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Parliamentary Enclosure And Open Fields – Wikepedia


The Orwell Quote got me curious about the Enclosure Acts.  I looked them up on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that these acts extinguished the common rights of the peasantry in England and allowed landowners to consolidate and fence off plots of land.  The peasantry was compensated in some cases, although often with land of “poor quality and limited extent.” As a result, “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.”

Here’s a bit of history about the Inclosure Acts:

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 fensmarshesheathlanddownlandmoors. Voluntary enclosure was also frequent at that time. [1]
At the time of the parliamentary enclosures, each manor had seen de facto consolidation of farms into multiple large landholdings. Multiple larger landholders already held the bulk of the land. [2] 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. [3] Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price post enclosure. [4] There was not much evidence that the common rights were particularly valuable. [5] 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. [1] Enclosed land was twice as valuable, a price which could be sustained only by its higher productivity. [6]
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”,[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]The enclosure movement probably peaked from 1760 to 1832; by the latter date it had essentially completed the destruction of the medieval peasant community.[10]
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.[11] 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.[12] 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 1770Oliver 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, even being applied to the contemporary privatization of the Internet:[13]
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
  1. .^ a b McCloskey 1975, pp. 146.
  2. ^ McCloskey 1975, pp. 149-50.
  3. ^ McCloskey 1975, pp. 128-133.
  4. ^ McCloskey 1975, pp. 147.
  5. ^ McCloskey 1975, pp. 142-144.
  6. ^ McCloskey 1975, pp. 156.
  7. ^ Moore 1966, pp. 17, 19–29.
  8. ^ Moore 1966, p. 7.
  9. ^ Moore 1966, p. 23.
  10. ^ Moore 1966, pp. 25–29.
  11. ^ Thirsk 1958, p. 4.
  12. ^ Chambers & Mingay 1982, p. 99.
  13. ^ Bastick, Zach (2012). “Our Internet and Freedom of Speech ‘Hobbled by History’: Introducing Plural Control Structures Needed to Redress a Decade of Linear Policy”European Commission: European Journal of ePractice. Policy lessons from a decade of eGovernment, eHealth & eInclusion (15): 97–111.
  14. ^ “The Goose and the Commons” Retrieved 4 March 2012.

Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

3 thoughts on “Parliamentary Enclosure And Open Fields – Wikepedia

  1. I’ve also explored the Enclosure Acts. Similar laws were passed in other nations, France, for example. The motivation has never gone away – seems a hand-in-glove fit for industrial, capitalist, age. Have also spent time recently learning a bit about ‘accumulation by dispossession’ identified by Marx. David Harvey is my ‘go to’ source on this. Current housing crisis is only one of the ‘larger’ cases in point. Author (??) of “Lockdown America” makes interesting relevant observations of US economy from late 60’s on – ‘extra’ workers, in population less willing and able to ‘play worker/consumer’. (Oversimplifying – my computer misbehaving, driving me nuts!). I’ve not had time to do any blog work on this but is much in mind. (Situation is global though US obviously a central power player )

    • Up until I read that quote by Orwell I had absolutely no inkling about this. I remember reading and discussing Orwell in school (who could forget the rats), but the Enclosure Acts were never mentioned. I had started a whole screed about how it reminds me of what’s happening today, here in Wisconsin, with mining rights on public lands being given to corporations, how environmental regulations are being stripped and weakened so that these same corporations are not held responsible if they pollute these pristine areas, how public funds are being diverted to private charter schools and public utilities are being privatized, etc., but stopped myself. However, the parallels are obvious. The politicians in cahoots with their wealthy donors are selling off the commons and we are all going to be poorer for it. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who believe in these crooks and liars.

  2. It’s hard not to get a good screed going on these matters. I’ve tried to coach myself away from screeds but certainly have delivered a few. Contemporary parallels you list, including “etc” seem a never ending list.

    It’s my thought that fewer and fewer believe but that many who did believe and now don’t – don’t yet quite know what to do with the awareness and their feelings. Someone on a forum very recently brought up the stages of grief. Denial is first in the Kubler-Ross model.

    I also suspect sometimes that Marx was right about ‘alienation’- that we’re well into several generations of people much alienated from any strong sense of self. They don’t believe in a right or even obligation to assert that a return to deeper principles in our self-governance is necessary and required. (Others are still pretty comfortable and explain developments as the ‘natural’ way an economy must work!)

    I think one reason what’s happening now is so acute is that those dedicated to amassing and maintaining wealth/power are themselves ‘up against it’. The greater reality is that there’s no easy frontier into which capital can take its need to expand/exploit. The citizen private purse, the public purse, and any institutionalized commons (post office, education) are among the few opportunities. Even global opportunity is reduced as other nations gain economically (driven by their particular set of similar wealth/power adherents.) And citizens in every nation are now much more alert to a concept of citizen rights and democracy.

    A profound coming together of many forces – including of course serious damage to earth’s waters, lands, and atmosphere! Yikes! It’s all quite entangled with the ‘paradigm’ of expand/exploit/consume and further entangled with creating and lending money, resulting in debt at every level.

    It sure seems there are no promises. But it also seems there’s no way out except to go through the tangle, sorting as we go, establishing grass-roots community solutions that are less entangled. Communities that are strongly people/life centered!

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m not over-analyzing, over-noticing. Maybe science will pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat and we’ll be able to wonder what all the fuss was about. Ten years ago that possibility crossed my mind fairly regularly. Five years ago a bit less often. These days seldom. I call it up on purpose sometimes to remind myself that I don’t know everything there is to know! 🙂

    I will say again – I really appreciate your posts. Thanks.

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