Before the Bills of Enclosure were passed by Parliament, agriculture in England existed in an “openfield system.” Under this system, even the poorest individuals were invested in the land that they worked. Farmers acquired small plots of land by purchase, by marriage, or by inheritance: though, everyone was permitted equal access to the common land, which was primarily used for grazing.
The openfield system benefited the common man both psychologically and practically. Since the plots of land were small, thrifty individuals could purchase a few plots over their lifetime to increase the size of their holding. An individual could raise at least one cow to yield milk using the common grazing land, and perhaps a few pigs for meat using the woodlands. The common lands also yielded an amount of wood and dung for fuel, and timber and stone for construction.
However, the openfield system had its drawbacks. The nature of the plots of land was such that they were “inconsistent in size and shape, dotted erratically over a wide area and… subject to common rights of grazing between harvest and spring.” As such, landowners actually had very limited control over their lands. More importantly, the agricultural system that was used was exhaustive to the soil. Even after systematic farming was proven to be effective by men like Jethro Tull and Lord Townshend, it could not be implemented efficiently in the openfield system. Tull’s cross-hoeing theory, for example, could not be used on most plots because they were too narrow.
In the early 18th century, the rate at which land was enclosed accelerated. This acceleration cannot be attributed to any one reason in particular, though there is the self evident fact that smaller plots of land were far less efficient to farm than large ones. Parliament enacted the private Bills of Enclosure from the 1750s. They were, theoretically, a democratic procedure requiring four-fifths assent from the owners before a particular area could be enclosed. In practice however, land was often distributed among the wealthy farmers, as the less advantaged farmers were almost powerless.
Between the years of 1760 and 1820, approximately 4,000 Acts regarding enclosure were passed and some five million acres of common land was sectioned by hedges. The Napoleonic Wars resulted in rising food prices, which gave further incentive for Parliament to accelerate the process of enacting “more rational farming.” Thus, the General Enclosure Act was passed. Again, the process was carried out fairly in theory; the common man was given monetary compensation if he lost lands and only needed to pay some fees and place a fence around his new property. In practice, lawyers’ fees and the cost of fencing were very high. Small landowners were often forced to sell their land or seek work elsewhere: either as a laborer or in industrial towns.
The enclosure acts were not without benefit. William Cobbett remarked that “the fields… enclosed by Act of Parliament… [were] the most beautiful fields that [he] ever saw… exceedingly well planted and raised.” Indeed, the enclosure of land greatly increased the productivity of that land and led to a much needed increase in the overall supply of food.
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This links to a nice demonstration of how the enclosure of land would look in a village.
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In this article, Dr. Michael Turner discusses how historians have re-analyzed the perceived impact and social consequences of the switch from open field farming to enclosed farming, with a focus on parliamentary enclosure. He concludes that enclosures were not necessarily the main cause of the rise of a rural working class, though they certainly contributed, instead pointing to a demographic change as a more likely cause. However, he acknowledges that parliament was influenced by the power of landowners being determined by property rather than numbers, which perhaps ignored the rights of lower-class men.
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The National Archives has records of legal documents which recorded the ownership and distribution of land, including records on private enclosures and enclosure by Act of Parliament. Unfortunately, these are not available for viewing online, but you could order copies or visit the archives in Kew.
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