Friday, December 28, 2012

A Painful Transition for Some, A Benefit for Others: The Enclosure Acts

by J.A. Beard

"Not so large, I dare say, as many people suppose. I do not mean to complain, however; it is undoubtedly a comfortable one, and I hope, will in time be better. The inclosure of Norland Common, now carrying on, is a most serious drain. And then I have made a little purchase within this half year -- East Kingham Farm, you must remember the place, where old Gibson used to live. The land was so very desirable for me in every respect, so immediately adjoining my own property, that I felt it my duty to buy it. I could not have answered it to my conscience to let it fall into any other hands. A man must pay for his convenience, and it has cost me a vast deal of money."

-- John Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 33

Mr. Dashwood's comments don't initially seem to be all that important in the grander discussion of the nature of socio-economic disparity and economic realignment in Georgian and Regency England. His off-hand mention of "the inclosure of Norland Common", however, touches upon a rather significant series of land reforms that had major an impact on the rural lower classes in England.

Enclosure/inclosure was the process by which land was consolidated, separated from neighboring properties, and deeded to private owners. The name comes from the way these lands were marked off from others: enclosure with a wall, hedge, fence, or other obvious marker of division. Much of this process involved consolidation of irregular areas into more contiguous lands, but there were also cases of just simple conversion from common-use to private use. The combination of consolidation, demarcation of borders, and simple ownership assignment eliminated any ambiguity about who owned what and effectively eliminated most common-use land in England.

For a good chunk of English history, an open system was in place in many (but certainly not all) areas where peasants could make use of common-use land for grazing, small-scale planting, small-scale forestry, and similar subsistence activities. Although various minor cases of enclosure occurred throughout the centuries, the process really picked up speed during the Georgian era with a huge number of Enclosure Acts being passed by Parliament between the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. While these were acts passed by the legislature, it should be noted that the process of acquiring enclosed land during most of the Georgian era involved a private citizen petitioning Parliament (until the mid-19th century at least), and so many of these Parliamentary acts were the culmination, in a sense, of private concerns and petitions rather than autonomous top-down decisions by the government. Even excluding the major Enclosure Acts, many smaller-scale private acts were passed by Parliament at the direct petition request of individuals.

It should be noted that in some cases enclosure was done to basically cut down on illegal use of private property. A man might own a swath of land, but a lack of clear borders allowed people to come in certain areas, pick berries, graze their livestock, et cetera. That being said, in other cases there were centuries-old common areas that were destroyed by enclosure.

The act of enclosure, given that it removed many economic/food-related rights from peasants in local villages and nearby areas, had wide-spread secondary effects. Once land was controlled by an owner, usage, if allowed, would require rent, which poorer families may have not been able to afford. Whereas previously they could potentially get by making limited use of common land, many now had to seek out employment. Arguably, without the Enclosure Acts, the huge number of cheap laborers necessary to help fuel the Industrial Revolution in England would not have been available.

Even if one is not particularly politically inclined, it's easy to see how these acts might be viewed with suspicion by some. A person (and many have) could make the argument that formerly self-sufficient people were forced to go seek out work, sometimes far from home (thus disrupting village life), whereas a small percentage of individuals found themselves in a stronger economic position.

The often unpleasant labor conditions of the early Industrial Revolution or the low-security life that accompanied service were arguably tolerated because of the flood of workers desperate for new means to sustain themselves. Was enclosure nothing more than people of superior means consolidating resources and land at the expense of people of lesser means? Some argue that rather strenuously.

On the other hand, the ostensible logic behind enclosure was in some cases simple protection of property rights and in other cases was about improving efficiency of the land. Some historians suggest that by pushing people out of low-level subsistence farming, enclosure may have ultimately contributed to greater social mobility potential in the long-run. General improved economic efficiency combined with the slowly eroding social resistance to things like trade and investment among gentry arguably led to a consolidation, enrichment, and investment cycle that benefited the nation as a whole. Under this argument, the workers flooding into the factories of the Industrial Revolution, in turn, expanded the economy and helped shift the poorer English away from having effectively zero chance at social mobility.

It's also undeniable that in many areas over-use and agricultural inefficiency was a legitimate motivation for enclosure. This is the so-called tragedy of the commons. In such a situation, as no one involved in the use of land/resource has true ownership, they will not take special measures to conserve it because others using the resources may not. This cycle of use and self-interest leads to the depletion of the resource. The various people who supported enclosure often based their argument on economic reasons (fencing associated with enclosure allowed high-value pasturage), agricultural efficiency, and land restoration.

Did this mean that every enclosed area was actually some horribly depleted over-farmed and over-logged deadland that needed the help of the gentry to rescue it? Doubtful. While there were areas where this was the case, it's not as if during the process of enclosure the government first did some sort of complicated land-use analysis. Mostly they were responding to petitions filed by people with enough wealth to hire lawyers to file petitions.

Many enclosed areas had been successfully maintained for centuries. Though, as noted above, in some cases enclosure was about making property borders more concrete rather than a more active attempt to expand land holdings. The nature and appropriateness (depending on one's point of view) of enclosure likely varied by case.

Regardless if you feel enclosure was some sort of land-grab by the elite or if it was a painful but necessary part of an economically maturing England that benefited everyone, it most definitely played a role in changing the nature of the English countryside and working classes.


  1. I find your approach to enclosure especially interesting because I ended up in the midst of the Farmer's March on London in the fall of 2002, and learned that issues were not as clear cut as I, as a tourist and a Yank had thought. I have a wonderful photo of me carrying a placard across Westminster bridge. In talking to the demonstrators that day,I learned that there was a side to the issue I had never seen. I had regarded the fox hunt ban as animal rights initiative, unaware of deep sociological implications flowing from the laws banning the hunt that I, a sociology undergrad before law school, had not considered. The economics of the English countryside are not simple, not just a matter of the humble vs. the elite., but serious fiscal impact issues that prompted the march.I am proud to have been a part of it. I marched for the California United Farm Workers in 1970 and for British farmers thirty years later,and proud of both.

  2. This is a timely post for me. The Inclosure Acts get a brief mention in my next novel. Thanks for adding to my knowledge base on the subject.

  3. I live in Cumbria surrounded by large areas of common land, and many of these arguments still rumble on - only now, between the commoners who have rights and the supervising organisations such as English Nature who want to fence areas for conservation purposes... plus ca change!

  4. Thanks for giving an unbiased explanation of this issue. Very interesting.

  5. Very informative. Thank you for your inbiased discussion.

  6. Good grief - that was supposed to be UNbiased.

  7. Very interesting article. Thank you.


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