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Dorset’s Fields in John Martin’s time

The pattern of Dorset’s fields in John Martin’s time had been shaped by centuries of development. At the risk of gross simplification and painting a very broad brush picture we may view their development as follows. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived they probably took over previous settlements in the river valleys. Their mode of farming seems to have been the open field system which required a communal approach. Like dirt at the centre of a pearl these settlements gradually accreted a larger population around them and thus were formed the villages and hamlets of the country. In Dorset it would appear that open field farming was ubiquitous in the chalklands. [Taylor, The Making of the English Landscape – Dorset.(2004)]. On the other hand in the Blackmore Vale to the north and in the heathlands it never really seems to have established itself. In part this was probably due to the fact it was used more for grazing rather than arable farming.

It’s doubtful if the picture previously painted of the medieval open fields lasted for long. Some form of inclosure or abandonment of the open fields proceeded in almost all centuries. There was initially too much land for the population to manage but over the centuries ‘assarts’ or inclosed fields were cut into the waste of the parish. We cannot be sure precisely when, but this process was extended greatly. We are dependent on just a few records but at Stalbridge, for example, Taylor has shown that no less than nine new farms were created in what was hitherto waste land during the 14th century. These were almost certainly not farmed in common but [as it was known] in severalty ; by individuals or families who gave their names to the farms. These farms did not adopt the open field system but were comprised of hedged ‘closes’ carved from the waste. At Evershot, which is known to have been inclosed in the 18th century, Burl and Girt farms are examples of this practice. In 1833 Bosworth noted that there were over 617 farmsteads in the county.

Further loss of the open fields occurred in the 14th century. Traces of over 70 abandoned villages have been found in Dorset of which most 60 or so were in the chalklands. This is of course where the open field system was most widely used and after their abandoment, or reduction to the occasional farmstead, the arable lands of these villages was given over to grazing.

Sometimes the open fields were inclosed, metaphorically, ‘overnight’ as at Shroton [Iwerne Courtney] ;

“and it lay open until 1548 when the common fields were enclosed. The customary tenants were so small that the tenants not being able to pay their lords rent half of them surrendered their copies to the lord.The rest requested they might use his land so as they paid the rent and the lord consented that 6 tenants chosen and sworn should tread out the land of the manor and allot how much each tentant should have to enclose.” [Hutchins vol 4 p 89]

Such an event was unusual for the fact of it being recorded. For the most part though the open fields were lost in a haphazard fashion which was not documented. Sometimes this was through a series of inclosures of dubious legality in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and a whole raft of parliamentary inclosures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The open fields seem to be the first to go; frequently the waste or common land survived to be used in common but it does mean that any clear picture of an open field manor or parish had become considerably smudged by the time of the tithe commutation.

Quite how many manors or parishes were inclosed may never be known accurately. The national figures for inclosure, quoted by Slater in 1905, gives a total of 1278 from the early 1700’s onwards. It shows an uneven pace of change,[1] but omits of course those unofficial inclosures that took place without parliament being involved,


No of Parishes inclosed.













This figure seems to be remarkably low given that there were near enough 12,000 parishes.

In Dorset we can be reasonably certain of one early inclosure. Hutchins notes that at Shrowton [now Shroton aka Iwerne Courtney] “It was situated in a country commodious and plentiful of wood, corn, pasture, &c. Its circuit not above 3 miles and it lay open till 1548, when the common fields were inclosed. The customary tenements were so small, that the tenants not being able to pay the lord’s rent, half of them surrendered their copies to the lord. The rest requested they might use his land so as they paid the rent; and the lord consented that six tenants, chosen and sworn should tread out the lands of the manor and allow how much each tennant should have in order to inclose.”

Tracing other Dorset inclosures is not easy. ‘Farming in Dorset’, published by the Dorset Record Society is a transcript of the diary of James Warne of Woodstreet from 1758. They make the comment that “The open field system was still widely practiced in the area” but give no references.  Several sources are available, the first being Kain’s [2] book and electronic catalogue. This is primarily concerned with maps and does not include a number of inclosure awards. A second source, rather curiously, was written by the Revd. H F Yeatman, rector at Stock Gaylard and well known [in his day] magistrate. Writing in 1828 on the county rate [3] he listed 45 parishes that had been inclosed in the previous 50 years or so. Many of these do not appear in Kain but are confirmed in an ‘Index to the local and personal acts 1801-1844’ published by parliament. Even this does not complete the list as at least two inclosures at Evershot and West Knighton are not included in any list but are recorded in the quarter sessions records. A list of known inclosures is given at the end of this section.


No of Parishes inclosed.











In 1833 Boswell notes there were 241 parishes so it might be thought the remaining 115 parishes would be open field parishes but this was not the case. The only work that I have found that looks specifically at Dorset Inclosures was published just before WW2  [4]. The work is limited as Endacott found only 68 inclosure awards but the conclusion that he came to from these was that when the area of the parishes was taken into account some 70% of all the land known to be inclosed in Dorset could not be accounted for under these awards. Even allowing for the revised number of awards that I have used it will be seen that there is a whole chunk of inclosures missing.

If we had been able to look down on the county say between 1837 and 1850 when the Dorset tithe commutations began and ended what would we have seen?

Well fortunately we have the tithe maps to help us. By now the large open field parishes have all but gone – but not quite. Fordington is perhaps the parish closest to a wholly open parish. When John Martin made his tithe map in 1844 there were over 2200 strips or small closes in the common arable fields. The parish was finally inclosed, in 1876 when of the total area of 2749 acres, nearly 90% [2418] acres were still common arable fields, common meadow land and the waste.

The picture is complicated though, certainly more complex than the books would have us believe. Judged by the tithe maps not only were there still numerous parishes with remnants of the common fields but some of these were quite extensive. Typical of these parishes are Cheselbourne and Stratton. The Cheselbourne tithe map of 1840 shows over one thousand three hundred arable strips together with extensive wastes, but in addition there are large areas of inclosed land, all the property of one owner, Lord Rivers. This was very common as the Lords of the Manor were often the first to consolidate their lands and could do so without the need of an act of parliament, so long as the land of the commoners was not affected. The parish was finally inclosed in 1844.

At Stratton and Grimstone the picture is even more complicated. The 1840 tithe map shows many hundreds of strips left in open fields named West, Middle, East, Brewers Ash and Langford fields. There are again large areas occupied by old inclosures but this time they are not owned solely by the lord. There are numerous owners who may own one or more closes together with strips in the open fields. Furthermore some of these narrow strips, usually no more than a half an acre in size, have been inclosed and converted to meadow. The parish survived in this form into the 20th century.

Across all of the tithe maps for Dorset, not just John Martin’s maps, we find a very mixed picture. At a few parishes such as Askerwell, Burlestone, Fordington, Stourpaine, Ashmore, Winterbourne Steepleton and the Isle of Portland have extensive [ > 30% of land area] open arable fields and common waste. Many of these would survive for several years to come. Stratton was not finally inclosed until the 20th century, Askerwell in 1852 Stourpaine in 1859, Ashmore in 1858 and Winterbourne Steepleton in 1861. I cannot say when Burlestone or Portland were finally inclosed but Fordington appears to have been inclosed in the 1870’s.

What is surprising is that parishes with smaller remnants of the open field system abound. Only a handful can be covered here. It must be said that these remnants are relatively small. At Fontmell Magna in 1847 about seventy strips were still uninclosed. At Marnhull, a large parish of over 3500 acres, the tithe map [1838] shows one small area, known as Marnhull Ham [5], of about 80 acres of meadow land divided up into one hundred strips. The rest of the parish was wholly inclosed by this time but it was not until 1859 that an act was passed to rid themselves of the remainder. On the other hand at Child Okeford, a similarly sized meadow, known as Net Mead [6] was reprieved in 1845, by the landowners who specifically requested that grazing rights be preserved when the common was inclosed. At Sturminster Newton Castle, ‘inclosed’ by Martin in 1827 the tithe map of 1840 shows five areas of open strips, comprising about a hundred strips of meadow land scattered through the parish and which had survived the inclosure. Sturminster Newton was in fact inclosed twice; the first time in 1827 and then in 1844 an outlying area of common land which had survived at nearby Bagber.

In some parishes all that remained to be seen of the common arable fields were quilletts – surviving selions, still in separate ownership, but within the boundaries of a close belonging to another owner. These are seen extensively in some parishes such as Sherborne and Warmwell and not at all in others. The example below comes from Child Okeford again,

Plot 124 [the number is lower on the map but which is the large yellow arable field] was fully inclosed and owned by Elizabeth Trenchard the lord of one of the manors in Child Okeford. All 25 acres of the close was occupied by John Rossiter, except the quillets [plots 125-7] which were  owned by 3 different land owners  [7] and occupied by 3 different farmers. The —- hatched delineation indicates they were not inclosed, they were in fact the last remnants or strips of the open fields.  Photographed at DHC by author.

With the exception of those like Stratton, Fordington etc mentioned above the majority of these later inclosures appear to be mainly of the remaining waste of the parish and common meadow. It is clear that by 1837, when the tithe commutations started, most parishes had been inclosed by non parliamentary mechanisms at some earlier and undetermined time.

The small size and shape of many of the closes in these early inclosures suggests that they were simple consolidations of existing strips, probably with the consent of the lord. Even by the 18th century many parishes had been reduced to the common lands only. Evershot itself was inclosed by William Jennings Snr. in 1786 when two hundred acres of common on the East and West Hills were inclosed by agreement. At Rampisham in 1815, another parish where Martin was the surveyor, the act is to inclose the remaining common, the open arable fields having been inclosed long before by methods that left no record. The same was true at Child Okeford and numerous other parishes such as Batcombe, Powerstock, Silton, Lydlinch and Chardstock where the tithe map shows the waste land as the only surviving remnant of the old way.

In some case it is frankly difficult to know what precisely was inclosed. Close analysis of the tithe maps in some of these parishes fails to find any of the features usually associated with an open field system. Any trace of even a few strips of common arable or meadow or even waste are simply not present. At Owermoigne the 1838 tithe map appears to show no trace of anything that could be inclosed and yet it was, by John Martin in 1844. The same could be said of a number of other parishes such as Sturminster Marshall, Tollard Farnham, Church Knowle and Alderholt all of which were inclosed after their tithes had been commuted and none of which show the kind of evidence normally associated with the presence of the open field system at the time of the commutation.

Year Parish Notes
The Year listed here is one of either

1] The year the bill was enacted.

2] The year of enrolment in the quarter sessions.

1771 Winfrith Newburgh
1785 West Knighton
1786 Wimborne Minster
1786 Evershot Wm Jennings Snr.
1789 Chickeril East
1793 Tolpuddle Wm Jennings Snr.
1795 Handley [Six Penny]
1796 Wyke Regis
1796 Hinton Martell Gussage All Sts
1797 Wyke Regis
1797 Holwell
1798 Preston and Sutton Poyntz Wm Jennings Snr.
1798 Leigh
1798 Mappowder
1798 Bradford Peverell
1799 Charlton Marshall
1800 Holnest Common
1800 Turnwood [Turnworth]
1802 East Stower [Stour]
1802 Spetisbury
1803 Edmondsham
1803 Beaminster
1803 Leigh Wm Jennings Jnr. Surveyor.
1804 Buckhorn Weston
1804 Chickeril West
1804 East Stower
1804 West Chickerell
1805 Froome Hill
1805 Hampreston
1805 Corscombe
1805 Turnworth
1806 Edmondsham
1806 Corfe Mullen
1806 Stockland
1807 Warmbrook
1807 Winterbourne Monkton
1807 Abbas Winterbourne
1808 Melbury in Cann
1808 Pimperne
1809 Litton Cheney
1809 Gillingham
1809 Compton Vallence
1809 Walditch
1810 Winterbourne Abbas
1810 Poorstock
1810 Shapwick
1810 Stalbridge
1811 Broadmaine
1811 Gussage St Michael
1812 Cann
1812 Litton Cheney
1812 Pimperne
1812 Powerstock
1813 Tarrant Keynston
1813 Corfe Mullen
1813 Gussage St Michael
1813 Hampreston
1813 Shapwick
1813 Stalbridge
1813 Walditch
1814 Abbotsbury JM
1815 Rampisham JM
1816 Cattistock
1816 Wambrook
1816 Winterbourne Monkton Wm Jennings JM
1817 Piddletrenthide
1817 Lytchett Matravers
1818 Corscombe Down
1818 Dewlish
1818 Sydling St Nicholas
1821 Uploder JM
1822 Great Canford and Poole
1823 Chilfrome JM
1824 Sydling St Nicholas
1825 Plush JM
1827 Bincombe JM
1827 Tarrant Hinton JM
1828 Sturminster Newton Castle JM
1829 Cranborne Chase
1829 Lytchett Matravers
1830 Charminster
1833 Elwell
1835 Maiden Newton JM
1835 Piddlehinton JM
1838 Godmanstone JM
1838 Upwey JM
1838 Winfrith Newburgh & Wool
1839 Briantspiddle JM
1841 Bere Regis
1841 Caundle Marsh
1844 Cheselbourne
1844 Sturminster Newton Bagber
1845 Child Okeford JM
1845 Sturminster Marshall
1846 Owermoigne JM
1846 Wareham Ldy St Mary
1847 Fontmell Magna
1847 Glanvilles Wooton
1848 Iwerne Minster
1849 Sherborne
1849 Tollard Farnham
1850 Buckland Newton
1852 Askerwell
1852 Compton Abbas
1853 Beer Hackett
1853 Mosterton
1854 Belchalwell
1854 Church Knowle
1855 West Lulworth
1856 Chardstock
1856 Church Knowle
1858 Ashmore
1858 Alderholt
1858 Hazelbury Bryan
1859 Margaret Marsh
1859 Marnhull
1859 Stourpaine
1861 Batcombe 1838 Common only
1861 Powerstock 1839 Common only
1861 Silton 1837 Common only
1861 Winterbourne Steepleton 1837 JM Extensive selions and commons
1862 Stoborough Heath
1863 East Orchard No tithe map
1866 Lydlynch 1841 Common only
1865 Wareham Stoborough Heath
1866 Warmwell
1867 East Stoke Common and occasional selions
1870 East Stoke – Stockford Plain and Binegar Plain


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1 Slater G The English peasantry and the enclosure of common fields 1907

2 Kain, Chapman & Oliver The Enclosure Maps of England and Wales 1595-1918 A Cartographic analysis and electronic catalogue 2004

3 Yeatman H. F. An Inquiry into the present state of the existing county rate within the county of Dorset. 1828

4 Progress Of Enclosures In The County Of Dorset In The 18th And Part Of The 19th Centuries. B.Litt. Thesis, Oxford University 1938 Endacott GB

5 Old English: Ham a piece of land typically enclosed by a stream or river. In this case by the River Cole which surrounds it on three sides.

6 Old English: Neat [cow or ox] meadow.

7 Confusingly customary tenants of the manor [copy holders or lease holders for lives] were classed as landowners on tithe maps. The occupiers were thus tenants of the tenants.