, two different processes were used. One was the division of the large open fields and meadows into privately controlled plots of land, usually hedged and known at the time as severals. In the course of enclosure, the large fields and meadows were divided and common access restricted. Most open-field manors in England were enclosed in this manner, with the notable exception of Laxton, Nottinghamshire and parts of the Isle of Axholme in North Lincolnshire.

The history of enclosure in England is different from region to region. Not all areas of England had open-field farming in the medieval period. Parts of south-east England (notably parts of Essex and Kent) retained a pre-Roman system of farming in small enclosed fields. Similarly in much of west and north-west England, fields were either never open, or were enclosed early. The primary area of open field management was in the lowland areas of England in a broad band from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire diagonally across England to the south, taking in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, large areas of the Midlands, and most of south central England. These areas were most affected by the first type of enclosure, particularly in the more densely settled areas where grazing was scarce and farmers relied on open field grazing after the harvest and on the fallow to support their animals.

The second form of enclosure affected those areas, such as the north, the far south-west, and some other regions such as the East Anglian Fens, and the Weald, where grazing had been plentiful on otherwise marginal lands, such as marshes and moors. Access to these common resources had been an essential part of the economic life in these strongly pastoral regions, and in the Fens, large riots broke out in the seventeenth century, when attempts to drain the peat and silt marshes were combined with proposals to partially enclose them.

Both economic and social factors drove the enclosure movement. In particular, the demand for land in the seventeenth century, increasing regional specialisation, engrossment in landholding and a shift in beliefs regarding the importance of "common wealth" (usually implying common livelihoods) as opposed to the "public good" (the wealth of the nation or the GDP) all laid the groundwork for a shift of support among elites to favour enclosure. Enclosures were conducted by agreement among the landholders (not necessarily the tenants) throughout the seventeenth century; enclosure by Parliamentary Act began in the eighteenth century. Enclosed lands normally could demand higher rents than unenclosed, and thus landlords had an economic stake in enclosure, even if they did not intend to farm the land directly.

While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England, as compared to the Continent, though others believe that this process had already begun from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless labourers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. During the period of parliamentary enclosure, employment in agriculture did not fall, but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became labourers in the Industrial Revolution.

By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete, in most areas just leaving a few pasture commons and village greens, and the foreshore below the high-tide mark.

Many landowners became rich through the enclosure of the commons, while many ordinary folk had a centuries-old right taken away. Land enclosure has been condemned as a gigantic swindle on the part of large landowners. In 1770 Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Deserted Village, deploring rural depopulation. An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling, and has been repeated in many variants since:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater felon loose

Who steals the common from off the goose —Anon, wealthandwant.com

George Orwell wrote in 1944

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so. —George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August 1944

In April 1772, a paper signed "near Dorchester," was addressed to the King (the newspapers taking notice of His Majesty's desire to see the price of provisions lowered), to lay before him the evils of forestalling and engrossing. As examples of engrossing in the neighbourhood of Dorchester, the writer instances the manors of Came, Whitcomb, Muncton, and Bockhampton. The first, he says, about thirty years before, had many inhabitants, many holding leasehold estates under the lord of the manor for three lives. Some of these had estates of 15l., 20l., and 30l. a year, being for the most part careful, industrious people, obliged to be careful to keep a little cash in order to keep the estate in the family if a life should drop. Their corn was brought to market, and they were content with the market price. Their cattle were sold in the same manner.

Their children when of proper age were married, and children begotten, without fear of poverty. But the lord had since turned out all the people, and the whole place was in his own hands, while not half the quantity of corn was sown that formerly had been. The writer also gives an account how one Wm. Taunton, though only a tenant of the Dean and Chapter of Exon, was gradually getting the whole parish into his own hands. He says, comparing his own with past times, that formerly a farmer that occupied 100l. a year was thought a tolerable one, and he that occupied four or five hundred pounds a very great one indeed ; but now they had farmers that occupied from one thousand to two thousand per annum, who did not want money to pay their rent, as did the little farmers, who were obliged to sell their corn, &c. The writer gives it as the general opinion that the kingdom had become greatly depopulated, some averring the population to have decreased by a fourth within the preceding hundred years. He further says : " Your Majesty must put a stop to inclosures, or oblige ye lord of ye manor to keep up ye antient custom of it, and not suffer him to buy his tenant's interest ; to have all the houses pulled down, and ye whole parish turn'd into a farm : this is a fashionable practice, and by none more yn Jn° Damer, Esq., ye owner of Came, and his brother Lord Milton."

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