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Why inclose?

The avowed purpose of inclosure is given in the opening words of virtually every single inclosure act there ever was,

“…there are within the said Parish several Open and Common Fields, Common Meadows, Common Pastures, Downs and other commonable and Waste Lands and Grounds which in their present Situation are incapable of any considerable improvement, but if the same were divided into specific Shares and Allottments, according to each Person’s Right therein, and inclosed, it would be greatly advantageous to the Petitioners and all other Persons interested therein”.

Here, neatly summarised and without necessitating too much close inquiry or thought on the part of those embarking on the process, was the rationale behind the whole of the inclosure movement. It was probably what most of those who promoted inclosure believed, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, notions of scientific proof were poorly understood and if challenged on the facts, the proponents of inclosure would have found it more difficult to support. The desire to inclose for reasons of agricultural improvement was not however the only concern.

Inclosures were not new, in the 14th and 15th centuries large swathe of arable were converted to pasture but this was not so much aimed at improving agriculture as altering its direction. Sheep were simply more profitable than wheat. The effect however was the depopulation of the countryside. In 1489 a statute against inclosure recited that,“Our King and Sovereign Lord... remembreth thatgreat inconveniences do daily increase by desolation and pulling downe, and wilfull waste of houses and townes within this realme and laying to Pasture Lands, which customably have been used in tillage, whereby idlenesse, which is the ground and beginning of all mischiefes, daily doth encrease.”

Over the next three hundred years or so there was a complete reversal of opinion about the virtues of the open fields. In Tudor Times it was the abolition of the open arable fields that led to ‘idlenesse and all forms of ‘mischiefes’; by the 18th century it was the retention of the open arable fields that caused these vices. The desire to improve agriculture by inclosure was at times it seems secondary to the opportunity to suppress the vices of the poor that inclosure could bring about.

Promoting the cause of inclosure were a variety of different interests, Most of them were Anglican vicars, professional agricultural writers, land agents or surveyors. Either they stood to gain from inclosure personally, or their church, their employers or their readers did.[1]Their view of the commoners was that they were lazy, dishonest and prone to ‘vice’; the exact nature of the vice was never spelled out, but left to the readers imagination.”

One of the prime proponents of inclosure was a man called Arthur Young. Born in 1741 he was to become one of the most influential agronomists of his time: “though he failed as a merchant and failed as a farmer, and never ceased to regret his father’s mistake in neglecting to put him into the soft lap of a living in the Church, made for himself, by the simple process of observing and recording, a European reputation as an expert adviser in the art which he had practised with so little success.”[2]

His view of the moral effects of the open field system was well known,I know nothing better calculated to fill a country with barbarians ready for any mischief than extensive commons and divine service only once a month.” The possession of grazing rights over the waste was in particular ‘perfectly contemptible,’ and “when it tempts them [the poor] to become owners of cattle or sheep usually “ruinous”. These ‘barbarians’, an earlier generation called them the Yeomen of England, maintained their independence by their ability to maintain a cow or two on the common. But an independent labouring class was not desirable if for no other reason than that they could not be compelled to work for wages by the larger landowners.

This attitude was not denied or hidden but praised and exhorted. As the Board of Agriculture report for Shropshire in 1794 put it, “The use of common land by labourers operates on the mind as a sort of independence.” By abolishing the common land the labourers would have no choice but to “work every day in the year [and] their children will be put out to labour early”. A further happy consequence would be thesubordination of the lower ranks in society which in the present times is so much wanted.”[3]

Such an attitude should not come as a surprise in a society that allowed children to work naked down coal mines or up chimneys twelve hours a day and which in the 18th century at least still espoused and profited from slavery. But times they were a changing,

“The nature of the rural community was changing, going were the paternalistic estates of the great landowners, replaced instead by a new class of landowners “the nabobs,….. commissioners, loan-jobbers, lottery-dealers, bankers, [and]stock-jobbers” against which William Cobbett railed. These men demanded a bigger bottom line, profit was all for such men and they could not understand the commoner who they regarded as lazy, prone to vice and always living at the edge of poverty. But this state of mind is as credibly assigned to contentment as it is to misery….Perhaps having ‘enough’ was unimaginable to men who wrote about crop yields, rents, improvements, productivity, economic growth ,always more, as it has been incomprehensible to twentieth century historians living in constantly expanding market economies albeit on a finite planet.[4]

If something is said often enough people will come to believe it so thoroughly that to challenge the view is seen as heresy. The proponents of enclosure, succeeded in creating a mode of thought which for a while became irresistible, only when the old ways had gone for ever was it safe for orthodoxy to be challenged. That inclosure was calamitous for many is not open to doubt, although to difficult to prove for the poor were seldom able to get their view point heard. 

It was readily apparent to those at the time that great harm was being done. To his credit even Arthur Young acknowledged the poverty and hardship [5] created by inclosures and after 1790 sought to mitigate the effects of their loss, but for good or ill, once an idea catches hold it can be irresistible and between 1727 and 1845 over one thousand three hundred and eighty five parishes were inclosed in England, [6] totalling over one and three quarter million acres. By the end of the 19th century agrarian historians had begun to appraise what had happened to the poor. The most famous of these were J L and Barbara Hammond in their book “The Village Labourer.” In turn their appraisal was reappraised and modern historians able to bear the pain of earlier generations argued the changes were not as devastating as at first thought. There is no right answer to this.

By the time that we encounter John Martin, inclosing at Bishopstone the argument for inclosure had won the day but it should not be thought that the case had been won by science or notions of proof; rather it was a case of the winners being those who shouted loudest. We have to play the hand we are dealt and the fact remains they occurred and that John Martin had an active role inclosing several parishes in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.[7]

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1Neeson J M Commoners: Common right, Enclosure and Social Change in England 1700-1820 1993

2The Village Labourer J L & Barbara Hammond 1920

3Quoted in the Village Labourer and Neeson.

4Commoners, Common Right Enclosure and Social Change J M Neeson 1996

5He was probably more concerned with the hardship caused to the rate payers due to the rise in poor rate.

6Slater, Gilbert The English Peasantry and the enclosure of the common fields, 1907. This excludes parishes inclosed under the 1845 Enclosure act or the 1836 Common field inclosure act.

7The ability of modern [usually economic] historians, to bear, with fortitude, the sufferings of earlier generations was not the way of J L and Barbara Hammond. Their book “The Village Labourer” is essential reading for those with more than a passing interest in the social consequences of inclosure.