The Great Land Enclosures

Peter Bowman, London, UK

It is one of the fundamental tenets of economics with justice that the extent of economic freedom in a society is governed by the conditions at the point of interaction between the land and the people and the one of the most important conditions is the system of land tenure.


At this year’s Economics and Law Conference one of the subjects of study was the Great Land Enclosure Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The study of these enclosures is essentially a study in the change of land tenure and hence of the fundamental underlying conditions of the economy. As the focus of our study we took a lecture delivered by Mr. Leon MacLaren in 1955. Since this was based to quite a large extent on one of the most authoritative texts on the subject The Village Labourer 1760 – 1832 by Hammond and Hammond we also used this to refer to when more detail or background was needed.

The picture painted of village life before the enclosures was not one of great material prosperity and it may be easy to idealise it but in terms of desirable qualities of freedom, independence and self-respect it made many attractive features. The inhabitants formed a hierarchy ranging from the Lord of the Manor at the top, through freeholding farmers, tenant farmers, cottagers down to newly arrived squatters but it was also a ladder which provided access to the higher levels so that there was the freedom for anyone who wanted to work harder and better themselves so to do.

In the typical English village access to common land meant that everyone had some degree of self-sufficiency and no-one had to be entirely dependent on a wage income for their livelihood. Even the least well off were able grow their own vegetables, to keep a cow or a flock of geese and good collect their own fuel so they could cook their own food without expense.

The enclosures removed all this. By depriving the villagers of access to common land they were reduced to dependence either on agricultural wages or the social provision of the parish whilst at the same time becoming dependent on the merchants for all their food and basic necessities.

Access to the extensive bounty of nature in its simple but provident forms of pasture and woodland was denied to the great majority of the population and concentrated in the hand of a powerful and privileged few.

The great irony of this large-scale appropriation of land was that it was brought about not through violence or lawless coercion but by the capture of the legislative process. All these enclosures came about through Acts of Parliament. The democratizing processes which had been carefully built up over centuries of painstaking work, the same process which were at the same time leading to the abolition of slavery were diverted to place millions of acres of English rural land in private ownership. Over the period from 1766 to 1844 some 3883 separate Acts of Parliament led to the enclosure of over 5.7 million acres of common fields and waste land .

Behind the enclosures there was a spectrum of motives. In some cases there was a genuine interest to improve the efficiency of agriculture by introducing the new scientific methods such as crop rotation and increased mechanisation. At the other extreme Hammond & Hammond produce quite convincing evidence from contemporary records that in at least one instance the primary motive was to raise funds to pay off gambling debts. It was certainly the case that behind this range of motives was an almost irresistible urge on the behalf of landowners to increase the rent they could receive from agricultural land.

The effect of these enclosures on village life was highly destructive. Deprived of access to the commons labourers became totally dependent on agricultural wages for income and on retailing merchants for their provisions. The government of the day resisted calls for a minimum wage and the economic law that when all land is enclosed wages are driven down to the least people are willing to accept was played out with a vengeance. In the absence of government intervention an ad hoc welfare system implemented at the parish level came in to play. A formula for the value of a minimum income was worked out on the basis of family size and the price of bread. Knowing that the parish would make up the difference this only forced down wages still further.

Of those who survived many were forced off the land to the rapidly growing industrial towns or took their chances with emigration.

During our conference we supplemented our studies of the enclosures with a visit to the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire. The reason for this choice is that Laxton is the only remaining village in England to farm by the strip system the traditional way of farming in central England dating back to Saxon times and a way of life that disappeared with the enclosures.

The brilliance of the strip farming system lies in the way that it provides an equitable distribution of land for those wanting to use it. Around the village there were three areas used for cultivation. Each year crops were grown on two of these and the third was left fallow. In addition there was common land where animals were grazed in accord with their owner’s rights. The cultivated land was divided into narrow strips and the farmers were allocated strips in all three fields in such a way that they all partook of both the more fertile as well as the less fertile parts. This way of farming lasted for many hundreds of years before the agricultural revolution and land enclosure replaced it. It appears that the strip system of Laxton survived because the large landed interests surrounding the village could not agree how to divide it. It is still there today although it has obviously had to adapt to the modern age and in particular the way farming has become highly mechanized.

What we found was of particular interest was the operation of the manorial court system that still oversees the operation of the strips in the three main fields. The court still elects a jury which has the function of policing the fields, marking the boundaries of the strips with stakes each year and ensuring that none of the farmers encroaches beyond their entitlement. The members of the jury take great pride in carrying out their duties and upholding this ancient tradition. Their commitment helps to cement a strong sense of community and an air of contentment and satisfaction with life well-lived that purveys the village. This rather happy state of affairs contrasted rather sharply with the destitution we had read about in our studies that followed the enclosures.

It is not possible to turn the clock back. There was a certain inevitability about the way farming methods had to change at the time of the industrial revolution but it was clear from our study that it did not need to have happened in a way which impoverished so many and enriched so few.

We could not help sensing certain resonances with this episode of English history in our post-crash period of austerity the conditions at the point of interaction again appear to be forcing a growing impoverishment for the many and continued concentration of wealth for the few.