The Enclosure Act | History of Western Civilization II (2023)

25.1.3: The Enclosure Act

Enclosure, or the process that ended traditional rights on common land formerly held in the open field system and restricted the use of land to the owner, is one of the causes of the Agricultural Revolution and a key factor behind the labor migration from rural areas to gradually industrializing cities.

Learning Objective

Interpret the consequences of enclosure

Key Points

  • Common land is owned collectively by a number of persons or by one person with others holding certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, collect firewood, or cut turf for fuel. A person who has a right in or over common land jointly with others is called a commoner.
  • Most of the medieval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. In English social and economic history, enclosure was the process that ended traditional rights on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these land uses were restricted to the owner, and the land ceased to be for the use of commoners.
  • The process of enclosure became a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons became largely restricted to large rough pastures in mountainous areas and relatively small residual parcels of land in the lowlands.
  • Enclosure could be accomplished by buying the ground rights and all common rights to accomplish exclusive rights of use, which increased the value of the land. The other method was by passing laws causing or forcing enclosure, such as parliamentary enclosures. The latter process was sometimes accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England.
  • Parliamentary enclosures consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. They usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although this was often of poor quality and limited extent. They were also used for the division and privatization of common “wastes” (in the original sense ofuninhabited places). Voluntary enclosure was also frequent at that time.
  • Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless laborers, who were often pushed out of the rural areas. Enclosure is also considered one of the causes of the Agricultural Revolution. Enclosed land was under control of the farmer, who was free to adopt better farming practices. Following enclosure, crop yields and livestock output increased while at the same time productivity increased enough to create a surplus of labor. The increased labor supply is considered one of the factors facilitating the Industrial Revolution.

Key Terms

Industrial Revolution
The transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools, and the rise of the factory system.
common land
A system of land ownership, known also as the common field system, in which land is owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person with others holding certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, collect firewood, or cut turf for fuel.
Agricultural Revolution
The unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain due to increases in labor and land productivity between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. Agricultural output grew faster than the population over the century to 1770 and thereafter productivity remained among the highest in the world.
Enclosure Acts
A series of United Kingdom Acts of Parliamentwhich enclosed open fieldsand common landin the country, creating legal property rights to land that was previously considered common. Between 1604 and 1914, over 5,200 individual acts were put into place, enclosing 6.8million acres.
Enclosure
The legal process in England during the 18th century of enclosing a number of small landholdings to create one larger farm. Once enclosed, use of the land became restricted to the owner and it ceased to be common landfor communal use. In England and Wales, the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farmingin open fields.

Common land is owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person with others holding certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect firewood, or to cut turf for fuel. A person who has a right in or over common land jointly with others is called a commoner. Originally in medieval England, the common was an integral part of the manor and thus part of the estateheld by the lord of the manor under a feudal grant from the Crown or a superior peer, who in turn held his land from the Crown, which owned all land. This manorial system, founded on feudalism, granted rights of land use to different classes. These would be appurtenantrights,meaning the ownership of rights belonged to tenancies of particular plots of land held within a manor. A commoner would be the person who for the time being occupied a particular plot of land. Some rights of common were said to be in gross, or unconnected with tenure of land. This was more usual in regions where commons were extensive, such as in the high ground of Northern England or on the Fens, but also included many village greensacross England and Wales.

Most of the medieval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. In English social and economic history, enclosure or inclosure was the process that ended traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner and the land cased to be for the use of commoners. In England and Wales, the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land was fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure became a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons were largely restricted to large areas of rough pasture in mountainous places and relatively small residual parcels of land in the lowlands.

Enclosure could be accomplished by buying the ground rights and all common rights to accomplish exclusive rights of use, which increased the value of the land. The other method was by passing laws causing or forcing enclosure, such as parliamentary enclosure. The latter process of enclosure was sometimes accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England.

The more productive enclosed farms meant that fewer farmers were needed to work the same land, leaving many villagers without land and grazing rights. Many moved to the cities in search of work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution. Others settled in the English colonies. English Poor Laws were enacted to help these newly poor. Some practices of enclosure were denounced by the Church and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the large, enclosed fields were needed for the gains in agricultural productivity from the 16th to 18th centuries. This controversy led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.

The Act of 1801 was one of many parliamentary enclosuresthat consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent. They were also used for the division and privatization of common “wastes” (in the original sense of uninhabited places), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland, and moors. Voluntary enclosure was also frequent at that time.

The Enclosure Act | History of Western Civilization II (1)

Conjectural map of a medieval Englishmanor. The part allocated to “common pasture” is shown in the north-east section, shaded green. William R. Shepherd,Historical Atlas, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923.

After 1529, the problem of untended farmland disappeared with the rising population. There was a desire for more arable land along with antagonism toward the tenant-graziers with their flocks and herds. Increased demand along with a scarcity of tillable land caused rents to rise dramatically in the 1520s to mid-century. There were popular efforts to remove old enclosures and much legislation of the 1530s and 1540s concerns this shift. Angry tenants impatient to reclaim pastures for tillage were illegally destroying enclosures.

The primary benefits to large land holders came from increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price post enclosure. Protests against parliamentary enclosures continued, sometimes also in Parliament, frequently in the villages affected, and sometimes as organized mass revolts. Enclosed land was twice as valuable, a price that could be sustained by its higher productivity. While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England as compared to the Continent, although others believe that this process began earlier.

Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless laborers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. During the period of parliamentary enclosures, employment in agriculture did not fall, but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently, large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became laborers in the Industrial Revolution.

Enclosure is considered one of the causes of the British Agricultural Revolution. Enclosed land was under control of the farmer, who was free to adopt better farming practices. There was widespread agreement in contemporary accounts that profit making opportunities were better with enclosed land. Following enclosure, crop yields and livestock output increased while at the same time productivity increased enough to create a surplus of labor. The increased labor supply is considered one of the factors facilitating the Industrial Revolution.

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