Enclosure of the English Commons Criticism: Overviews And General Studies - Essay

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.]


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 had been harvested and cleared from the ground. The manure dropped by the grazing stock was a vital element in securing satisfactory yields of following crops. Equally valuable was that provided by the systematic folding of sheep on the land that was left fallow, or uncultivated, between crops (left so in order to help it recover fertility and to allow for a thorough extermination of weeds). In addition to the open-field lands that were regularly cropped, there were in many unenclosed villages useful areas of meadow, perhaps enriched by a stream which flooded in winter. The meadows were highly valued for their early bite of rich grass, and not infrequently they were newly re-allocated each year, so that each farmer had an equal chance of access to the best grazing.

The common or commons (there might be more than one in the parish) consisted of areas of open land set aside for grazing during the summer months when the arable or crop lands in the fields were shut up to keep stock from damaging the growing corn. In addition to the farmers, numbers of cottagers and others might have the right to graze a cow or horse on the commons, find pannage (acorns and beech-mast) there for pigs, cut brushwood or furze for fuel, and gather berries and herbs in season. Contemporaries also spoke of the ‘waste’, a term which included small areas of stony or rocky ground together with more extensive stretches of heathland, moors and bogs, as well as barren mountains and steep hillsides. Parts of the waste might be useful for some very sparse grazing, for gathering wild berries and digging turves or peat for fuel, and perhaps for getting supplies of clay, gravel and stone for repairing houses and maintaining the roads.

Waste lands were often quite limited in lowland parishes but were very extensive over much of the country in the eighteenth century, even beyond the limits of the northern moors, the Cumbrian fells and the Welsh mountains. In the south-west, for example, lay the wastes of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Sedgmoor, in the Midlands were the bleak wolds and considerable areas of poor soils taken up by the royal and other forests, while in the east stretched the forbidding Lincolnshire uplands, the still ill-drained fenlands further south, and the Thames-side marshes. Even in approaching the capital itself, the traveller had to brave the highwaymen who infested wastes such as Hounslow Heath and Finchley Common. Some areas of hill and moor, especially in the north, were so high, steep and barren as never to be worth the cost of enclosing. But often unenclosed lowland parishes had some small patches of very poor land of such marginal value that they might not be worth taking in when the parish was enclosed, unless it were for their stone or minerals. Indeed, in lowland farming districts not only some wastes, but also a number of commons, remained untouched by enclosure, so that it is not quite true to say that the commons always disappeared along with the open fields.

Lastly, the parish often had some woodlands. These were usually privately owned and cultivated on a commercial basis, the trees being cut at regular intervals and systematically replanted. The large timber went for house building and shipbuilding, or to workshops making a variety of wooden articles such as furniture, posts, gates and wagon wheels, among many others, with the bark sold separately for use in the tanning trade, while coppice wood was used for making charcoal.

The arable land of the parish was frequently divided into a number of large fields. These have usually been described in historical accounts and in nineteenth-century General Enclosure Acts as ‘open’ fields, to distinguish them from enclosed ones. In reality, as Joan Thirsk has pointed out, there were two kinds of unenclosed fields. Firstly, there were fields where common rights are not definitely known to have been used, or where the farmers agreed to renounce them. Secondly, there were the fields where common rights had always existed and were still in use at the time of parliamentary enclosure. She suggested reserving the term ‘open’ fields for the first, and ‘common’ fields for the second, a distinction which in terms of historical accuracy has much to recommend it.1 However, the use of ‘open’ fields to describe unenclosed arable fields in general is so long enshrined in the historical literature that to avoid confusion it is perhaps best to retain this term, while remembering that there were fields that were ‘open’ in a landscape sense but were not subject to common rights.

The number of fields varied from parish to parish, and although textbooks speak of the ‘three-field system’, and in fact three fields may have been quite usual, it was not uncommon to find parishes with only one or two fields and others with from four to seven or more. In the so-called ‘classical’ open-field system of the Midlands the fields were often large, stretching from several hundred acres to as many as two thousand acres or more; in some areas, on the other hand, they were quite small, the arable being subordinate to a predominating demand for grazing, or limited by the restricted availability of suitable soils. On the coast of Lincolnshire, for example, the salt marshes were highly valued for their pasture, and the small arable fields there were quite a secondary consideration.2

Whether the open fields formed a rigid basis for the rotation of crops, as was often supposed, is highly doubtful. Already by the later seventeenth century or early eighteenth century open-field farmers were experimenting with new crops, such as turnips and legumes.3 Such crops were particularly useful to farmers where the commons were small and grazing was short, enabling them to keep more stock than would otherwise have been possible, and consequently helping them to manure their cropland more thoroughly. To some extent this flexibility made it possible for open-field farmers to overcome the basic weakness of their farming system—the more or less fixed division of the village land into that reserved for arable and that reserved for pasture. But clearly the new crops were not a universal panacea since their adoption was limited by the nature of the soils. Ill-drained clays, in particular, were unsuitable for roots or legumes, and so the enclosure of these soils, widespread in the Midlands, often resulted in no change in the basic system: two crops and a fallow continued to be the regime after enclosure as before. Further, since the claylands (unless adequately drained) were often also unsuited for conversion to pasture, and were difficult and costly to cultivate for corn crops, enclosing them was less profitable than with more amenable soils, and tended to be delayed. Again, the human factor might be important also. The conservatism of some open-field farmers meant a rooted antipathy to new ideas, however advantageous they might be. As a result, where new crops were not introduced, the commons were too small to allow all the farmers and cottagers to keep as many animals as they wished, and the arable was too ‘worn out’, that is, inadequately fertilised to bear good crops, this farming impasse became one of the more important arguments for enclosing.

As is well known, the holding of an individual farmer was often scattered in small areas or ‘strips’ across the open fields, an obvious source of inefficiency. The moving of teams and implements from strip to strip was time-consuming, and meant that part of the land in the fields had to be left unploughed in order to provide access. Further, the existence of so many different farmers' boundaries within a field gave occasion for encroachment and damage, accidental or otherwise, and was a fertile source of disputes. And since the farmhouses were usually grouped together in the centre of the village, or in a number of separate hamlets, time and effort had to be spent in journeying out to distant parcels of the holding which, in some instances might well lie at a distance of a mile or even two miles.

As it happened, the open fields had largely gone by the time that factory-made, horse-drawn field machines were coming widely into use in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, so the scattering of the holdings did not constitute an obstacle to making use of new economies of scale. Nevertheless, long before this, the inconvenience of holdings scattered in numerous small parcels had led to amalgamation and consolidation, sometimes on a large scale. More frequently, perhaps, individual farmers agreed to exchanges, so that over time the separate units in the fields got fewer and larger, and became easier to work. However, in numbers of villages before enclosure many of the units making up a holding were still very small, sometimes only a quarter of an acre, and still widely scattered, and this was frequently given as a ground for bringing about an enclosure.


This book is primarily concerned with parliamentary enclosures, that is, those carried out under the authority of the private Acts of enclosure which accounted for the major, if uncertain, part of all the land enclosed over the period 1750-1830. However, there were two other important forms of enclosure that we must notice, enclosures that were carried out without the intervention of a private Act of Parliament.

The first of these is large-scale enclosures carried out by the common consent of the owners of the land, and known therefore as ‘enclosures by agreement’. In this form of enclosure the owners in a parish agreed among themselves to enclose a large part or all of the fields and commons, together with any waste worth cultivating, and to allot the land in separate compact farms in proportion to the acreage, in quantity and value, originally held by each owner. The procedure adopted for doing this often foreshadowed the methods used in parliamentary enclosures. An umpire or umpires, known as ‘commissioners’, were appointed to oversee the process and to arbitrate in any disputes that might arise. Enclosures of this kind had been proceeding in the seventeenth century and continued during the eighteenth century but, it is believed, became less frequent after mid-century, giving way to enclosures carried out under private Acts of Parliament. Parishes enclosed earlier by agreement were known as ‘old enclosed’. We do not have any reliable estimate for the total amount of land that was enclosed by agreement during the eighteenth century, and clearly it was limited by the need to reach a prior agreement among the owners, and was likely to be restricted, therefore, to parishes where the land was in relatively few hands.

Nevertheless, together with piecemeal enclosure described below, it seems probable that the total area affected was considerable. Certainly, in some counties where investigations have been made, such as Hampshire and Sussex, more land was enclosed by these less formal methods than by the parliamentary procedure. In Sussex as much as two-thirds of the open fields was extinguished by non-parliamentary means in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, either by the exchange and consolidation of strips to make larger holdings, or by occupiers obtaining control of a whole field or even all the fields in a parish. As a result, common rights were abandoned by agreement or because farmers no longer felt the need for them. This evidence, incidentally, runs counter to the view of Dr J. R. Wordie, who argues that there was very little non-parliamentary enclosure after 1760 because nearly all the land that could be enclosed by agreement had been so enclosed by that date.4

The second form of non-parliamentary enclosure was the ‘piecemeal’ kind. This was usually a slow, gradual process by which owners agreed among themselves to take small pieces of land, ranging in size from 1 acre, to 5, 10 or 20 acres or more, out of the open fields or commons for their own exclusive use. The private closes that were thus created were often situated on or near the boundaries of the parish, or alternatively in the village centre near the farmhouses, and were valued primarily as additional pasture and also for their convenience for dairying, for growing vegetables or producing specialised crops, such as potatoes, hops, seeds, liquorice or perhaps woad or madder. These closes had been accumulating over a long period, and consequently by the eighteenth century were known in open-field villages as the ‘old enclosures’. They continued to grow during that century, and in some villages had become so numerous by the time of parliamentary enclosure as to cover as much as a half of the cultivated land.5 More frequently it was a much smaller proportion, but even so one of the grounds for bringing on a full-scale enclosure was the desirability of abolishing or reorganising the old enclosures, which, by reason of the haphazard way in which they had accumulated, had become inconvenient and sources of disputes, especially where access to some closes could be gained only by going through those of other farmers.

Some of the agreements under which these small closes were created have survived, and it appears that the procedure was not particularly unusual or difficult so long as compensation was made to the other farmers for the loss of rights involved.6 Where opposition was slight, where the farmers as a whole appreciated the value of the closes, and some of them, perhaps, expected to have additional closes of their own at some time in the future, ‘old enclosures’ accumulated in the parish. On the other hand, the fact that in many parishes the amount of land in old enclosures was still very small at the time of the parliamentary enclosure suggests that either the need to increase them was not strongly felt or the opposition of conservative members of the community was too strong.

Lastly, one should mention encroachments. These were parcels of common land or waste that were taken in, most frequently perhaps for a dwelling and a little accompanying pasture, without the express permission of the village community, or, in the case of the waste, the lord of the manor. Where the commons were adequate for the needs of the villagers, or the waste extensive and of little value, no objection might be raised to encroachments. Some were said to be sanctioned by custom. It was sometimes held, for example, that a right to squat on the waste or on the roadside was obtained if a cottage or ‘hovel’, as the contemporary term was, had been erected overnight and had smoke coming from its chimney by the morning.7 Squatters, from outside the parish, or possibly the younger sons of the resident small farmers and cottagers, were attracted by opportunities for employment in a nearby town or a local rural craft, though in the later eighteenth century they were appearing also in purely agricultural parishes. Sometimes the squatters on the waste were charged a small rent, such as a shilling a year, by the lord of the manor, mainly as an acknowledgement of his continued control of the land that had been illegally occupied.8

It is an important consideration that these forms of non-parliamentary enclosure not only affected collectively a large area of land, but also over a long period served as forerunners of parliamentary enclosures, and indeed were often contemporary with them. Consequently, the idea of enclosure was one quite familiar to rural communities. Parliamentary enclosure did not, as seems sometimes to be assumed, come suddenly out of the blue, to alarm and frighten conservative owners and their tenants. Its basis, the creation of individually occupied units of land, was a concept which was already long known and well understood. By the later eighteenth century, when the parliamentary enclosure movement was mounting towards its peak, there must have been few farmers who had not seen, or at least heard of, enclosures of land taking place in one way or another, perhaps as near at hand as the next village; or, in the case of piecemeal enclosures, in their very own parish. This may help to explain why the opposition to parliamentary enclosure among farmers, as distinct from cottagers, was not more widespread than it was, and why the initiative to bring about an enclosure came sometimes from the farmers rather than the landlords.


The long-running and sometimes acrimonious controversy over the effects of parliamentary enclosure seems often to be conducted without regard to its actual scale. The effects of enclosure could not have been universally felt throughout the countryside because enclosure itself was far from universal. Except in the Midlands, the great bulk of the country was already enclosed by the eighteenth century, and when parliamentary enclosure came there were some counties which, having few or no open fields left to enclose, saw only a handful of Acts, and those largely confined to commons and waste. It is true, of course, that the private enclosure Acts were very numerous: in England 5,265 of them, of which 3,094, 59 per cent, concerned some open-field land, according to Professor Michael Turner's figures. It has to be remembered, however, that not every Act made sweeping changes to the village holdings. Some Acts, indeed, were passed merely to confirm the legal validity of an enclosure that had already been carried out by agreement; others dealt with only a small remaining rump of open-field land which had survived piecemeal enclosure; and yet others were passed to rectify errors or omissions in preceding Acts and so enable an ongoing enclosure to be completed. Consequently it is the acreage enclosed, rather than the number of Acts, that is meaningful. There are in fact a number of problems in adding up the acreage figures given in the Acts or the Awards (which set out details of the new holdings allocated at the completion of an enclosure), and as a result there is inevitably a substantial margin of error in any total figure produced.9 However, while not pretending to absolute accuracy, Turner gives the total acreage for England as 6,794,429, representing 20.9 per cent of the land area.10

Dr John Chapman, employing a different technique of analysing a 10 per cent sample of Awards, produces for England a rather higher figure of 7.25m. acres, and a further 1.17m. acres for Wales. The total of 8.42m. acres represents 24 per cent of the land area of England and Wales, with a very high proportion, three-fifths of the total, consisting of commons and waste.11 There are a number of problems here, too, for the accuracy of the result depends on the accuracy of the sampling technique. However, although Chapman's figures are considerably higher than those of Turner, they are not so far apart as to throw doubt on the broad result, namely that some 7m. acres were enclosed by Act in England alone, representing about 23 per cent of the land area. It is important to notice that the percentages refer to the total land area. If it were possible to calculate a figure for the agricultural area alone, including commons and rough grazings but excluding urban areas, mountainous districts, and roads, lakes and rivers, then a higher figure would certainly appear. It is impossible to say with confidence what this would be, but perhaps it would be unlikely to raise the respective percentages to more than, say, 23 (Turner) or 26.5 (Chapman). A more relevant figure still would be the proportion affected of the then existing area of farmland (including commons), but this is impossible to estimate with any accuracy. It would certainly produce a considerably higher figure still. All we can conclude from these figures is that parliamentary enclosure affected a very significant proportion of the country's agricultural land, about a quarter, or probably rather more.

It should be noted that the figures produced by Turner (and by implication those of Chapman also) have been criticised by Wordie. Wordie argues from a consideration of the extent of non-parliamentary enclosure in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that at least 75 per cent of England and Monmouthshire had been enclosed by 1760, that is, well before parliamentary Acts became the predominant method of enclosing. He goes on to argue that less than 20 per cent of the area was enclosed by Act after 1760, and that Turner's figure should be reduced from 20.9 per cent to less than 20.1 per cent. The major point he is making, however, is not so much the accuracy of Turner's figures as the extent and importance of enclosure that had occurred prior to 1760, principally in the course of the seventeenth century, and, in consequence, the somewhat diminished significance of parliamentary enclosure and the vast amount of historical discussion to which it has given rise.12

Whatever the true figure, we are considering a legal process which affected either as much as about a quarter of the land available for agricultural use, or as little as about a quarter of that area, depending on one's point of view. What is certain is that only a minor, if very substantial, part of the land was affected. However, the historical significance given to enclosure has always been influenced by the fact that in one part of the country, the Midlands, much more than a quarter was affected [. …] In terms of total area, Turner calculated that four counties—Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire—had more than 50 per cent of their area affected by parliamentary enclosure, including that under the General Acts of the nineteenth century as well as the private Acts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Another four counties—Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and the East Riding of Yorkshire—had between 40 and 50 per cent of their total area affected. And six further counties had between 30 and 40 per cent affected: Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. Altogether, fourteen counties, most of them in the Midlands, had over 30 per cent of the area affected by parliamentary enclosure. According to Turner's figures, the total acreage involved in these fourteen counties was about 3.54m., and this figure represented 52 per cent of the total English acreage affected by parliamentary enclosure.13

Before going further, it should be noted that there were three main types of enclosure Acts. The first and most important, both in terms of acreage and in historical controversy, was the enclosure of open fields and their associated commons by private Acts, each affecting only one parish or a small number of neighbouring parishes. Almost all of the open fields subject to parliamentary enclosure were enclosed by these private Acts. Secondly, there were numerous private Acts that were concerned only with commons and waste lands, Acts in which no open arable fields were included. And thirdly, there were the commons and waste lands, and a very small area of open fields, that were enclosed under a...

(The entire section is 10098 words.)