Tuesday, December 15, 2020

“Good fences make good neighbours”: Enclosure in Georgian England

By Elizabeth Grant

A lawn sweeping down to a stream, expanses of undulating turf dotted with clumps of trees rising to a wooded skyline, a bridge giving focus to the scene – it is the quintessential English landscape. 

View from Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

In fact, it is a man-made park. The harmonious view reflects the ideas and style propagated by the dominant figure of eighteenth-century gardening history, Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783). It also reflects a social order dominated by landowners, because laying out the grounds in this style required exclusive ownership of vast tracts of land. And that meant enclosing.

Enclosing describes a process by which small or fragmented parcels of land are merged into homogeneous blocks, absorbing the common land that lies in-between. On the ground, that meant building fences. The common land previously accessible to all was now reserved for one deeded owner. At the political level, enclosing required an Act of Parliament. This was easy to obtain in a country where political power was tied to land ownership.

Enclosing meant building fences

Good fences make good neighbours: the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations traces the proverb cited in the heading back to the mid-seventeenth century. This was the time when enclosure, which had begun in the Tudor era, reached a significant scale. It intensified during the Georgian period, with around two thousand Enclosure Acts passed during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. From 1760 to 1800, approximately 21 million acres of land were enclosed by statute. The process accelerated still further after 1800. (Charles Quest-Ritson, The English Garden: A Social History, London 2001, pp. 13, 137)

Was England a nation of wealthy aesthetes, then, desperate to improve their view? Garden historian Charles Quest-Ritson explains: “Landscaping the grounds of an estate was … closely linked to other forms of improvement – above all, better economic use of the land. It may seem at first that there is an obvious contradiction between improving the income of the estate and turning much of it into an extensive landscaped park. But, in fact, the opposite is true.” (Quest-Ritson, p. 137)

Compact land holdings were much easier to administer and improve. Enclosing made it possible to reorganize the farms on an estate and free up space around the landowner’s house for a landscaped park. Parks were ornamental and expensive to build, a perfect status symbol. But once a park had been created, it could be highly profitable. Not only was it low in maintenance – the mowing or grazing by deer, sheep or cattle which it required actually generated income. The rents from pasture exceeded rents from agriculture by up to 50 per cent. Stock-breeding became an elegant fashion, seen as a leisurely pursuit far removed from the more energetic arable farming. The handsome copses and clumps of wood dotting the pasture produced firewood, props, poles and hurdles. Their valuable hardwoods would swell the purse of the landowner’s descendants when cut and sold seventy or ninety years hence. (Quest-Ritson, pp. 140ff.)

Enclosing made huge pastures available for profitable
sheep farming

Agricultural improvement, in turn, was slow to gain ground. Most landowners concentrated their efforts on increasing their land holdings rather than increasing the yields of the land they already had – even though they were living in a time of profound demographic change, and knew it. Thomas Malthus had published his Essay on Population in 1798, and in 1817 Lord Liverpool wrote to Sidmouth: 
“If our Commercial Situation does not improve, Emigration, or Premature Deaths, are the only Remedies. Both must occur to a considerable Extent. It would be most inhuman in such Case, to encourage the latter, by prohibiting the former.” (John Plowright, Regency England: The Age of Lord Liverpool, London 1996, p. 8).

Historian Boyd Hilton asks the pertinent question, “How on earth did agricultural output manage to rise to meet the needs of townsfolk?” And explains, 

“This was a period of agricultural expansion rather than revolution. The number of acres increased from around 10 to 15 million between 1770 and 1850, while the area under wheat rose from about 2.8. million to 3.8 million … Most of the increase took place between 1790 and 1812, when scarcity prices due to population pressure and the difficulty of importing food in wartime led the margin of cultivation to be pushed up the hillsides.” (Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783–1846, Oxford 2006, p. 8)

You will object that there are no fences to be seen in the view from Chatsworth House, nor from scores of similarly grand or less grand houses in England. That’s because they’re hidden behind the trees. But they’re there all right. While historians continue to argue about the actual value and yields of the enclosed land, most of them agree that the social consequences were dire. Local labourers had customary shared-use rights to grazing, crops, brushwood, and fuel from the common land. You could graze a couple of goats on the commons, or a flock of geese. You could drive your pigs into the woods to fatten on acorns or beech mast. You could collect firewood or cut staves to repair your house or your fences. You might even fish or make hay (Wikipedia, s. v. common land). 

To claim compensation for lost use, however, you needed to be able to claim a legal right which few possessed. And even if they did, the compensation mostly came in the form of small allotments that could never yield the benefits a large tract of common land could. (Hilton, pp. 8f.). The Honourable John Byng, later the fifth Lord Torrington, wrote in 1781: “I hate enclosures, and as a citizen I look on them as the greedy tyrannies of the wealthy few to oppress the indigent many, and an iniquitous purchase of invaluable rights” (see Quest-Ritson, p. 138).


Elizabeth (Elsie) Grant
writes romantic fiction set in the early nineteenth century. Her first novel, An Independent Heart, takes place in a country house surrounded by just the kind of park described here. It also involves an enclosure scheme, parliamentary ambitions, and the landed interest, but never fear – these only form a sketchy background against which the romance is painted in delicate hues.

Elsie grew up in Germany, Yugoslavia (as it was then), and the United States. After studying languages in Glasgow and Berlin, she went on to work as a translator and proofreader, specializing in medieval art and contemporary architecture. She is currently working on her second novel, which revolves around a bright young heiress and a one-armed sea captain and is partly set in Greece.

An Independent Heart is available at:

Bod Buchshop

Amazon UK


Please visit Elsie at elsiegrant.blogspot.com

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