The Enclosure Movement and Kingsley

The Tragedy of the Commons & the Magic of Property.

In English social and economic history nothing was more fraught than the Enclosure Movement ... a plain enough case of class robbery?

Or, perhaps, this was the beginning of the end of the perpetual poverty of the feudal system and subsistence farming?

Enclosure ended the traditional rights of the open field system where strips of land were farmed by individual families, the meadows were mown for hay, livestock grazed on the commons, brushwood and mossrooms were cut for fuel, gleaning & berrying were part of a long established way of life ... and hogs were run everywhere ...

There was some specialisation in the three field system and some economies of scale in the use of shared ploughs where the long strips favoured heavy ploughs, the ridge & furrow system & recalcitrant oxen. But this was subsistence farming.

Starting slowly in the 12th century the open fields were gradually replaced by private fields and the land became the private property of the owner. The economics of increased productivity from specialisation & scale were a constant pressure.

During the population declines of the 15th century there was impetuous for the enclosure of pastureland for sheep herding. Foreign demand for English wool encouraged increased production, and the wool industry provided some profit for otherwise largely decaying farmlands.

As the population recovered during the 16th century enclosure was a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape.  Pressure increased on existing enclosures and access to land became a problem inflaming widespread riots & rack-rents.

Inevitably there were other seldom discussed pressures. Inflation was another major reason for enclosure. Royal finances were never in good shape thanks to excessive court expenditures and costly wars against both France & Scotland. With wealth rapidly decreasing, kings & finance ministers, like Thomas Wolsey, tried to impose more taxes. Getting blood from the stone was always difficult and folk began to resent Wolsey's taxes ... a new source of finance had to be found. Kings always seemed to remember the coin clippers and an innovative variant emerged, the silver content of new coins was repeatedly reduced. Debt led to inflation again and again. Farmers were under pressure as their wealth evaporated ... farms had to become more efficient ... specialisation & scale ... and enclosures.

Perhaps surprisingly, the English Civil War also resulted in a major acceleration of enclosures. Parliament supported the landlords against a predatory king.

By the 19th century, unenclosed commons had largely disappeared from English lowland farming. There was a final spurt in the years between 1750 and 1800 when village after village lost common rights through wholesale enclosure as the agricultural revolution and food production escalated. During this later phase enclosures involved Acts of Parliament. Enclosures consolidated the open field strips and much of the remaining pasture commons and wastes. Parliament sometimes provided commoners with alternative land in compensation, although often less desirable. Parliamentary enclosure was also used for the division and privatisation of common wastes, such as fens, marshes, heath land & moors ...

During this period of parliamentary enclosure, 20% of the area of England was enclosed but employment in agriculture did not fall, rather it failed to keep pace with the exploding population. At the same time rural folk were flocking to highly paid jobs in the factories and ... there were more & more mouths to feed.

The pattern of happenings was not cause & effect but the evolutionary unfolding of an obviously successful species ... in this way enclosures and factories were coevolving factors which led to a reduction in small inefficient landholders in England, (as compared to the Continent) ... an integral part of the interactive system which was the industrial revolution ... the censuses after 1841 record the changes as the ubiquitous 'ag labs' were overtaken by more and more artisans and factory workers ...

The detail of this unfolding was different, at different times, in different places but for sure Kingsley was a part of the pattern ...

In Cheshire the meadows & dales of the topography and the comparatively damp conditions in the lee of the Welsh hills always tended to favour the pasturing of live stock over the cultivation of grain.

Certainly open arable fields did exist in Cheshire but there are no records of Parliamentary involvement, it seems the way forward  had been somewhat piecemeal and by agreement. Maybe a result of the independent Palatine status but undoubtedly complemented by the thriving markets for local food in the nearby industrial conurbations ... everyone was a winner? There was little opposition to the enclosure of commons and wastes when folk could share in the very obvious productivity improvements.

Delamere Forest was enclosed in 1812 and there were many conflicting claims for common rights but the old pragmatism of custom and practice resulted in 'allowed' encroachments which quelled most opposition.

There were disputes, of course, but the overwhelming impression is of eventual agreement without violence in situations where productivity increases and profits were secured and there was plenty of lucrative employment around. Nobody was losing a livelihood and many were seizing new opportunities, perhaps including a share of the enclosed common ...

Stella Davies confirms another direct benefit of enclosure on the availability of the new jobs in the mills -

'After 1750, mills, workshops, and weaving & spinning sheds stretched in an almost unbroken line along the Bollin and extended into the common for about half a mile. The number and extent of these industrial encroachments encroachments, the development of Macclesfield as a textile centre and the character of the enclosure award indicate that the dominant motive for for enclosing the common was to regulate the existing building development and to provide room for its expansion.';

and schools, workhouses, chapels ... and endless other amenities were, of course, built on newly enclosed land ...

Stella Davies concludes -

'The pattern of enclosure in Cheshire of arable, common, waste and peat mosses, during the years 1750 -1850 was achieved gradually and in general with the consent of all sections of the community. Enclosures in Cheshire extended the area under cultivation, thus making possible the establishment of new farms. The change appears to have been accomplished without disturbing materially the social composition of the villages. Rents rose throughout the period and there wa a considerable expansion of production ...'


'Studies of Field Systems in the British Isles' - by Alan R H Baker, Robin Alan Butlin - 1973.

 'Agricultural History of Cheshire 1750 - 1850' - Stella Davies - 1960.

back to Billy Gibson