general enclosure act: rationalisering van grondgebruik en afpaling

ID: 180100001599


a) What were enclosures?

i) Enclosure meant joining the strips of the open fields to make larger compact units of land. These units were then fenced or hedged off from the next person's land. In this way a farmer had land in one farm, rather than in scattered strips. This brought greater independence. Enclosing land was not new; it dated back to at least the Medieval period.

ii) The areas of England affected by the enclosure movement of this period were mainly the counties of the Midlands, East Anglia and Central Southern England.

b) How was land enclosed?

i) Before about 1740, most villages were enclosed by agreement. This was when the main owners of the land made a private agreement to join their strips together. This may have involved buying some strips from the small farmers to get rid of any possible opposition. Where all the land in a village was owned by one or two people, enclosure by agreement was relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell how much land was enclosed in this way, as little documentation was kept.

ii) Where a number of smaller landowners provided determined opposition to enclosure by agreement, an Act of Parliament had to be obtained. This became the accepted procedure after 1750. It had a number of factors in its favour:

- Each enclosure had legal documentation and certification

- It provided the machinery for opposition to be heard

- It allowed the whole of the village to be enclosed at the same time (that is, commons, waste

land, meadows and open fields.) Up to 1750, many villages had been enclosed a little at a time.

iii) Between 1750 and 1850 there were approximately 4,000 Enclosure Acts of Parliament.

c) Why was Parliamentary Enclosure so widespread in the periods 1760-1780 and 1793 to 1815?

i) Between 1760 and 1780, some 900 Enclosure acts were passed. Historians agree that high cereal prices motivated farmers to enclose land in order to produce a greater amount, thereby earning bigger profits. Also, where land was enclosed, landlords could charge tenants higher rents.

ii) The years of the French Wars (1793-1815) saw almost 2,000 Enclosure Acts being passed. This can also be explained by high cereal prices, which were the results of a series of poor harvests and the difficulty of importing foreign corn at a time when Europe was involved in a major war. This led to widespread enclosure with even marginal waste land being enclosed. With enclosures the farmers could grow more food to feed the domestic population and make larger profits.

d) How was an Act of Enclosure obtained?

The process of obtaining an Act of Enclosure was a time consuming activity:

- The starting point was when the owners of between 3/4 and 4/5 of the land in the village decided that they wished to enclose. They then produced a petition giving notice of their intention to the rest of the village.

- From 1774 onwards, this petition had to be fixed to the church door for three consecutive Sundays in late August or early September. Some landowners took the trouble to publish the petition in the local newspaper.

- Following this, a Bill of Enclosure for the village was drafted and it was read twice in the House of Commons.

- A Parliamentary committee then studied the Bill, considered any objections and wrote in any alterations.

- The Bill was then given a third reading in the House of Commons and then passed on to the House of Lords.

- Finally, the Bill was given a Royal Assent and became an Act of Parliament.

Most bills went through the procedure without too much hindrance.

e) What were the General Enclosure Acts?

These Acts were an attempt to simplify the administration of enclosures. In 1801 the first General Enclosure Act was passed. This laid down a model procedure for the enclosure of common lands in particular. The aim was to provide a guide to those who had the job of drafting Enclosure Bills.

In 1836, a second General Enclosure Act was passed. This was concerned with the open fields and it gave local farmers the right to appoint commissioners and to enclose land without direct reference to Parliament. In 1845, a third (and final) Enclosure Act was brought on to the Statute Book. This established a group of 'specialist' commissioners who would travel round to the different villages to supervise the enclosing of land. They then reported back to Parliament and one General Act of Enclosure was passed for all the villages inspected during the course of the year.

f) What was the job of the Parliamentary commissioners and how well did they do their work?

i) Each individual Act of Enclosure stated that a number of commissioners ( Between three and twelve, depending on the amount of land involved) should be appointed to carry out the enclosure.

ii) After this, surveyors and clerks were appointed by the commissioners. The surveyors had to draw up a plan of the village with its open fields and strips. The owners of the strips were recorded on a map. At a series of meetings called by the commissioners, landowners had to make a claim as to how much land they should be awarded under the enclosure. The commissioners then had to decide on the validity of each claim and come to a decision as to who was actually entitled to receive land in the award.

iii) When, finally, the land had been allocated, the surveyors drew up a new map of the village displaying the new enclosures, boundaries between each section of land and the location of new paths and roads. With the new enclosure map went the award, a list of all the landowners allocated land in the enclosed village.

iv) Commissioners, in general, have been accused of malpractice or of favouring the large landowners and aristocracy when allocating land. Historians now think that in most cases, commissioners did their difficult task admirably well and they did consider the claims of the smaller farmer.

g) How much did it cost to enclose a village by Act of Parliament?

The cost of enclosure varied from parish to parish. The amount depended upon the size of the parish and whether it was the whole parish being enclosed or merely the common and waste land. Every farmer who received an allocation of land in the award was obliged to pay a share of the cost. Such costs would have put a heavy burden on some of the smaller landowners who did not possess large amounts of capital.

h) Economic effects of enclosure

i) Social results of enclosure

j) How far was it true that enclosures led to 'rural depopulation'?

It has been claimed that enclosure caused widespread movement of landless labourers from the countryside to the growing industrial towns. There is, however, evidence to contradict this:

- Enclosure usually required more labour, not less. It is likely that the 'landless labourers' would have been employed to build fences, dig ditches, construct roads and new farmhouses.

- Enclosure brought more land under cultivation which needed labour to work it. In arable areas, particularly, men were needed to plough, sow, hoe and harvest the crops. The increased output would have stimulated a number of 'associated' industries such as brewing and milling.

- More stockmen, dairymen and shepherds were needed.

It must be considered doubtful that enclosures caused rural depopulation. Statistics suggest that it was not until the late 19th century that that any widespread exodus from the countryside took place.

k) There was poverty and suffering in the countryside in the period 1790 to 1830. If enclosure on its own did not cause this hardship, what did?

i) In the south and east of England the decline of domestic industries was one factor in bringing about increased poverty. Previously, villagers had supplemented their income by, for example, weaving.

ii) The poor harvests and high prices in the 1790s, although bringing profit to the farmers, brought suffering to the labourers.

iii) Labourers in the areas where enclosure had taken place in the 16th century may well have suffered as they could not find employment in putting up fences etc. iv) It is worth noting that poverty was rife in both open and enclosed villages. Rural poverty was a phenomenon well before enclosures.

©1995-7 Stephane Gray (20051227)

Land: GBR