Enclosure of the English Commons
Enclosure of the English Commons
Commentary on the enclosure of land in England is most commonly concerned with the years 1750–1830, the era of parliamentary enclosure, although the process of changing the agrarian landscape had been occurring as far back as Shakespeare's time. In general, the term enclosure refers to the shift from communal to individual agriculture through the consolidation of scattered properties, usually under one landlord/landowner, and the abolition of grazing and planting rights to common lands. Many recent studies have focused on economic and historical considerations and have addressed both the advantages and disadvantages of enclosure in terms of its effect on agricultural production, on the rural laborer and farm employment, on the widening gap in income distribution between the small and large landowner, and on the growth of English population overall. In the eighteenth-century some English critics argued that these changes enriched the large landowners at the expense of the poor. Others argued that although the new allotments to small farmers might have been inadequate for their needs, the positive change in the nature of agriculture in England as a whole, from subsistence farming to a source of wealth for the nation, cannot be ignored. The fact that enclosure was a significant social and historical phenomenon in England is undisputed by commentators.
Recent examinations of the changes wrought by enclosure of the commons tend to place them within the context of transformations occurring in other areas of English life at that time: changes in industrial production, for example, or the development of mechanical processes, the introduction of interest rates, or the increase in population. However, for nineteenth-century poets like John Clare and, to a lesser extent, William Barnes, enclosure brought only suffering and injustice. Clare lived in Northamptonshire, one of the counties in England hit hardest by parliamentary enclosure. Clare was not concerned with the economics of enclosure or how it affected England's trade with other countries, but with its altering of the landscape and its effects on rural laborers in terms of their happiness and freedom. A poor man often referred to as a “peasant-poet,” Clare belonged to a tradition of rural dissent, and his poems are those of social protest; they are not nature lyrics or landscape poems.
William Barnes also opposed enclosure in his poetry. Unlike Clare, Barnes's primary concern was with returning to a pre-industrial past of cottage industry in which the burgeoning social problems of England did not exist. He advocated self-help for the sake of self-respect and abhorred the idea of an idle rich class.
Poems, Partly of Rural Life (in National English) (poetry) 1846
Poole and Dorset Herald (article) 1849
Views of Labour and Gold (article) 1859
Hwomely Rhymes. A Second Collection of Poems in the Dorset Dialect (poetry) 1859
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (poetry) 1820
The Village Minstrel and Other Poems 2 vols. (poetry) 1821
(The entire section is 50 words.)
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The Anatomy of Enclosure,” in Parliamentary Enclosure in England: An Introduction to Its Causes, Incidence, and Impact, 1750-1850, London, 1997, pp. 7-31.
[In the following essay, Mingay provides an overview of parliamentary enclosure with special emphasis on its effects on England as a whole and in its individual counties.]
THE MEANING OF ENCLOSURE
What exactly was enclosure? What did it involve? Most simply, it meant the extinction of common rights which people held over the farm lands and commons of the parish, the abolition of the scattered holdings in the open fields and a re-allocation of holdings in compact blocks, accompanied usually by the physical separation of the newly created fields and closes by the erection of fences, hedges or stone walls. Thereafter, the lands so enclosed were held ‘in severalty’, that is, they were reserved for the sole use of the individual owners or their tenants.
What were the common rights that were extinguished by enclosure? We shall consider them in more detail later on, but broadly they were old-established rights exercised by the occupiers of farm lands and cottages, and varied considerably in nature and extent from place to place. Generally, however, on arable lands of the open fields they included the important right (‘common of shack’) to graze livestock on the corn stubbles left after the crops...
(The entire section is 10098 words.)
Criticism: Early Reaction To Enclosure
SOURCE: “‘Like the Old Robin Hood’: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Spring, 1992): 1-19.
[In the following essay, Wilson discusses enclosure in the 1590s and its reflection in Shakespeare's As You Like It, suggesting that neither enclosure itself nor literature dealing with it were confined to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.]
In September 1592, while plague and riot gripped London, Queen Elizabeth made a progress into the West Midlands and was welcomed with pageants devised by John Lyly as a prospectus of pastoral England. When she crossed the Thames at Bisham, a “wilde man” sprang from the woods to assure “the Queen of this Island” that in her presence “my untamed thoughts wax gentle, & I feel in my self civility. … Your Majesty on my knees will I followe, bearing this Club, not as a Salvage, but to beate down those that are.”1 Elizabeth had left London to the rioters' cry of “Clubs!”; now sylvan power was presented as a force of counter-insurgency. Prompted by the civic emergency, Lyly's wodewose brandished a weapon that was a reminder of the violence surrounding Elizabethan pastoralism and of the urgent need to secure its boundaries. For, as the text explained, it was only the queen's peace that exempted England from the general European crisis: “By her it is our carts are laden with corn,...
(The entire section is 10590 words.)
Criticism: Nineteenth-Century Reaction To Enclosure
SOURCE: “John Clare and the Enclosure of Helpston,” in The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840, Cambridge, 1972, 189-215.
[In the following excerpt, Barrell looks at how critics of Clare have evaluated the role of enclosure in his poetry and then offers his own conclusions.]
Almost every critic who has written about John Clare has seen the importance of relating the enclosure of Helpston to Clare's development as a writer and to the content of his work, and Clare himself makes constant reference to the enclosure in the poems apparently composed between about 1812 and 1825. The difficulty, however, has been to escape from the stereotyped notions of ‘the effects of enclosure’, and to establish exactly what sort of significance the enclosure might have had for Helpston and for Clare. In this, his critics have not been helped by the sort of historiography that has, throughout this century, especially recommended itself to literary people. Particularly unhelpful has been the absolute reliance on The Village Labourer, by J. L. and Barbara Hammond,1 a book which, for all its virtues, does offer an unusually one-sided account of the economic effects of parliamentary enclosure, and has a habit of presenting the exceptional case as the general one; and the conclusions the Hammonds come to in that book have been a little too eagerly endorsed by...
(The entire section is 6104 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Vile Invasions’: The Enclosure Elegies,” in John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance, Kingston, 1987, 36-55.
[In the following essay, critic Johanne Clare examines several of John Clare's “enclosure elegies,” those poems of social protest and lamentation regarding the effects of enclosure on the landscape and its people.]
In his excellent account of the enclosure of Clare's native village, John Barrell has concluded that there is simply not enough evidence to allow us to know for certain whether the landless labourers of Helpston became poorer as a consequence of the enclosure.1 Of course, even if such evidence existed, we would have to be wary of assuming that we have in our grasp the real historical situation against which to verify the content of Clare's enclosure elegies. Not all of the elegies take Helpston for their setting, though there is definitely a local emphasis in several of them—most notably in “The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters” and “The Lament of Swordy Well.” But in writing even these most local poems, Clare may have been thinking not only of the rural labouring poor of Helpston, but of those in other villages, or in all the villages, which had undergone the same process. It may have been a wider scene and a more general reality—the alienation of a whole class and not merely the changes in one locality—that Clare was seeking to...
(The entire section is 8158 words.)
SOURCE: “Pastoral and Popular Modes in Clare's Enclosure Elegies,” in The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-taught Tradition, The John Clare Society, 1994, pp. 139-55.
[In the following essay, Goodridge examines John Clare's use of a variety of popular and literary traditions in what have become known as his “enclosure elegies.”]
I want to look at a group of poems that seem to me to epitomise Clare's ‘Independent Spirit’ as a self-taught poet: they have long been known, considered and admired (by radical critics, at least) as a group, but it took Johanne Clare, in her fine study John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance, to give them a name that would stick: the enclosure elegies.
My interest in them is the way that Clare draws together popular and literary materials in their construction, especially the way he draws on rather unpromising material such as scripture, or pastoral poetry and, showing the characteristic eclecticism of the self-taught tradition, creates from them powerful new means of poetical and political expression. I am particularly intrigued by the way Clare ‘turns’ ideas and phrases from eighteenth-century pastoral poetry—a tradition still widely (if unfairly) regarded as insipid—into newly energised verse. In this I suppose he resembles the yellowhammer of his poem ‘The Yellowhammer's Nest’, building its nest from leftovers:...
(The entire section is 6699 words.)
SOURCE: “An Exercise in Nostalgia?: John Clare and Enclosure,” in The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-taught Tradition, edited by John Goodridge, The John Clare Society, 1994, pp. 165-77.
[In the following essay, Rowbotham discusses whether John Clare was correct in blaming enclosure for what he saw as the destructive changes in rural society.]
There once was lanes in natures freedom dropt There once was paths that every valley wound Inclosure came, and every path was stopt Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground Justice is made to speak as they command The high road now must be each stinted bound —inclosure thourt a curse upon the land And tastless was the wretch who thy existence pland
Clare's direct experience of enclosure came when he was sixteen. In that year, 1809, his parish of Helpston was enclosed:
But now alas my charms are done For shepherds and for thee The cowboy with his green is gone And every Bush and tree Dire nakedness oer all prevails Yon fallows bare and brown Is all beset wi’ post and rails And turned upside down.
In his poetic comments on enclosure, Clare makes plain his reaction to the process: it turned his world ‘upside down’, and he deeply resented such a process, seeing it as a negative factor in his life, and in the lives of those around him. To sum up...
(The entire section is 5489 words.)
SOURCE: “Society,” in The Rebirth of England and English: The Vision of William Barnes, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996, pp. 55-67.
[In the following essay, Phillips discusses William Barnes's vision for England and his critiques of mid-nineteenth-century English society in his poetry and prose.]
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village
The enclosing of the commons robbed the country folk in England of leisure and independence, the coming of the factories took them from the fields and the old communities, and flung them into the new ones, which were allowed to grow up anyhow, without art, without thought, without faith or hope or charity, till the face of the land was blackened, and the soul of the land under a cloud.
John Masefield, St. George and the Dragon
As we have already seen from the two previous chapters, Barnes' values were to a great extent shaped by his upbringing in the Blackmore Vale. True of his artistic values, his attitude to Nature and to Art, true of his attitudes to Marriage, this is also true of all his social values. His fathers and forefathers had all been rooted in the land, the pre-Enclosure, pre-industrial rural way of life. Indeed, despite moving to Dorchester, Barnes later bought...
(The entire section is 4763 words.)
Allen, Robert C. “Introduction: Agrarian Fundamentalism and English Agricultural Development,” in his Enclosure and the Yeoman, pp. 1-21. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992, 376 p.
Introduction to the Agrarian Fundamentalist schools of thought regarding enclosure and why the author rejects their claims.
Chambers, J. D. “Enclosure and Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution.” In Agriculture and Economic Growth in England, 1650-1815, edited by E. L. Jones, pp. 94-127. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1967.
A quantitative inquiry into the issue of whether enclosure caused depopulation.
Dent, J. Geoffrey. “Mechanics and Effects of Parliamentary Enclosure of Common Grazings: An Example from north-west Yorkshire.” Folk Life 21 (1982-83): 83-99.
Uses one part of England to examine how enclosure was accomplished and what its economic and social effects were on the local community.
Gonner, E. C. K. “General Conditions of Rural Life.” In his Common Land and Inclosure, pp. 359-79. London: Macmillan, 1912, 461p.
Examines how the shift from common land to enclosure affected small farmers, as well as the consequences of this change for England as a whole.
Malcolmsen, Cristina. “The Garden Enclosed/The Woman Enclosed: Marvell...
(The entire section is 616 words.)